By DAN WHEAT
ROCK ISLAND, Wash. -- Hundreds of light-orange-colored wind screens wrapped around young wine grape vines has given Spanish Castle Vineyard a new look to the thousands of motorists who pass daily.
A multitude of white cartons, making the vineyard resemble a national cemetery, protected the first vines since shortly after they were planted the first week of last June. The white cartons will be removed this summer or fall after vines grow onto trellises, said Ryan Flanagan, who owns the vineyard with Milbrandt Vineyards of Mattawa.
But the southern tip of the 180-acre vineyard wasn't planted until the end of July. The plants there need protection longer, Flanagan explained, so in recent days they gained the light-orange wraps.
The vineyard is highly visible, spanning both sides of state Highway 28 about halfway between Rock Island and Quincy, some 20 miles southeast of Wenatchee.
It's a windy location where the valley narrows between basalt cliffs towering 100 feet or so above and the Columbia River farther below.
So the protection afforded the plants from the light-orange plastic tubing isn't for sun or rain but 100 percent wind, Flanagan said.
"It gives them a chance to make it. Wind saps their energy, slows them down," he said. "A big wind storm can snap off little green growth."
Tree fruit and wine grape growers are past the danger of Arctic blasts but spring frosts lie ahead. They are always a concern and there's no way to know how severe or light they may be, Flanagan said.
There's usually at least some localized frosts with little to no damage, said Wade Wolfe, winemaker at Thurston Wolfe Winery, in Prosser. Growers in frost zones north of Prosser are equipped with fans for protection, he said.
"We had a very mild winter and a nice drawn out fall, so vines hardened off well," he said.
There's been no big weather events and mountain snowpack looks good for plenty of irrigation water, he noted.
"We're set up for another good season. The big question is if it will be warmer or cooler than average," Wolfe said.
Vines likely will bud at near normal in mid-April or just a few days late in the southern part of Central Washington, he said.
Bud burst probably will be about May 1 in the upper Columbia Basin, including Spanish Castle Vineyard, Flanagan said.
Milbrandt Vineyards planted 300 new acres last year and will plant another 80 this May west of George, he said. Flanagan manages Milbrandt's Evergreen Vineyard at George and Ancient Lakes.
Spanish Castle Vineyard, he said, should produce its first Syrah and Chardonnay in 2014.