Mother Nature owed the Pacific Northwest a decent vintage -- and did she ever deliver.
Washington in particular has had three difficult years in a row, a stretch that has not occurred since at least the late 1970s.
The hardships began Oct. 10, 2009, in the midst of an otherwise superb vintage. A historically early frost prematurely ended any further ripening and left many growers and winemakers scrambling. I recall walking through a Yakima Valley vineyard three days later and could actually see green, vibrant leaves and brown and crunchy, toasted vines within a few feet of each other.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which uses 2 out of every 3 clusters grown in Washington, had picked only about half of its grapes, so it spent the next 10 days working around the clock to bring in grapes before they turned to mush on the vine. Some wineries were fortunate because the otherwise warm season had allowed them to bring in most of their grapes prior to the sudden frost.
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Then came 2010, which began with a cool spring, late bud break and weather that never quite allowed the grapes to catch up. The vineyards were rarely better than two weeks behind throughout the summer. Harvest stretched well into November, and despite the hardships, Washington brought in a record crop of 160,000 tons -- thanks to new vineyards coming into production.
To make matters worse, a pre-Thanksgiving freeze devastated vineyards across the Columbia Valley, particularly in the Horse Heaven Hills, which had been mostly immune to Washington's five- to eight-year cycle of winter events. Entire vineyards were lost for the 2011 vintage, knocking down production by more than 10 percent. At famed Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, grower Paul Champoux had to take a chainsaw to and tear out a block of vines that had contributed significantly to Quilceda Creek Vintners' 100-point Cabs from the previous decade.
Growers who figured they'd seen the worst that Mother Nature could toss at them had to just shake their heads in 2011, when an even cooler spring and early summer left them even further behind than they were in 2010. It never got better, and for most, harvest didn't start until at least mid-September and continued on well past Halloween.
This wasn't a story just about Washington, however. While the Columbia Valley weathered difficult times because of the 2009 frost and 2010 freeze, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho had vintages that were equally tough. In Oregon, 2010 will be remembered for the birds that feasted on grapes to the point that the harvest was down 22 percent.
Yet despite the three years of difficulty, the wines from these vintages were superb. Whether it was the extra attention paid to each vine and each cluster or accumulated skill and talent in the cellar isn't quite certain. But what we've tasted from 2010 and 2011 whites have been astonishing. For example, Wild Goose Vineyards in the Okanagan Valley -- our 2009 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year -- produced 2011 whites that are among the best anywhere in the world. Count on the upcoming releases of reds to be delicious, though much different than the big, plush wines from vintages dating back to 2000.
As the calendar turned to 2012, I could hear the weariness in grape growers' and winemakers' voices, and I noticed a bit more gray on their temples after the tribulations from the past three vintages. I wasn't sure how many of them could take another hard year. And when the spring started a bit cool, there was a bit of a "here we go again" feeling in the air.
Then everything took off. A blast of warm weather in May helped the vines catch up, and after a slightly cool June, growers saw nothing but blue skies into October across the entire Northwest.
"I couldn't be more optimistic," Mike Sauer told me in early July. The owner of Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley has seen his share of tough vintages since the early 1970s, and he was ready for a return to normalcy.
"Everything looks absolutely fabulous, the best it's looked in quite a few years."
And so it was. Harvest started some two weeks earlier than either of the prior two years, and one Washington winemaker said this fall's harvest seemed almost too easy after the nail-biting vintages he'd faced.
The official numbers won't be in until January, but everything points toward record harvests across the Northwest. Number crunchers believe Washington topped 200,000 tons, perhaps crushing more tons of wine grapes than Concords for the first time in the state's history.
I received a call from a winemaker in British Columbia late in the season. He wondered if I knew of any Washington wineries that might have tank space available, as the Okanagan Valley harvest was much bigger than anticipated, and the wineries had run out of space. I made a few calls, and Washington winemakers were struggling with the same issue -- a good problem to have, one of them quipped.
It's way, way, way too early to prognosticate about the quality of the 2012 vintage. I suspect that while the quality will be seen as superb (every vintage is the best ever when winemakers are trying to sell their wines), it will primarily be remembered as one of the most enjoyable harvests in the history of the Pacific Northwest.