EUGENE -- From the late start this spring to the late finish this fall, this year's grape-growing season has been "a real nail-biter," said Danuta Pfeiffer, who, with her husband Robin, owns Pfeiffer Vineyards in Junction City.
"Your income, everything you've worked for, your big expectations for harvest," are all on the line, she said.
Harvest is "an emotional, gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking time, and you're trying to pull out the best you can from year to year."
Taking advantage of a sun break, workers spread out in Pfeiffer's 70-acre vineyard last Sunday, picking pinot gris, muscat and chardonnay grapes. On Monday, they pressed the white grapes, beginning the monthslong process of turning grapes into wine.
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"We decided it was important enough to pick it now before any more rains came in because the weather is not going to improve, and we're not going to get any more heat," she said. "So it would be like betting on Mother Nature to change her ways, and I don't think she's going to do that."
The Pfeiffers were hoping the rain lets up and things dry out before workers return to the vineyards to harvest pinot noir.
Despite the wet weather and other challenges, 2011 could turn out to be a very good year for wine, Pfeiffer and other Willamette Valley winemakers said.
"I think there won't be a lot of it, but I think it still can be an awfully good vintage," she said.
"I've seen some of the best vintages be these extended harvest periods," said Ed King, owner of King Estate, which is southwest of Eugene on Territorial Road.
Researchers at Oregon State University agree.
"Often the most challenging weather conditions produce some of the finest wines," said Steve Renquist, an OSU Extension horticulturist who works with the wine industry in the Umpqua region.
"In cool years similar to this in the past, the wines have developed delicate, crisp flavors because they've retained some of the acid in the fruit," he said.
Last year also was a short season, and winemakers say they are impressed with the wines it delivered.
"Last year, the wines were absolutely beautiful," said Jonathan Oberlander, winemaker at Silvan Ridge Winery, southwest of Eugene on Briggs Hill Road.
"If last year was any indication, we didn't have very much pinot noir, but what we had of it is out this world," Pfeiffer said.
King said the quality of last year's wine was "fantastic -- including the pinot noir, which was a bit of a surprise. The pinot noir will tend to be lighter in a year like that, but they can be that much more elegant."
A cool growing season, mold problems and migrating birds caused Oregon wine grape production to fall 22 percent to 31,200 tons in 2010, the lowest level since 2005, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Yet the dollar value of last year's Oregon wine sales was up 26 percent from 2009, the service said.
Pfeiffer said boutique wineries like her own can still do well in a low volume year.
"We'll harvest maybe a ton and a half per acre (this year) -- that's low in quantity, but for vineyards and wineries such as ours, specializing in small-lot production, we're much more concerned about quality than quantity," Pfeiffer said.
"These past two years have been a real challenge to the winemakers," Pfeiffer said. "When you deliver fruit that has had a shortened season, it's up to the winemaker to make something out of that. We've managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I have to give it to the entire Willamette Valley. Our winemakers, we like to say, we're still in boots and not in suits."