Grape growers face a future altered by Covid, weather, smoke

By Mary Coffman

Like all agricultural producers in the state, Washington’s wine grape growers have faced myriad challenges since the onset of the pandemic.

Tasting room closures, hot temperatures, wildfires, inflation.

“It won’t go back to what the market looked like prior to Covid,” said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Wine Growers Association.

But producing quality grapes hasn’t been a problem.

Washington’s wine industry is an important asset for the state, accounting for about $8 billion in economic impacts, including nearly 40,000 industry-related jobs and more than $2 billion in wine revenue.

And it continues to shine with the recent addition of three new specially designated wine grape-growing areas.

Residents can do their part to promote the state’s wine industry by buying a special wine-themed license plate, available later this year.

It may be even more important with inflation taking its toll.

“Labor, the cost of fertilizer, the price of steel for trellises – it’s all impacting the growers,” Scharlau said.

The vast majority of Washington wineries are small, family-owned businesses, so inflation has a larger effect, she said.

“It’s very difficult for the smaller operations,” she said.

Despite the pandemic, fires and inflation, Washington’s wine industry is still vibrant and boosted by a solid foundation built on years of growing quality wine grapes and bottling them into premium wines.

Last year, there were 1,050 wineries in the state – equal to 2020, and up from 1,000 in 2019.

New growing regions

Three new American Viticultural Areas were approved in Washington in 2021 – White Bluffs, The Burn of Columbia Valley and Goose Gap – increasing the total number of AVAs in the state to 19.

White Bluffs is 93,738 acres and wholly contained within the Columbia Valley AVA. It is centrally located within the Columbia Valley, north of the Tri-Cities.

“White Bluffs is defined by great old vineyards that have a stellar reputation for producing fine wines,” said Kevin Pogue, who wrote the AVA petition for White Bluffs. “With ample irrigation from the Columbia Basin Project, there’s plenty of room for expansion.”

The White Bluffs AVA has more than 1,127 acres of wine grapes spread between nine commercial vineyards. Varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

Kent Waliser, director of wine and grape sales for Sagemoor Vineyards near Pasco, which has four vineyards in the AVA, said 92 wineries buy fruit from their vineyards.

“A number of vineyards have been around for over 40 years, so they’ve really stood the test of time,” he said in a release. “This is a place that’s been known forever, but not by name until now. It’s about time that we can identify it as a place.”

The Burn of Columbia Valley AVA is 16,870 acres, also situated wholly within the Columbia Valley AVA. It is west of the Horse Heaven Hills and is planted with about 1,500 acres of wine grapes between three commercial vineyards, growing mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Mercer Ranches manage the vineyards within The Burn.

“The Burn is a spectacular and beautiful hidden gem,” said Rob Mercer, president of Mercer Ranches. “Almost no one has seen this incredibly productive plateau that rises above the Columbia River on the very eastern edge of the Columbia Gorge. The Burn has soils similar to the Walla Walla Valley, but temperatures that are much warmer and milder.”

Goose Gap AVA is 8,129 acres and located within the Yakima Valley AVA and the larger Columbia Valley AVA. There are about 1,800 acres of wine grapes split between two commercial vineyards, growing 16 varieties with fruit sold to more than 20 wineries.

“The AVA takes its name from a saddle of land known as Goose Gap, which was named because it was a flyway for geese between rivers, providing hunters with an exceptional site for hunting,” said Alan Busacca, who wrote the AVA petition. “Goose Gap and the adjoining Goose Mountain, which is also within the AVA, create a rough triangle that traces the geography between Candy, Red and Badger mountains.

Smaller crop

Record-breaking heat in 2021 resulted in high-quality wine grapes, while at the same time affecting the overall yield of the crop.

The Washington State Wine Commission’s annual Grape Production Report recorded 179,600 tons of wine grapes harvested in 2021, a slight increase over the previous year. The report is compiled with information provided by all wineries throughout the state.

“Both 2020 and 2021 were small harvests, but unlike the previous years where myriad factors contributed to a smaller harvest, in 2021 there was really one major factor that impacted yield size across the state – the historic heat event in June,” said Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, in a news release.

The harvest was lower for Washington juice grapes as well, with an estimated 103,000 tons harvested in 2021, down from the 10-year-average of 178,000 tons. But the price for Concord grapes increased by 46% over 2020, to $300 per ton.

In early April 2021, bud break began in the Columbia Valley, ahead of historical averages. And by the time the buds bloomed in the third week of May, hot, dry winds swept through the area.

Then at the end of June, a heat dome sat on the West Coast, shattering temperature records. In the Columbia Valley, there were four straight days when temperatures rose to 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

While 2021 is considered one of the warmest vintages on record, temperatures did cool throughout September and October, allowing for extended ripening.

The high temperatures reduced berry and cluster size but the longer ripening time also produced higher quality fruit.

While the crop was smaller than growers and winemakers would have liked, Brix levels, which measure sugar concentration, were somewhat elevated and the acids held on surprisingly well, considering the warmth, Warner said.

The state’s winemakers and growers reported the overall quality of the fruit to be fantastic, with great flavor and concentration.

Once again, the most popular grape grown in Washington in 2021 was Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been the most produced variety since 2015.

Last year, growers produced about 50,865 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, making up 28% of the total wine grapes grown in the state. Chardonnay was the second most popular at 25,675 tons, or about 14% of the total.

Riesling, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc rounded out the top six.

While the total crop came in at 1% more than the 2020 production, several varieties fared well during the heat, according to the state wine commission. It noted that Syrah grew by 15% and Sauvignon Blanc by 8%.

Farmers received an average of $1,460 per ton, a decrease of about $35 from 2020. Mourvedre received the highest average price per ton, at $2,447.

Wildfire woes

After the pandemic closed tasting rooms throughout the state, fierce fires blanketed the west with dense, thick smoke last year.

Persistent exposure to smoke compromises the quality and value of wine grapes and adversely affects the wine itself. Northwest growers only had to look south to find evidence of how devastating the fires could be to their crops.

In 2020, the wildfires in California cost wine grape growers there up to an estimated $3.7 billion, according to the West Coast Smoke Exposure Task Force, a group created in 2019.

Last year a team of researchers from Washington State University, Oregon State University and University of California Davis received an $8 million grant to study the impact of smoke on grapes and wine.

The project is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

“We need more information about how the wildfires impact grapes – and also about the impacts on wine,” Scharlau said.

Often grape growers will not know if their grapes are tainted by the smoke until the wine is in the bottle, she said. 

The task force is focused on four main areas: assessing smoke risk in the vineyard; understanding smoke impacts on grapevine heath and fruit quality; developing winery tools to mitigate smoke-impacted wines; and providing information to growers during wildfires to help mitigate impacts.

Wine plates

To boost wine tourism in the state, Washington lawmakers passed a bill in April to create a Washington wine specialty license plate. Revenue from the license plate sales will go to State of Washington Tourism, the state’s official destination marketing organization.

The plate will cost $40 and $30 for a renewal. Demand is expected to be high, since more than 4,000 Washington residents signed a petition to support creating the specialty plate.

“We’re thrilled to see an official license plate celebrating our state’s great wine industry,” Warner said.

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