Oregon vineyards ponder impact of 2013’s record downpour
By Eric Mortenson
In the world of wine making, it’s a matter of faith that bad conditions produce good wine. Rocky soil? Makes the vines work harder to produce grapes, which in turn are like successful kids rising above their hardscrabble beginnings.
If that truism holds, the heavy rain that pelted Oregon’s vineyards in late September could make 2013 a fine vintage. Maybe.
“In the end, you don’t know until the wine gets into the bottle,” said Charles Humble, spokesman for the Oregon Wine Board, a semi-independent state agency that handles marketing, research and education projects for the industry. That uncertainty is the “beauty and the bane” of growing grapes and making wine in the state, he said.
From a pure tonnage standpoint, Oregon growers may have set a new record, passing the 50,000 tons of grapes harvested in 2012. Humble said harvest numbers are incomplete and growers he’s spoken to are all over the map: Some report a flat line compared to last year, others up to a 20 percent gain. A complication: Some of that tonnage gain probably comes because grapes absorbed water during the record rains of late September.
“Was it challenging? Yes,” said Oregon State University professor Patty Skinkis, a viticulture specialist who conducts research in conjunction with the state’s growers. But like the vines themselves, adversity can bring out the best in growers and winemakers.
“You can’t afford to be lazy,” Skinkis said. “The more challenging it is, the more work you have to do.”
Oregon’s international wine reputation rests largely on its pinot noir, which makes up more than half of the state’s grape acreage and is known for the technical difficulties it presents in the vineyard and winery. It is at the heart of an industry that has grown to 905 vineyards, 545 wineries, about 13,500 jobs and $3 billion in annual economic activity, according to the Wine Board.
It’s a big deal in Oregon agriculture, in other words, and its 2013 performance could turn out to be interesting. The account of Amity grower David Beck, who operates Crawford Beck Vineyard with his wife, Jeanne, is an example of the complications involved.
By mid-summer, Beck said, conditions were “warm and beautiful,” the grapes were developing ahead of pace and an early harvest seemed likely. A bit of rain in early September didn’t hurt, as it had been so dry. Then came the forecast for heavy rain in the last week of the month, and some of Beck’s winery clients ordered a quick picking. Crawford Beck harvested about a third of its grapes before the deluge.
“That fruit was really beautiful, stunningly gorgeous, as perfect as it could be,” Beck said. “To me, the flavors were just perfect.”
Then the heavens opened, dropping 2- to 6-inches of rain in a matter of days, depending on location. Portland, Salem, Hillsboro and Astoria set new records for September. Grapes absorb water at the point where stem meets berry, which can cause swelling and splitting and opens the door to botrytis, a bunch-rotting fungus.
The race was on. “The day after the rain stopped, we started harvesting,” Beck said.
“We were able to scramble,” he said. “For the most part we had enough labor to get the grapes in and avoid a moldy disaster.”
The long, hot summer that preceded the rain made the difference, he said.
“If we had not had the long warm spell, the grapes simply would not have been ripe enough,” Beck said. “We would have had to leave grapes out there hanging to get more flavor.”
Heavy rain also can dilute sugar in grapes, reducing the alcohol content and changing the flavor. It’s too early to tell how the wine will turn out, but Humble of the Wine Board said Oregon winemakers have learned “tricks and techniques” over the years to deal with grape permutations.
The early word on the 2013 vintage, after tough conditions? “Delicate.”