Wine grape harvest to be down about 16 percent

With the beginning of harvest a month away, Washington wine grape growers are receiving confirmation of what they have seen in their vineyards: The 2011 crop will be down significantly.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture's crop estimate, Washington wine grape harvest will be down about 16 percent, or about 135,000 tons down from a record 160,000 tons last fall. If the estimates are close to what vintners see in September and October, the crop will be at its lowest since 2007, when 127,000 tons were harvested.

"By the time we got to April and May, our initial crop estimates reflected this," said Co Dinn, director of winemaking for Hogue Cellars in Prosser, one of Washington's largest wineries. "We were braced for a big decrease."

Hogue makes about 550,000 cases of wine, of which 80 percent is white varieties, such as riesling and pinot gris.

Three events have conspired to reduce the amount of fruit in Washington vineyards. First, a cool June last year hurt bud development for this year's crop. Second, a devastating freeze Nov. 23 damaged vineyards across the Columbia Valley, particularly in the Horse Heaven Hills, which is a key area for red grapes such as cabernet sauvignon. And third, this year's late spring has put the crop as much as three weeks behind normal.

Washington is the No. 2 wine producer in the United States. By comparison, California -- the No. 1 wine-producing state -- is expected to be down by less than 7 percent. But that equals more than a quarter-million tons less than the 3.62 million tons harvested last fall, according to the USDA.

Craig Leuthold, owner of Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, said two vineyards he uses were total losses, with no crop this year. That said, he estimates his production will be up 15 percent.

Soon after the November freeze, he began calling growers throughout the Columbia Valley and was able to secure enough tonnage to more than make up for crop losses elsewhere. In particular, Leuthold will buy more grapes from Milbrandt Vineyards, which operates on the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa and the Columbia Basin near Quincy.

"We knew it was going to be an unusual year, so we came up with what we needed to fill the holes," said Leuthold, whose winery near Maryhill Museum produces more than 75,000 cases annually.

John Bookwalter, owner of Bookwalter Winery in Richland, said the early crop estimate tends to be conservative, so he thinks the total tonnage will be closer to 10 percent down by the time the last grapes come in after Halloween.

"That's agriculture," he said.

What has most growers and winemakers losing sleep is this year's late crop. Depending on the region, the grapes are anywhere from 10 days to three weeks late, thanks to the cool spring.

"It's a knee-knocker," Leuthold said. "We need a warm September and October."

This summer's temperatures, which have yet to reach triple digits, might be good for wine grapes. When the mercury rises above 95 degrees, wine grapes tend to stop ripening, and sunburn can also be an issue.

"I prefer to never see a day over 100, both for my own comfort as well as the grapes," Dinn said. "Eight-five degrees is prime grape-ripening weather."

Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards and chairman of the Washington Wine Commission, said the shorter crop will likely mean every grape will be harvested and used, which doesn't always happen.

"There's certainly a demand for all the fruit this year," he said. "We're still an industry in growth."

One harbinger of harvest is "veraison," when grapes begin to change color. Waliser said veraison was spotted last week, about two weeks later than normal and a few days later than last year. He began harvesting his 900 acres of grapes Sept. 17 last year and doesn't expect to start any earlier this year.

"We're excited to get going on harvest," he said. "We're just going to have to keep playing the waiting game."