Idaho wine grape harvest

Martha Ramirez picks Pinot gris grapes Sept. 27 at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards northwest of Eagle, Idaho.

Idaho wine grape yields likely will fall short of last year’s robust totals, but some growers are bucking the trend.

One exception is 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, in the foothills northwest of Eagle. The site is among the warmest in the region, an apparent advantage during a cooler 2019.

“It’s a record harvest and the fruit is in fantastic condition,” owner Gary Cunningham said. “We have really high-quality fruit and a lot of it.”

He said harvest at 3 Horse started Sept. 15.

“Usually we start harvesting in August, but we had such a huge crop this year that the vines are holding a lot of fruit,” Cunningham said. “It takes longer for the vine to ripen that fruit when it has that much on it.”

He said 3 Horse is having its best-ever year, with “exceptional” grape quality to go with volume that looks to be around 30% higher than the record 2018.

Idaho wine grape harvest on average started 10 to 14 days later than usual, said Moya Dolsby, executive director of the state Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission.

An unusually cool September slowed maturation and the start of harvest, which as of Oct. 8 was about 30-40% completed and likely to conclude in early November depending on the weather, she said.

Overall, yields likely will be slightly lower than those of  2018, though quality should be higher — common following a high-yield year, Dolsby said.

Growers in the second half of the Oct. 6-12 week faced the prospect of a hard freeze that would halt leaves’ photosynthesis and grapes’ sugar gains, among other impacts, said Mike Williamson, who co-owns Williamson Orchards & Vineyards in the Sunnyslope grape-growing area between Caldwell and Marsing.

“It’s a pretty busy week, especially with that cold coming through,” he said. “I want to say we are 40% through. We are doing quite a bit this week, and by the end of the week I think we will be more than halfway.”

Grapes may add sugar after a hard freeze, through yield-reducing dehydration. “Sugars could be there, but the flavors won’t mature anymore,” Williamson said.

Summer was “plenty warm,” he said, but the usual high heat in July and August did not arrive. With only a couple of days above 100 degrees, grapes ripened evenly without having to slow maturation to combat the heat.

Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards, also in the Sunnyslope area, said summer conditions were good for growing and brought minimal mildew and insect pressure.

The number of ideal growing-degree days was a little behind average, he said. He hopes his crop’s yield is around the long-term average.

Yields so far at Williamson Orchards appear to be up from long-term averages, Williamson said. Quality has been good.

“Winemakers have been pretty impressed with the quality and flavors coming off the vines this year,” he said.

Dolsby said last year’s total harvest of 2,800 tons compared to about 300 in 2017, following an exceptionally harsh winter. The excellent 2016 crop helped many wineries sustain operations in 2017.

Idaho growers may buy grapes from Washington and other states when production drops or demand outstrips supply.

Dolsby said growers are planting additional acres, but at a rate that lags the increase in demand driven by population growth, among other factors.

“Idaho wineries are growing, and selling out of wine,” she said. “An influx of people is going to wineries.”

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