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Sean P. Sullivan

2019 Tour Guide

Reviewed Wineries

After a number of near perfect vintages the past decade, Washington is in the midst of a vintage that is far from it. In many respects it started with the frost last October, which put a punctuation mark on that year’s harvest. Since that time the weather has ranged from unusually warm to unusually cool leading to delays in ripening. At present growers across Washington State are significantly behind schedule. One week into September, is there still time to recover?

Perhaps, but a multitude of factors make it seem increasingly unlikely that many of the area’s growers will be able to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. This spring saw bud break in many areas thirty or more days ahead of schedule due to unseasonably warm weather. This was followed by an unusually cool April through June – the coolest since the 1960s according to Dr. Gregory V. Jones at the Department of Environmental Studies at Southern Oregon University.

Just how bad is it? In some areas of Walla Walla and Chelan, veraison has yet to take place. Even on notoriously warm Red Mountain, certain grapes have yet to turn color. At present, most vineyard managers I talk to say they are fourteen days behind schedule. Several report being even further back. Some growers report that their grapes are not yet above fifteen brix. If grapes ripen at 1.5 brix per week at, say, eighty-degree temperatures, this means an additional six weeks would be needed to reach 24 brix. This is assuming temperatures reach these levels (or higher) throughout this period. This could happen - but many of the state’s growers now need it to happen.

Many vineyards have been dropping fruit to try to catch up. In some cases, the decision to do so was made easier by wineries dropping contracts due to the poor economy.

The low levels of heat have not been the only problem. Adding to the difficulties have been unusual amounts of precipitation in eastern Washington. Numerous growers have reported issues controlling mildew in the vineyard. Additionally, shatter in some areas of Walla Walla was more significant than initially realized.

What could the impacts of the unusual growing season be? It could be a near ‘perfect storm’ for Washington’s growers and winemakers. Many vineyards throughout the state were not in existence in 1999, so experience with this type of adversity is limited in some cases. Additionally, many of the state’s new winemakers have been riding the success of excellent vintages since 2005. While people often say that ‘wine is made in the vineyard,’ many of the state’s new winemakers have no experience dealing with a ‘winemaker’s vintage’ where they must exert their expertise to produce quality wine. 2010 is a year that will strongly favor experienced growers and winemakers. Warmer areas will fare better than cooler areas. Of course, in terms of grapes, late ripening varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, stand to be the most affected if conditions don’t improve.

Throughout the growing season, many have been recollecting the 1999 vintage – a year that was quite cool but that ultimately produced outstanding wines. The recipe that year was a warm September. If the start of this month is any indication, the cavalry might not be coming. At this point, the effects of a cool season can be corrected if, and only if, there is an extended warm stretch in September such as was seen in 1999. However, a cool September or everyone’s biggest fear – an early frost – would spell disaster. There is still time for the 2010 vintage to right itself, but the window is closing very, very quickly.

Graphics courtesy of Gregory V. Jones, Department of Environmental Studies, Southern Oregon University.

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  1. Steve Snyder Says:
  2. Just walked through several vineyards on Red Mountain yesterday. Syrah is two weeks away... Cab is 3-4 weeks away. I've got growers near Zillah and Grandview telling me that things are late, but it's going to be OK. The Syrah was getting sweet and the cab had a little tartness and still had green seeds, but little rain and temperatures in the mid 70s is still going to push things to ripen in most areas. We might be picking into November (as long as there isn't a freeze) so we'll all be making wines with 13-14% alcohol this year! I feel sorry for Oregon as most of their grapes just finished veraison and they would need another 4-5 weeks to ripen...

  3. Steve, thanks for the update! Indeed it will be a good year for lower alcohol wines. Fingers and toes are crossed!

  4. Thanks Steve, this is the same story we heard while visiting Prosser in June, was hoping for a change.

  5. Clive Says:
  6. Man, people are probably shitting brix over this. I hope we get it turned around.

  7. CindyW Says:
  8. I've been hearing similar concerns up and down the west coast -- California is behind, as well, although it might not be as extreme of an issue for them.

    I wonder how things are going up in B.C. Did the Okanagan have a similar late start with a cool summer?

  9. Steve Snyder Says:
  10. Just talk to a vineyard manager in Okanagan two days ago and they are also weeks behind... I was really worried about Eastern WA until our trip out there yesterday and now I'm not too worried...

  11. CindyW, Haven't heard much from folks in the Okanagan. Will reach out to them.

    Dr. Jones had an interesting comment to me when we were communicating about the post where he said, "...much of the western US has seen the highest week-to-week and vintage-to-vintage variability in climate over the last 2-4 years than anytime since record keeping began."

  12. Clive, that may be the best/worst pun I have ever heard!

  13. Related post on CA in the St Helena Star

  14. Steve Snyder Says:
  15. Cliff Mass just came out with a look at the winter weather and it's not good...

  16. Steve, very interesting stuff from Cliff Mass. Thanks for the link.

  17. Ben Herd Says:
  18. Perfect storm is right...especially with an already weak economy this could really push some Washington winemakers over the edge. I hope things get better! Come on sun!

  19. Interesting article and from what I have seen out there, generally accurate. I hope those with cooler sites didn't wait too long to appropriately thin. Here on Snipes Mountain we are 99% through verasion on all varieties and 100% through on most, including the late ripening port varieties, mouvedre, cab, and riesling (we grow over 30 vinifera altogether). No doubt we are around 10-14 days later this year (depending on the variety) but our warm, virtually frost free site allows me to have no worries. Looking forward to the harvest as are our 20+ wineries we source fruit to.

  20. Todd, thanks for the update from Snipes Mountain. Glad to hear that things are looking good there.

  21. Crescentia Says:
  22. Great article Sean. This weather has been weighing heavy on our minds. Great comments from some well informed readers!! Your blog is a great source of information! It will be interesting to see how this 2010 vintage will play out. Your blog is a pleasure to read, keep it up!!

  23. Thanks Crescentia. You keep reading em and I'll keep writing em! :)

  24. Nice photos from Anne Hubatch (Helioterra Wine) today on Facebook. The Syrah is from Coyote Canyon and the Mourvedre is from Birch Creek Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley. Looks promising.

  25. Trey Busch Says:
  26. Sean, always appreciate your articles. This one is a little too "Doomsday" for me. As you know, you never call a vintage until the grapes are in (good or bad). The last thing the WA Wine Industry needs is people in the business talking down this vintage before the grapes are in the door. Look at what happened to Oregon in 07. Some great wines were made even though the vintage was panned across the board, mostly in September...people repeat the first thing they hear. Even you pointed to 99, a very cool vintage that made amazing wines.
    I spoke with Gary Figgins in a store the other day and asked him how he thought things looked out there. I even asked him if he had ever seen a vintage like this one...his answer. "Yeah, from 1977 through 1997". He said some of his best Cabs came off at 22.5-23 brix in cool years. He has picked as late as Nov 15th.
    Not that I am NOT worried about this harvest, I think most winemakers are on edge. Your assessment that vineyards are "behind normal" is correct, assuming normal is the past 12 years. My big worries are late ripening varietals like Petit Verdot and Cab Franc in cooler sites. Most vineyard owners I am working with have been proactive in dropping fruit, as far back as early August. And the shatter that you mentioned in some WW vineyards was natures way of thinning for us. My Blue Mtn. Vineyard fruit will be 1.5 tons per acre at the most. Not great for the farmer (his costs for farming are the same if it was 4 tons per acre), and not great for me (production will be down because of this)but we can at least ensure we did everything we needed to in order to ripen our fruit here.
    I think most of the better vineyard owners/managers and winemakers in the state will come through this vintage just fine. And these days, that number is a majority of growers and winemakers, not a minority. As the quality of WA wines attest!
    In conclusion, let's not count our chickens until they hatch...or something like that!

  27. Hi Trey, despite laying out some potential Doomsday scenarios, I actually still have pretty high hopes for this vintage for a couple of reasons. First, I believe that the skilled growers and the skilled winemakers will, as always, be just fine. As you said, that's a pretty large number. There will be lots and lots of good wine to be had - just perhaps not from almost everybody such as in years like 2007 where many say "If you couldn't make good wine that year...". Second, I think it will be interesting to see a lot of wines with lower, more moderate alcohol levels than we have seen in recent years. Washington made really, really good wines with alcohol levels in the high thirteens and low fourteens for many years. It will be interesting to see what this looks like now. Who knows? It may even lead to some downstream changes in style.

    I do think the comparison with 1999 is instructive. The vintage got a low 'vintage rating' from Wine Spectator, yet many of the wines I have had from that vintage are just stunners, including recent wines from Seven Hills Winery and Soos Creek. A number of winemakers I have spoken to have even referred to 1999 as one of their favorite vintages.

    So don't worry, I'm still waiting for the chickens! Nature has a way of taking care of itself. Thanks for the comment.

  28. Greg Says:
  29. FYI - 4 Brix pop in my Syrah block at Red Willow in the last 10 days. 21 and change right now. Already incredible flavors. Seeing great flavors in many vineyards, much more so than previous years at this stage. Extremely optimistic if the weather holds and we don't get an early freeze.

  30. Greg, very good to hear. Thanks for the update!

  31. Trey Busch Says:
  32. Well said Sean. The 99's are stunners. Ask Rick Small at Woodward to open ANY of his 99's, whites included, and they will blow you away.

    Also, nobody is talking about 2008 as a cool vintage, when, in fact, it was very cool by the standards of 2001-2009. I went back to my harvest records, and my first fruit wasn't picked until October 1st, Va Piano Merlot in Walla Walla, along with Double River Merlot across the street on the same day. My last fruit was brought in on November 1st, Blue Mtn. Cab Sauv in Walla Walla and Chelle den Millie Cab Franc in Prosser. 30 day harvest is certainly compressed, but we only crushed 34 tons. This year I plan on bringing in between 35 and 40 depending on yields. I expect Blue Mtn Cab will pick off earlier than 08 as yields are WAY down, both due to shatter as well as intentionally dropping fruit. Petit Verdot and Cab Franc are 1 cluster per shoot.

    Going back to 2008, all my wines are in bottle, and my Syrah is 13.9% alc, my red table wine is 13.7%, and both my higher end red blends, bottled Aug 31, were 14.2%. Certainly lower than my 07's and 09's. And yes, those are real numbers (not taking advantage of the .5% to 1% the BATF allows on labeling). I invite you to WW soon to taste with me as the Archimage, Illusionist, and Levitation from 2008 are stunning wines (you have actually tasted the 08 Sepllbinder, in your Top 100 wines issue this month).

    To wrap it up, short of an early freeze, this could be a really great vintage. I expect nothing less from myself or my growers, so I plan on "willing" it so.

  33. PaulG Says:
  34. One reason so many winemakers contract fruit from a variety of AVAs is because WA has the diversity to handle a wide range of vintage conditions. I'll bet Red Mt. and Wahluke grapes really shine this year, and maybe at sub-15% alcohol levels in the wines. Cooler sites such as Chelan and Col. Gorge may have to scramble. In a hot year, the Yakima valley has the edge; I don't think that being "late" – whatever that means – is any indication of ultimate quality. If anything, as in 1999, which I defended from the start as a fine vintage, being late means (potentially) more hangtime – which is generally a plus. So the real unknown is simply when the first big freeze will hit. Last year (October 9!) was, hopefully, an anomaly. More often it's right at the end of Rocktober. But with a little luck, a prolonged Indian summer could roll on into early November. That would mean that 2010 would be the vintage of the century, at least for a year or two.

  35. Trey, thanks for the comparison info with 2008. Very interesting. Will definitely take you up on the offer to check out the rest of the 2008 vintage wines when I'm out in Walla Walla for Fall Release. Go grapes!

  36. PaulG, very good point about the benefits of diversification of vineyard sources. Haven't heard from many folks in the Columbia Gorge area about how their grapes are doing at this point but they are definitely a bit exposed.

    I have a friend who is starting out as a winemaker. When I asked him how his fruit was looking this year and he said it was a bit concerned that it was behind. I told him that the correct answer was that it was the 'best he's seen' and 'vintage of the century.' He'll learn!

  37. CindyW Says:
  38. Hey Sean -- I was watching King5 news at lunch today, and they referred to you as "one Washington wine observer" who referred to this season as the Perfect Storm. No specific reference to the blog, but I'm sure it was this post. :) You can see the news story here:

  39. CindyW, yikes! Thanks for the heads up.


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