Washington grape production down in 2019, quality high

Washington’s grape production was down dramatically in 2019, with the state crushing 201,000 grapes – a 23% decrease from the prior year – according to numbers released Thursday by the Washington State Wine Commission. The cause of the decrease was a series of frost and freeze events in the second week of October that brought the growing season to an end at most locations.

Despite the substantially smaller crop, most growers and winemakers I’ve spoken with were excited about the quality of the fruit that they picked, particularly for grapes picked prior to the frosts.

“I think the overall quality of the vintage is really, really strong,” Trey Busch, co-owner and winemaker at Sleight of Hand Cellars, told me last December. “We’re high on pretty much everything.”

When the frosts occurred, a large percentage of the state’s crop was still hanging, particularly late ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. As a result, Cabernet Sauvignon, the state’s most produced grape variety, was down 28% from the prior year. Riesling saw a decrease of a whopping 39%.

While some fruit was subsequently harvested after the frosts, tens of thousands of tons were ultimately left unpicked, particularly at larger production sites which were hanging higher tons per acre. In contrast, for many smaller producers, much of their fruit was already in the door or was ready to be.

“If I were to lay the acid, sugar, and pH numbers in front of you, maybe we would have let it sit for a few extra days, but essentially it was 99% there,” Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, told me regarding the frosts in my annual harvest report.

Tonnage was down in 2019 from the previous year for every reported variety, with the exception of Pinot Noir, which increased from 1,100 to 1,775 tons, and Grenache, which increased modestly from 1,400 tons to 1,450.

Due to decreased availability, per ton prices increased in 2019, with Cabernet Sauvignon going from an average of $1,505/ton in 2018 to $1,702. Sauvignon Blanc increased from $932/ton to $1,067.

For every grape variety listed in the annual report, prices were up, with the exceptions of Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc. The former was due to its relative abundance in 2019. The latter was due to an inflated price for Chenin in 2018. Overall, the price for Chenin Blanc in 2019 still exceeded its five year average. On the whole, prices increased $102/ton in 2019. Petit Verdot was the state’s most expensive variety, at $1,876/ton (see the 2019 report here).

Given the increased demand, some producers tried to be opportunistic.

“We picked up close to 750 tons on the spot market because it was there,” said Kendall Mix, winemaker at Milbrandt Vineyards and Wahluke Wine Company, the latter a custom crush facility.

This was Washington’s first statewide frost since 2009, with both frosts occurring on the exact same date. Tonnage numbers, however, were not substantially affected that year, perhaps due to the warmth of that vintage, fewer acres planted, and other factors.

Graphic courtesy of Washington State Wine

Sean P. Sullivan

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