Oregon wineries in for late start

PORTLAND -- Just a few vintages ago, Oregon's winemakers and vineyard managers routinely pronounced September's weather as key to whether the year's wines would go down as great, good or best used for cooking.

Meteorologically speaking, things have changed and not necessarily for the better -- at least, not for the faint of heart.

"Last year was my latest ever in 25 harvests in Oregon," said Joe Dobbes, owner of Dobbes Family Estate in Dundee. "This year, we're behind even that. Now we are looking at the first few weeks in October as being pivotal."

The northern Willamette Valley, home to about two-thirds of the state's nearly 420 commercial wineries, is abuzz with similar observations.

"In 35 years of growing grapes, this is the most challenging year I've ever faced in terms of ripening," said Hal Medici, founder of Medici Vineyards in Newberg. "It's been a crazy year."

If last year's damp spring and tepid summer equated to a late, harried harvest -- one so late that much of it ended up gobbled by migratory birds not generally used to snacking on anything more than post-harvest leavings -- this year is shaping up to do it one better.

The first sign of grapes turning from green to purple, known as veraison, wasn't spotted until recently. And while the current spate of warm weather is welcomed, the season-long accumulation of the so-called heat units needed to fully ripen the crop still lags well behind prior seasons.

So, with six or seven weeks to go before even the lowest and earliest ripening vineyards will be ready for picking, all manner of questions linger.

Despite the challenges, Price and other long-time Oregon wine professionals say they have learned enough during the years to cope with just about anything Mother Nature throws at them.