Greater Harvests Require Greater Efforts

Distinguishing vineyards could be key to selling out inventory, say speakers at Oregon Wine Symposium

by Peter Mitham
oregon vineyard management winemaking
Dick Boushey of Boushey Vineyards (from left) makes a point during a panel discussion with Dick Shea, Martin Clubb and Dai Crisp on Wednesday during the Oregon Wine Summit.
Portland, Ore.—One of the key discussions among attendees at this week’s Oregon Wine Symposium was the industry’s ability to handle another record harvest.

Barring the exceptionally cool vintage of 2010, tonnage in Oregon has been climbing steadily higher, initially breaking through 40,000 tons in 2009, then dipping to 30,700 tons in 2010, and rebounding to 41,500 tons in 2011 and not looking back. When the numbers for 2015 are released in August, many expect a tally somewhere close to 80,000 tons.

Notwithstanding the recent news that Washington state’s harvest slipped slightly in 2015, the ongoing focus on Pinot Noir and favorable growing conditions in the Willamette Valley last year mean many expect Oregon to be the go-to source for grapes in areas such as California, which came up short.

This is good news for an industry that in 2009 heard A to Z Wineworks co-founder Bill Hatcher declare Oregon winemakers were producing about twice what they could reasonably expect to sell (see “Oregon Industry Expects Shakeout”). 

However, many wineries still have juice on hand.

Supply and demand
While sales of Oregon wine continue to experience double-digit growth, not every winery is able—or willing—to handle what the vines delivered. Small, boutique producers characterize the state, while growers often work closely with wineries to supplement estate production or sell to buyers beyond state borders looking for a slice of Oregon’s magic.

With growing acreage and growing harvests, symposium attendees packed in to hear a panel of Northwest growers discuss how to make grapes stand out for buyers (or, in the words of the program, “worth coveting”).

“I get up in the morning as a grapegrower to make great wine,” said panel moderator Kevin Chambers, who successfully sold his 20-acre Resonance Vineyard to Louis Jadot in 2013 (see “Oregon Wine Continues to Draw Investment”). 

But as he noted, growers are only as good as their last vintage—the greatness of which is often in the hands of winemakers, noted Dick Boushey, the venerable Washington vineyard manager.

“You’re only as good as your winemakers and wineries,” he said, urging growers to choose who they work with wisely, because the long-term reputation of their operations depend on it.

Earning a good reputation

Characterizing the choice of winemaker as a kind of dating game, Boushey encouraged growers to get to know who they’re working with; in his case, he’ll sometimes give winemakers he thinks have potential some grapes and see what they do with them. If he likes the results, he’ll continue the relationship. Once a track record is established, he might even allow the name of his vineyard to be put on the label (and if not, he’s not afraid to tactfully suggest that such a commitment might be some time off).

He encouraged growers to work with winemakers to showcase the fruit of their mutual labor. Having the grower present at tastings gives the winemaker a chance to tell the story of the wine, while the grower becomes more fully identified with good wine.

“We’re all marketers, whether we like it or not,” Boushey said.

The potential of wine to speak for the grower and his vineyard found eloquent expression in Chambers’ case; a tasting of wines from 13 vintages made from Resonance fruit clinched the deal for the property.

A well-known vineyard can, in turn, support wine sales.

Growers need to deliver good fruit year in and year out, because weather isn’t an excuse that washes with most people when there’s a shortage of wine. But fellow panelist Dick Shea noted that if consumers know nothing else, they’ll know a vineyard and look for those wines—even in an economic downturn.

This happened during the Great Recession of 2008-10, and helped see Shea Vineyard through a season when many wineries resorted to value-priced product to keep inventories moving.

“What you really want in developing your brand is for consumers to want your brand,” he said. “It’s a very long-term process, but if you get there you’ll have something very valuable, and it will make your life a lot easier.”

That said, it’s not always easier for wineries when vineyards become well-known.

Developing relationships
Marty Clubb, co-owner of L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash.—and one of the Walla Walla Valley’s biggest producers of wines made with Oregon grapes—said that when he first attempted to tap fruit from the acclaimed Seven Hills vineyard, he found the fruit had been committed before the vines had come into production.

He therefore took the aggressive step of buying second-leaf fruit—much to the astonishment of owner Norm McKibben, whom Clubb later joined as a partner on the SeVein project (see “Landowners Envision Walla Walla Vineyards”). 

“That taught me to work really closely with my grower,” Clubb told the Oregon Wine Symposium this week. “Those early years pulled us into partnerships.”

While most of the panelists underscore the importance of the close relationship between growers and winemakers, vineyard manager Dai Crisp of Temperance Hill Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills near Salem, Ore., underscored the importance of vineyard managers getting it right.

Crisp turned around a 100-acre vineyard that had a reputation for inconsistent production with a vision for organic growing that brought the soil back to life through tailored management of the vineyard’s specific issues.

“What we really tried to do was come up with a strategy to achieve vine balance,” Crisp said.

Careful management of crop load has since worked wonders, and a roster of more than 20 wineries now source fruit from the vineyard, including such well-known (and oft-decorated) producers as Adelsheim Vineyard, Elk Cove Vineyards and Lange Estate Winery.

While the training of the winemakers made the most of the fruit, none of it would be possible without the vineyard practices that put Temperance Hill at the peak of its game.

“It’s crucial to do the viticulture, and to do everything on time, and to the best of your ability,” Crisp said.

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