Northwest Wine Grape Harvest Starting

Oregon releases annual census on state's wine industry, Washington likely to see smaller harvest

by Peter Mitham
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
A load of Chardonnay from Yakima, Wash., picked earlier this month by Precept Wine Brands.

Portland, Ore.—With the first grapes of the 2017 vintage starting to come off the vines in the Northwest, the number of wineries in the region continues to grow albeit at a slower pace than previous years.

Released today, a census of the Oregon wine industry by the Southern Oregon University Research Center (SOURCE) for the Oregon Wine Board reports a total of 725 wineries in 2016, up 3% from 2015. Wineries crushing grapes increased more than 1% to 424. Vineyard acreage kept pace, too, rising 9% to 30,435 acres, with Pinot Noir continuing to lead the way in terms of absolute acreage added (2,019 acres, up 12% from 2015) while Chardonnay was next in line with a gain of 251 acres (or 16% growth versus 2015). Wines Vines Analytics winery database has 724 wineries in the state.

The growth in Oregon is a fraction of what the state saw in the wake of the Great Recession, when annual growth averaged 15% a year. Growth peaked at 18% in 2012, largely thanks to new brands, before falling to its current level. “What this signals is a natural flow of a growth cycle,” said Sally Murdoch, communications manager for the Oregon Wine Board. “Oregon’s planted acreage rose more than 8% in this year alone, which is a record for Oregon at 30,435 planted acres.”

Oregon’s harvest has doubled in six years
Tonnage peaked at 84,949 tons in 2015, falling back to 79,782 tons last year. This a harvest nearly double what it was six years ago and industry capacity has adapted to meet demand. “With our steady growth in wineries, we have also seen a growth in custom crush facilities, including wineries offering custom crush services to their neighbors,” Murdoch said, explaining the sharp discrepancy between the number of wineries and those actually crushing grapes.

The number of wineries and custom crush capacity have also been increasing in Washington. Wines Vines Analytics reports 747 wineries in the state at the end of 2016, up 4% from a year earlier. Idaho has 51 wineries, with little growth since 2013. Further north, British Columbia boasts 272 grape wineries according to the latest figures from the BC Wine Institute, up 6% from 257 a year ago.

Many of those wineries have started receiving the first grapes of the 2017 vintage.

Tertulia Cellars in Walla Walla kicked off the Washington crush with a pick of Tempranillo for a rosé from Riviere Galets vineyard on the Oregon side of the valley on Aug. 23. Precept Wine picked 27 tons of Pinot Noir in Yakima later the same day, with others following.

Christian Grieb of Treveri Cellars plans to pick Chardonnay — currently sitting at 18° Brix — from its Hilltop Vineyard on Aug. 30, with further picks in the days ahead. “We will also be ramping up next week and getting into Chardonnay pretty heavily,” he told Wines & Vines. “Things are definitely moving for us!”

Mission Hill Family Estate in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley made a trial pick of grapes last week, potentially for sparkling wine, while Harry McWatters of Time Estate Winery in Penticton, B.C., marked his 50th vintage in the industry with a pull of Chardonnay from its vineyard on the Black Sage Road near Oliver. Both wineries plan to use the grapes for sparkling wines.

While this year’s harvest kicked off approximately 10 days later than last year, most growers have high hopes for the quality of this year’s fruit.

A late spring compared to the past two years made for a more typical start to the season. Conditions favored canopy development while blasts of heat in May and warm dry weather since July have positioned growers for a smooth finish akin to 2016. “We have found the Yakima Valley to be a bit slower in ripening this year than the past, which isn't a bad thing,” Grieb said. “Crop looks lighter than last year, for sure. Should be some good quality fruit, though. Things are looking very healthy!”

Ste. Micelle Wine Estates expects the Washington crop to be slightly more than 240,000 tons, down from 270,000 tons last year.

Wineries in Oregon have yet to receive grapes as véraison continues across the state. Growers in both the Willamette and southern Oregon don’t expect to begin picking until mid September, with hot dry weather promising a crop in line with last year.

Smoke worries in southern Oregon
A concern across southern Oregon, and to a lesser extent in the Willamette Valley, is wildfire smoke.

A blanket of smoke from fires southwest of the Applegate Valley has hung over the Rogue Valley for two weeks, while a blaze near Sisters, Ore., has blown west. Washington, which experienced inflows of smoke in early August from the million acres burning in central B.C. is less affected. Growers in B.C. also expect little impact from wildfires.

Various vintners in southern Oregon brushed off the impact of the fires, noting that 2014 was a far worse fire year. The combination of extreme temperatures — daily highs have regularly been above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in southern Oregon, and rain has been rare since late June — and the smoke’s screening out ultraviolet rays, means fruit development has been moderate.

The one concern, according to some growers, is that a continuation of hot, smoky weather could delay harvest into November, which would push them up against the onset of winter.

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