An early freeze closing out what already was one of the industry's toughest years has many Columbia Valley wine grape growers wondering how much fruit they'll be harvesting in 2011.
Winter hasn't even officially arrived, yet growers are deeply concerned about the health of their vines, particularly the tender buds that were formed in June and carry the 2011 vintage's potential grapes.
"It's not pretty," said Rob Andrews of McKinley Springs Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills. "It's too early to tell 100 percent what is going on, but in the 30 years I've been growing grapes, this is the hardest I've ever been hit.
"We're looking at a tough 2011."
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On the night of Nov. 23 and morning of Nov. 24, temperatures dropped to minus 6 in different areas of the Columbia Valley, primarily the Horse Heaven Hills.
Damage to vines is dependent on many factors, including variety, elevation and cold hardiness. For example, syrah is a more tender variety than cabernet sauvignon. Vineyards at lower elevations tend to be colder than those on hillsides because cold air settles. How long vines have to acclimate to cool temperatures and develop cold hardiness is a factor this year because the freeze came so soon after harvest, just two weeks in some cases.
Jarrod Boyle, owner of Alexandria Nicole Cellars in Prosser and Destiny Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, has seen mixed damage in his 263-acre site overlooking Crow Butte. One area had no damage, while some blocks have up to 75 percent kill on primary buds.
He said temperatures in his vineyard reached about minus 3 before fog rolled in from the nearby Columbia River, raising temperatures to about 6 degrees. That, he said, may have saved a big chunk of his vineyard.
"We have this river that never freezes, it gives off fog. That's a lifesaver for us, and that's a reason I chose this site," Boyle said.
Boyle planted Destiny Ridge in 1998, and this is his first bad freeze, while veteran growers such as Mike Sauer at Red Willow Vineyard west of Wapato have seen this many times before.
Sauer began planting wine grapes at Red Willow in 1973 and has weathered no fewer than seven freezes. He's nervous this year, as temperatures in low spots hit minus 4, while the top of his vineyard stayed just above zero.
"It's going to depend on the variety," Sauer said. "I'm somewhat surprised wineries haven't been calling me yet. I think it's probably more serious than the industry thinks it is. I would expect there is going to be damage, and I think we will have some real problems."
Sauer is busy finishing harvesting other crops and hasn't had time to assess the damage, and said he'll probably wait a few weeks to do so.
"I'd rather enjoy the holidays," he said wryly.
Kendall Mix, winemaker for Goose Ridge Vineyards near Richland, said temperatures got as low as minus 5 near the bottom of the 1,600-acre vineyard that stretches up to Interstate 82. His crew picked riesling that morning to make ice wine. He expects damage, but vineyard crews haven't yet made a strong assessment.
For Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, winter freezes are part of the business.
"That's life in Washington," he said. "It's tough to make a business plan that deals with it. It definitely makes it more complicated."
Ste. Michelle, which has wineries in Paterson, Prosser, Red Mountain, Walla Walla and Woodinville, owns or contracts about 20,000 of Washington's 37,000 acres of wine grapes. It purposely spreads its holdings across the 11 million acres of the Columbia Valley to mitigate damage.
"We try to set it up so we can endure this part of our business," said Corliss, who joined the company as an intern in 1983.
Hard freezes occur in Washington every five to eight years. Going back to 1949, no fewer than 15 freezes have damaged Washington vineyards.
Wade Wolfe, owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, has been through many of them. He arrived in Washington in 1978, just before one of the industry's worst winters.
Wolfe is just starting to hear about damage, with many growers forecasting up to 50 percent damage to cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
"I anticipate there is significant but not insurmountable damage," he said.
Norm McKibben, owner of Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla, said some vineyards at lower elevations saw damage, but, "I don't think we'll have any substantial reduction in crop."
McKibben remembers how devastating 2004 was to the Walla Walla Valley, and said this year's freeze was less dramatic.
And on the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa, Butch Milbrandt of Milbrandt Vineyards said early assessments indicate anywhere from no damage to 30 percent, depending on grape variety and location.
The scary part for growers is how much winter is left for it to get worse.
"It's just way too early to have this happen," Sauer said.
History of winter freezes in Washington's Columbia Valley
1949-50: Back-to-back devastating winters hit Washington's fledgling wine industry. In 1949, temperatures got down to minus 8, and another freeze in 1950 discouraged further plantings.
1955: Temperatures dropped from the mid-60s on Dec. 10 to below zero in five days, causing significant damage.
1957: Mid-January temperatures plunged from the 40s to minus 18 for three straight days.
1964: Dec. 4 reached 60 degrees, then dropped to minus 7 by Dec. 16.
1968: Temperatures went from 43 on Dec. 28 to minus 11 in two days.
1972: January temperatures went from near 60 degrees to minus 1; then in November went from the mid-50s to minus 7.
1978-79: Christmas Day temperatures reached the mid-50s, then dropped to minus 4 by Dec. 30. A deep freeze continued until early February, causing catastrophic vineyard damage.
1983-84: On Dec. 14, temperatures reached 45 degrees and dropped to minus 14 just 10 days later.
1985: In early November, temperatures reached the mid-60s, then dropped as low as minus 7. Damage was mostly to younger vines.
1989: On Jan. 31, temperatures hit 65 degrees, then dropped two days later to minus 1. Damage was moderate.
1990-91: On Dec. 17, temperatures rose to the mid-50s, then dropped to minus 3, then rose to 50 and dropped again to minus 8, causing significant damage.
1996: Mid-January temperatures rose to the mid-50s, then dropped as low as minus 18, causing widespread damage except in the Horse Heaven Hills.
2004: January temperatures dropped from 18 degrees to minus 17 in a span of two hours. The Walla Walla Valley sustained 80 percent bud damage.