After two straight years of getting beat up by Mother Nature, wine grape growers throughout Washington wine country are relieved and elated by what they see in their vineyards so far this summer.
"I couldn't be more optimistic," said Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley. "Everything looks absolutely fabulous, the best it's looked in quite a few years."
The past two years have been especially difficult for Washington wine grape growers. The 2010 and 2011 vintages were two of the coolest in recent decades, and a historically early freeze in November 2010 was deadly to vineyards across the Columbia Valley.
Last year, grape growers harvested 142,000 tons, down from 160,000 tons in 2010, a drop of 11.25 percent. The 2010 tonnage was a record high for Washington despite the cool year because hundreds of acres of new vineyards were harvested that fall.
This year, early prognosticators are bullish. Doug Gore, senior vice president of winemaking and vineyard operations for Ste. Michelle Wine estates, said early crop estimates taken in June indicated the vines could produce at least 20 percent more than last year and predicted tonnage could perhaps even reach 170,000 tons, if the weather continues to cooperate.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is by far the largest wine producer in the Northwest and uses about two-thirds of all the wine grapes in Washington. It owns such Washington wineries as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Snoqualmie Vineyards, Northstar and Spring Valley. It also co-owns Col Solare on Red Mountain with Italy's Antinori family.
"We are just a little ahead of long-term averages (in temperature)," Gore said. "And we're a good two to three weeks ahead of last year. Everyone is cautiously optimistic."
Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain, said the relatively wet spring has helped his vineyards produce a healthy crop so far. Surprisingly, mildew from the wet June has not been an issue. He said that based on how his vines look right now, he could begin harvest in the first two weeks of September, well ahead of the previous two years.
"It's all pretty much a cruise from here," he said.
Typically, Washington wine grapes go through veraison -- a French term for when they begin to change color -- in the first two weeks of August, and growers believe they are right on track for that.
"We have a lot of summer left to go yet," said Norm McKibben, who owns and manages three vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley. "But we need a normal summer to start harvest on time."
He said harvest could begin in early September at Seven Hills Vineyard, south of Milton-Freewater, Ore. He added that a hailstorm in June did little damage in the Walla Walla Valley.
"It got worse in other areas, but it passed over Walla Walla," he said.
With triple-digit temperatures expected for the next several days and no weather issues on the horizon, growers are ecstatic.
"After the last two years, this is a dream," Sauer said.
He didn't begin harvest until Oct. 1 last year, and he expects to be much closer to starting the first or second week of September this year, though he cautioned that it is far too early to think about picking with so much work to do over the next two months.
Paul Champoux, owner of Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills near Alderdale, was equally excited.
"The vines look phenomenal," he said. "It's going to be a whole heck of a lot better than last year."
He said some of his vines still are recovering from the 2010 freeze, adding that the cooler, wetter June created near-perfect conditions for vines to repair themselves.
"The fruit looks fantastic, and the vines are coming back well," Champoux said. "I'm looking forward to harvest this year. After the last couple of years, everything looks phenomenal. Mother Nature still has her say, but we're ready to react to what she does."