Washington grape growers and winemakers across the Columbia Valley are anxiously waiting for their vines to awaken.
In vineyards from Walla Walla to Lake Chelan, the vines are showing swollen buds, the precursor to leaves sprouting -- a stage called "bud break."
In normal years, much of the Columbia Valley already would have seen a little green in the vineyards as vines emerge from dormancy. But this year, a cold winter and cool spring have left many vineyards a week or more behind schedule.
"Normal is between April 5 and 15," said Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley. "We're going to be way, way off that."
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Paul Champoux, owner of Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, echoed that. "There's nothing very exciting here yet," he said. "We're about a week behind. We'll start to see some leaves on the early varieties in the next seven days."
In the Walla Walla Valley, Dave Hansen, owner of Cougar Crest Estate Winery, said such early varieties as petit verdot and grenache are showing signs of being close. He expects to see bud break in the next few days as long as the current weather holds.
On the Wahluke Slope, everything seems normal, said Jim McFerran, director of vineyards for Milbrandt Vineyards and the Wahluke Wine Co. He has seen bud break in about 20 percent of his cabernet franc and merlot vines at Clifton Vineyard, a warm site near Mattawa. He said this has been the average time for bud break at that vineyard for the past decade, so he is pleased.
"It could all change in a heartbeat, though. It could snow, rain or be 70 degrees -- all in the same day," he added with a laugh.
Katy Perry, owner of Tildio Winery on the north shore of Lake Chelan, said her tempranillo vines are at least two weeks from bud break, but she added it's normal for that region to be later than the rest of the Columbia Valley.
In addition to the mostly delayed bud break, viticulturists are keeping a wary eye on the health of their vines.
On Nov. 23, a severe cold snap damaged buds throughout much of the Columbia Valley. Most estimates put the damage at 20 percent, with some grape varieties going as high as 100 percent.
But until grape clusters begin to form in late May, vineyard managers won't know for sure the extent of any damage. As insurance, many are pruning their vines more lightly, leaving more buds until they see what the damage is.
"We're just glad to have any bud break at all," Hansen said. "We'll know a lot more in a week."
He said his grenache vines will be cut to the ground, then retrained from the roots, as will any vines he has planted in the past two years.
Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, is more than a little curious to learn how much damage there was because his company owns or contracts about 65 percent of the 40,000 acres of wine grapes in Washington.
"We're all anxious to see what is in those buds," he said.
Corliss estimates this year's vintage is starting a week behind normal, and he's keeping a close eye on Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard near Alderdale, which is one of his warmest sites.
Champoux estimates his vineyard will be 50 percent below normal production. Some areas of the vineyard dropped to minus 10 degrees Nov. 23, and Champoux said he'd never seen such a severe drop that soon after harvest. Cabernet sauvignon was badly damaged, he said.
Grapes from the Champoux vineyard have gone into some of the top wines in the state, including Quilceda Creek Vintners, Fidelitas Wines, Andrew Will and Woodward Canyon Winery.
"We'll wait and see, then we'll go back in and prune again," he said.
McFerran farms about 1,000 acres on the Wahluke Slope, and said he sees moderate damage in about 10 percent of the vineyards.
"We feel very fortunate," he said, adding that a cold snap in February further hurt vines that had been damaged in November.
On Red Mountain, the grapes appear to be anywhere from 10 to 17 days behind schedule, said Ryan Johnson, who manages Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Sunset Road and Grand Rêve, which is the highest-elevation vineyard on the ridge.
"Grenache on Grand Rêve is pushing really hard," he said. "Syrah at higher elevations looks like it will have bud break any day."
On Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside, Todd Newhouse of Upland Vineyards said his 700-acre vineyard is a bit behind, although he expects to begin seeing green leaves in the next few days.
"We're seeing a lot of buds swell, so we're not too far away," he said. "The last couple of years have been abnormal as well, so I don't know what normal is anymore."