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Sean P. Sullivan

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Reviewed Wineries

2012 Harvest Gets Hazy

Monday, September 24, 2012

Two stories dominate this week’s harvest report. The first is the continuation of near perfect weather for harvest across eastern Washington. The second is the potential threat of smoke from a number of large wildfires. Let’s start there.

Due to the long, warm dry spell this season, a series of large wildfires are burning in eastern Washington and central and southern Idaho. Smoke from these wildfires has created a haze over large areas of eastern Washington. While most of Washington’s growing regions are far from the flames, others are fairly close.
The Wenatchee Complex fire has burned an estimated 42,000 square acres. For perspective, this almost equals Washington’s total planted grape acreage last year. The smoke from this complex of fires has been so thick that it has been difficult to see from one side of Lake Chelan to the other in the nearby town of Chelan, with the air quality called ‘hazardous’ by the Washington Department of Ecology. While the flames are further away, other wildfires brought smoke to the Walla Walla Valley last week, dropping ash in some vineyards. Areas of the Yakima Valley have also been hazy with smoke noticeable in the air.

The obvious question is will this smoke have any effect on the state’s grape harvest? The answer is difficult to determine at this point, although growers and winemakers remain hopeful that smoke taint – which has affected wines in Australia and California in the last decade - will not be an issue in any of the state's growing regions.
Many factors are involved in creating smoke taint in wines, including the distance of the vineyard from the fire, the density of the smoke, and the duration of the grape/vine contact with the smoke. Research has also shown that the absorption of smoke related compounds differs across grapes varieties, with some more susceptible than others. Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a full understanding of the contribution of all of these variables or even the full equation.

Washington State University’s Viticulture & Enology Research & Extension newsletter last weekend stated, “We currently do not know…how long smoke from wildfires needs to be present in vineyards before smoke taint becomes a problem.” However, due to the smoke, WSU recommends harvesting, “sooner rather than later.”

ETS Laboratories cautions that, “Vines do not need to be exposed to thick smoke to produce tainted wines.” They also note that it is impossible to taste the grapes, or the fermenting juice, and determine if they are tainted or not, saying, “There is strong evidence that smoke taint compounds absorbed by vines are partly bound to glycosides, making them difficult to detect through sensory evaluation of grapes (read ETS’ full statement here).”

How do wines made from smoke tainted grapes ultimately present themselves? On a sensory level, according to Australia’s Vinessential Laboratory, wines affected by smoke can have aromas and flavors described as ‘burnt’, ‘ashtray’, ‘charred,’ ‘salami,’ and ‘disinfectant.’ In the laboratory, Guaiacol and 4 methylguaiacol (G and 4MG) are marker compounds for smoke taint and are measured by Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry. These compounds can be tested in grapes, fermented juice, and finished wine.

Australian based Memstar notes, however, that G and 4MG levels in grapes and juice are not reliable predictors of smoke taint in wine, as these compounds are not in a free form until after fermentation. Additionally, their concentration increases over time in finished wine as they are released from their bound form.

There are steps growers and winemakers can take to reduce the potential effects of smoke taint. According to the Center for Expertise in Smoke Research at the Victoria Department of Primary Industries, smoke taint can be reduced by hand harvesting, chilling grapes, and altering pressing methods. WSU recommends reducing skin contact time, conducting whole cluster pressing, and separating free run and press juice. They also note that some strains of yeast lessen the effects of smoke taint, while some other forms of yeast exacerbate it (read the entire newsletter here).

For wine affected by smoke taint, research has focused on trying to remove it by using fining agents (read an example here). Reverse osmosis has also been used but research has shown that this is only temporarily effective with the taint returning over time.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the smoke in eastern Washington will have a significant effect - or even any effect - on any of the wines produced in 2012. A number of wineries are currently testing the grapes they have harvested thus far for any evidence of smoke taint. Notably, some areas of eastern Washington experienced some clearing of the smoke over the weekend with rain also falling in a few areas. Stay tuned.

Outside of the smoke, the otherwise favorable weather has continued to ripen grapes in the vineyard, and winemakers remain excited for what the 2012 vintage holds.

“We could not have asked for better weather through most of the year and September has been spectacular,” John Bigelow of JM Cellars says. “My first pick last year was September 28th. My first pick this year was September 10th (both were Sauvignon Blanc). After two years of cool harvests I am seeing smiling faces in the vineyards.”

While the last two years the grapes reached physiological ripeness and winemakers waited for sugar accumulation, this year marks a return to previous years with physiological ripeness lagging. “I think the biggest challenge this fall will be to have patience as we see the sugars climb and to pick when the grapes are physiologically ripe,” Bigelow says. “We have picked only one red so far, and that is Ciel du Cheval Merlot." Bigelow says that he was originally planning to pick more grapes but held off. "I initially had these (blocks) scheduled for last week, but after tasting and running acids on the samples it was clear the vines have more to give, and I am glad I waited."

Meanwhile Sean Boyd of Woodinville Wine Cellars agrees about the good weather, saying, “This last week has been ideal as has the last ten to twelve weeks or so.” Boyd says that he expects harvest to continue for him into the third week of October assuming the weather holds.

Josh Lawrence of Lawrence Vineyard and Gård Vintners says of the vintage, “So far we’ve been very happy with the steady maturation of the grapes and are thrilled to start harvest at a much closer to average date, considering the struggles of the last two seasons. As with many vineyards in the state, we are seeing significant jumps in sugars while the acids are hanging in there nicely.”

Meanwhile Wade Wolfe, of Thurston Wolfe, says of the growing season, “From a heat unit prospective, the season has been near 'normal', though we had two notable climatic events that have distinguished this year. The first was an unusually cool and damp June that set grape development somewhat behind but did not appear to have caused any adverse disease issues. The second was a hot spell in mid July that was not unusual in its heat, but it was extremely humid and was accompanied by severe thunderstorms and hail that caused localized damage to vineyards and other crops. Since those two events, the season has been near ideal for vine and fruit development.”

Wolfe, who sources most of his fruit from vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills and Yakima Valley says, “With the warm, sunny days and cool nights during September, sugars have been climbing rapidly while acids are remaining relatively high. We are already seeing higher sugars by mid September than we saw at the end of October during the last two seasons, which were unusually cool.”
Wolfe says of the smoke in eastern Washington in the areas that he works with, “At current levels, though hazy and somewhat uncomfortable for humans, I do not think it is concentrated enough to result in smoke taint in the wines.”

Read previous harvest updates here. Satellite image from National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Picture of smoke on Lake Chelan courtesy of Chelan Estate Winery.

* * *
See information on the Washington State Growing Degree Days here.

See monthly forecast for Yakima Valley (Sunnyside), Red Mountain (Benton City), Walla Walla, Paterson, and Mattawa.

The information in the table below is aggregated from personal correspondence with growers and winemakers, as well as information posted on Twitter and Facebook. It is not intended to be comprehensive but rather is intended as a snapshot of what is going on around the state. If you wish to send data for your grapes or vineyards (or correct any of the information below), please email me at, leave a comment here, or leave a comment on the WWR Facebook page.

Winery Grape Vineyard Date Notes
Columbia Valley
Rasa Riesling Bacchus 9/16 First Riesling
àMaurice Merlot Dionysus 9/17 First grapes of harvest
Forgeron Merlot Candy Mountain 9/18
Long Shadows Syrah Bacchus 9/18 First reds
Gard Chardonnay Lawrence 9/18 First fruit
Sauvignon Blanc
First fruit
Chateau Ste. Michelle
Goose Ridge

Three Rivers
Wooded Island
First red


Conner Lee


Wooded Island


5.5 tons
Goose Ridge

Adams Bench
Stillwater Creek

Yakima Valley
Owen Roe
Red Willow

Red Willow

Sleight of Hand
French Creek
Last pick of Chard
Cote Bonneville

Red Willow

Airfield Estates
Sauvignon Blanc

Lobo Hills
Lonesome Springs

Sauvignon Blanc

Two Coyote

Adams Bench
Red Willow

Maison Bleue
Red Willow

Two Coyote

Red Mountain
Soos Creek Merlot Ciel du Cheval 9/14
Dusted Valley Syrah Red Heaven 9/14
Obelisco Merlot Estate 9/14
Maison Bleue Syrah Ciel du Cheval 9/14
Force Majeure Syrah Force Majeure 9/15 Hillside
Januik-Novelty Hill Merlot Klipsun 9/15
Januik-Novelty Hill Merlot Ciel du Cheval 9/15
Barrister Sauvignon Blanc Klipsun 9/15 First fruit
:Nota Bene Merlot Ciel du Cheval 9/15
Sleight of Hand Merlot Scooteney Flats 9/17 First red
Avennia Merlot Klipsun 9/18
Kiona Lemberger Kiona 9/19
Guardian Merlot Ciel du Cheval 9/20
-- Cabernet Sauv Taptiel 9/21
Flying Trout Malbec Scooteney Flats 9/21 First fruit of 2012
Sleight of Hand Merlot RMV 9/21
Gorman Cabernet Sauvignon Quintessence 9/21
Ross Andrew Merlot Klipsun 9/22
-- Syrah Red Heaven 9/22
Ross Andrew Cabernet Sauv Quintessence 9/22
Adams Bench Merlot Artz 9/22
Kaella Syrah Ciel du Cheval 9/22
Fidelitas Cabernet Sauv Quintessence 9/22
Estrin Merlot Red Mountain 9/22
Walla Walla Valley
Tranche Viognier Blue Mountain 9/16 First fruit from vyd
Pepper Bridge Merlot Pepper Bridge 9/19
Seven Hills Malbec McClellan Estate 9/20
Reininger Merlot XL 9/21 First fruit of year
Woodward Canyon Cabernet Sauv Estate 9/21
Saviah Merlot Anna Marie 9/22
Rattlesnake Hills
-- -- -- --
Lake Chelan
Chelan Estate Chardonnay Estate 9/22
Wahluke Slope
Saviah Semillon Rosebud 9/15
Desert Wind Sauvignon Blanc -- 9/17 First grapes
Forgeron Primitivo StoneTree 9/19
-- Grenache Clifton, Clifton Bluff 9/19
Bergevin Lane Merlot StoneTree 9/20
Hestia Merlot StoneTree 9/20
Hard Row Primitivo
Forgeron Chardonnay Weinbau 9/21
Woodward Canyon Merlot Weinbau 9/22
Horse Heaven Hills
Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay Canoe Ridge 9/7 Last year 9/23
Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot Canoe Ridge 9/17
Waters Viognier Alder Ridge 9/17 First fruit of 2012
Forgeron Roussanne Alder Ridge 9/18
Swiftwater Chardonnay Zephyr Ridge 9/21 First fruit
Alexandria Nicole Merlot Destiny Ridge 9/18
Coyote Canyon Viognier Coyote Canyon 9/21
Coyote Canyon Roussanne Coyote Canyon 9/21
Snipes Mountain
Upland 9/18
Rolling Bay Syrah Upland 9/18
Kerloo Syrah Upland 9/23
Naches Heights
NHV Pinot Gris Naches Heights 9/17 Earliest date from vyd

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1 Responses to 2012 Harvest Gets Hazy

  1. Terrific and very thorough report Sean. Thank you!


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