Washington’s 2019 vintage presented challenges, opportunities


2019 was an unusual growing season for Washington, though many growers and winemakers were enthused with the final results.

Winter was warm in eastern Washington before snow arrived in February and subsequently remained in vineyards through most of March. This delayed pruning and other vineyard work.

“We had snow on the ground until March 20th, which I’ve never seen in my life,” says Chris Figgins, president and winemaking director at Figgins Family Wine Estates, which farms vineyards in Walla Walla Valley. “Pruning season was a slog for the crew. It was just a battle.”

“It took a long time for soil temperatures to warm up,” says Kendall Mix, winemaker at Milbrandt Vineyards and Wahluke Wine Company, which sources most of its fruit from the Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, and Ancient Lakes appellations. “Any kind of growth was really late, which meant bud break was late and bloom was late.”

Bud break began in some locations in mid-April, later than in recent, warm years. However, warmer temperatures in May sped up bloom, which began the third week of May at some sites and proceeded briskly into June, still slightly behind recent averages.

Summer temperatures were notably milder than recent years, many of which have been marked by excessive warmth. There were also very few heat spikes.

“We just didn’t have the extreme heat that Washington growers are well versed in,” says Will Beightol, who managed Double Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills through the 2020 growing season. “We normally get seven to 10 days that are really hot in July or the beginning of August. That just never really seemed to come along.”

“It was just about the most pleasant summer I can remember in a long, long time,” says Figgins.

While some considered 2019 to be a cool vintage, it was only cool relative to recent years. Final Growing Degree Days (GDD), a measure of heat accumulation, were still above long-term averages, as indicated by the chart from Washington State University.

“The ‘19 Growing Degree Days in Walla Walla exceeded ‘08, ‘09, ‘10, ‘11 and ’12, but was less than any other vintage since then, meaning ‘13, ‘14, ‘15, ‘16, 17, ’18,” explains Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, which sources most of its fruit from Yakima Valley, Candy Mountain, Ancient Lakes, and Walla Walla Valley. A GDD comparison of recent vintages from Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley is below.

Veraison was slightly delayed due to the late start and cooler temperatures. Come late August and early September, as harvest was just beginning for white wine grapes and early reds, the table appeared to be set for an ideal vintage.

“It looked like we were set up for something really special,” says Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard.

“I kept saying, ‘This is the vintage of my career,” says Katie Nelson, senior director of winemaking at Ste Michelle Wine Estates, which sources fruit from throughout the Columbia Valley. “'We are going to make the most elegant, beautiful wines.' Needless to say…” She trails off, chuckling.

After the first week of September, things took the first of a series of turns and, while it once looked like the vintage was going to be easy, that was not to be.

Temperatures cooled down markedly and remained so the rest of the month, often between five to 20 degrees cooler than historical averages in some locations. Intermittent rain events, unusual for eastern Washington in September, cancelled some pick dates.

“It just cooled down a little earlier than usual and didn’t really warm up after that,” says Mike Januik, owner and winemaker at Januik Winery, which sources fruit from the Royal Slope, Red Mountain, White Bluffs, and Horse Heaven Hills.

“I think everybody was hoping to get that nice September where it’s 85,” says Sarah Goedhart, head winemaker at Hedges Family Estate on Red Mountain. “Instead it was 65.”

As a result, picking at most sites was significantly delayed compared to recent years.

“Normally we’ve got 60% of our fruit in in September,” says Clubb. “This year we had 37% of our fruit in the door when we got to October 1st.”

Given the cool temperatures, the good news for growers and winemakers was fruit reached physiological maturity early, while sugar maturation lagged and acid levels stayed high, unusual in recent vintages.

“The sugar levels were in the low, low 20s, but the pyrazines were gone already,” says Figgins. “Seeds were getting brown early.”

“The numbers just did not look pickable, but the flavors were there,” says Goedhart. “As scary as it was, I said, ‘Well, we’re going to start picking.’ I’m glad I did.”

Others waited.

“I think the people that waited until brix got up to a more common recent level in Washington vintages probably missed the boat a little bit because the flavors were really nice early on,” says Mix.

This early physiological maturity saved a vintage that was about to take a serious turn.

On September 30th/October 1st, the state saw its first frost.

“We had 29 degrees here at our weather station, which is enough to nip the low lying areas,” says Sauer. He estimates that 60% of his crop was still hanging at that time.

“It was a fairly mild frost,” agrees Mix. “It certainly didn’t affect everyone, but it affected enough people to create a fair amount of chaos. Everybody was trying to bring in stuff as fast as they could.”

Significantly, October 9th, 10th, and 11th saw a series of larger, colder frosts and freezes that, for most in Washington, ended the growing season. Notably, this was 10 years to the day after the last statewide frost in 2009.

“I think most of the state got it,” says Sauer. “That was a real defining point.”

People who were working at warmer sites and with varieties that ripen earlier were less impacted by the freeze.

“We were all in,” says James Mantone, winemaker and co-owner of Syncline Winery, which sources its fruit from the Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, and Columbia Gorge. “I think we had one pick the first frost morning. That frost was solidly predicted.”

Trey Busch at Sleight of Hand Cellars, which sources fruit from Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, and Walla Walla Valley, also had all of his fruit in, except for Blue Mountain Vineyard, a higher elevation site.

“I know a lot of people got stuck with frost or freeze damage in the canopies because they were hanging a ton of fruit and sugars weren’t moving,” Busch says. “If you were waiting for sugar accumulation or what you thought ripe was, especially if you had to wait until after the freeze, you paid for it in the end.”

After the frost, for people who still had fruit hanging, it was a scramble.

“After that frost event it was all hands on deck,” says Lacey Lybeck, vineyard manager at Sagemoor Vineyards, which has vineyards in the White Bluffs and Wahluke Slope. Lybeck says all of her sites were affected by the freeze.

For larger production sites, the freeze created serious problems using mechanical harvesters to pick fruit still on the vine.

“Probably up to 50% of the fruit was falling off in front of the harvesters,” says Mix. “People were just trying to get in what they could.” For some, picking continued until near the end of October.

As a result of the freeze, tens of thousands of tons of fruit were left unpicked. Final harvest numbers, due out shortly, will be down dramatically from 2018’s 261,000 tons, with well below 200,000 expected. “Big year for the insurance adjusters,” Mix says ruefully.

Due to concerns about freeze taint, some resorted to hand picking after the freeze.

“We literally went in and handpicked everything,” says Clubb of his Semillon and Chenin Blanc, $15 bottles of wine that typically come from machine harvested grapes.

‘Freeze taint,’ or ‘rose taint,’ is caused by bits of previously frozen, dried leaves and petioles in with grape clusters. It smells nearly identical to the rose petal aromas of Gewurztraminer, without the variety’s lychee and spice notes.

“We saw a fair amount of it, but I didn’t see as much as I was expecting,” Mix says. “There are several lots that have a slight hint of it. There’s a lot of lots that I really haven’t picked up any. Then there’s a fair number of lots where it’s pretty obvious.”

“We certainly have a couple ourselves, but we can deal with the percentage we’ve got,” says Beightol.

Many reported cluster weights were down in 2019. “Berry size was way smaller and cluster weights were way down,” says Mantone. “That was true [for us] pretty much across all regions, from Red Mountain, through Horse Heavens and here in the Gorge.”

Cooler temperatures meant acids were slightly higher compared to recent years. “We don’t normally acidify much, but this is the first year as far as I can remember, we didn’t add acid to one lot,” says Busch.

In many cases, grapes reaching phenolic maturity earlier meant the freeze presented more of a logistical challenge than a ripeness issue.

“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,” says Clubb.

Despite the challenges the cooler temperatures in September and freeze created, most were still enthused about the final results.

“I think the overall quality of the vintage is really, really strong,” says Busch. “Rhônes as always are spectacular. We’re high on pretty much everything.”

“I had some people say, ‘How bad was it for you?’ That’s not my take on the vintage at all,” says Mantone, who focuses on Rhône-style wines. “I’m pretty darn excited about the wines. For me, there’s freshness, elegance, and there’s no lack of intensity. There’s vibrancy to these wines.”

“We got these soft tannins with awesome acids,” says Figgins, who focuses on Bordeaux varieties. “There’s a lot of freshness.”

A number of people noted that Merlot in particular was a star in 2019.

“I think it’s the best Merlot and Cab Franc vintage of my career,” says Nelson, who has been making wine for over two decades.

However, no doubt the freeze, combined with decisions made during the growing season, particularly at larger production sites, will significantly impact the quality of some wines.

“The highs are going to be higher and the lows are going to be lower,” says Sauer.

“Certainly there are going to be a fair amount of mediocre wines made,” says Mix.

As always, the final story will be told by the wines, and not just when they are released but after they've had some additional time in bottle.

“I think [2019] is one that, when we taste the wines in the spring or as they get bottled, we’re not going to fully appreciate the complexities that they are going to show in 5-10 years,” says Lybeck. “I think it’s one that we’re going to look back and taste these wines and remember the challenges and the hard work that got us there but also be blown away by what’s in the glass.”

All quotes from interviews conducted in December 2019. 

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Harvest pick dates are below. The information in the table 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 wawinereport@gmail.com, leave a comment here, or leave a comment on the Washington Wine Report Facebook page.

Sean P. Sullivan

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