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Southern Willamette winemakers: Early harvest, great grapes

KATU file photo Minority_Winemakers___2.jpg

An early spring and ideal summer growing weather led to an early wine grape harvest in the southern Willamette Valley.

"It definitely helped ripen the fruit the way we want it," Sweet Cheeks Winery & Vineyard winemaker Leo Gabica said.

Sweet Cheeks and other wineries nestled in the hills around Eugene had their grapes off the vine by the end of September - typically when the harvest starts.

This year's harvest is the earliest King Estate, southwest of Eugene, completed in its more than two-decade-long history. "You credit that to the quality and ripeness of the fruit," Chief Executive and co-founder Ed King said.

Area winemakers and winery owners said 2016 looks to be another great year for grapes, particularly in terms of quality. It follows two memorable harvests, which produced exceptional yields and left cellars well stocked with aging wine.

"It is just astonishing, the quality of the fruit," King said.

Winemakers still must tally the tonnage of this year's harvest, but many said it will not be as large as either of the past two record-setting years. Wineries in the southern Willamette Valley harvested 8,618 tons of wine grapes in 2015 and 7,038 tons in 2014, up from 4,731 tons in 2013, according to data from the Southern Oregon University Research Center in Ashland.

Optimal weather for much of the year and an early start to the growing season contributed to the early harvest and fruit quality, experts said. Winter months were not too cold, spring was mild without the types of frosts that can kill grape buds, and the summer had relatively few days of extremely hot temperatures that can ripen grapes too quickly.

"You'd like to have a winter that's not too cold, but yet has enough moisture to allow the soil to recharge," said Southern Oregon University professor Greg Jones, a leading researcher of the state's wine industry. "You want to have a spring that starts off warm and clear with little frost risk. And then you want to have a summer that has the right heat accumulation to ripen varieties, but yet doesn't produce a lot of heat stress."

"You don't want a lot of heavy rain events or hail events, or anything like that," he added. "And then you want to have a harvest that is happening in the month of September where temperatures are starting to go down at night, but are still a little warm during the day. All of those kinds of things would be ideal for most growers."

Above average temperatures during the past three years in the southern Willamette Valley regularly matched those optimum conditions, Jones said.

"Grape vines like it to be a little warmer than normal, and they've certainly had that for the past few years," he said.

When grapes start growing determines when the growing season ends, said Morgan Broadley, one of the owners at Broadley Vineyards in Monroe.

"Once you get going in an early spring, even if you just have a normal summer, it is going to be early," he said.

Jones said 2016 turned out to be "a pretty good year," for grape growing.

"We had little heat stress compared to previous years," he said. "This year, July ended up being a little cooler than normal. That made it be less stressful because, sometimes in July, when you have a lot of heat stress events over 100 degrees it can actually damage the vines, and make for lower quality. But this year we just didn't have very many of those."

Mild weather in September "allowed people the time to let everything ripen nice and slowly," Jones said.

At Silvan Ridge Winery - across a country road from Sweet Cheeks - head winemaker Juan Pablo "J.P." Valot said the quality of the grapes this year is "phenomenal."

Cool, damp conditions contribute to mildew and mold that blackens grape buds. This year, however, the weather was relatively warm and dry that "keeps the vines more healthy without mildew" or mold, Valot said.

Jim McGavin, owner of Walnut Ridge Vineyard, west of Junction City, said this year's harvest will produce "an absolutely beautiful vintage."

The pleasant late summer weather helped the harvest go smoothly, he said. "It was just a beautiful, easy harvest season this year," McGavin said. "Nice clear, dry weather. No rain pressure when we were picking."

Like other southern Willamette Valley wineries, Sweet Cheeks buys grapes from other Oregon vineyards to add variety to its vintages. Earlier in October, Gabica and his crew unloaded tons of syrah grapes from Southern Oregon.

The first part of wine making involves sorting out unripe fruit, removing stems and dropping the grapes into a massive tank, where fermentation begins. In nearly two years, the fermented grape juice will be in bottles as wine.

The large harvests of 2014 and 2015 filled many bottles.

For some wineries, another large production year could be a problem, said Jones, of Southern Oregon University.

"Just like any business, you have to realize that your business can only manage so much in terms of production," he said. "It may be that your sales distributions are limited. Or it may be that you don't have the infrastructure in your operation to process more grapes."

But winemakers said their operations can handle the most recent sizable harvest.

"I'm excited for another great vintage," said Valot, of Silvan Ridge. "And I think that's great for Oregon."

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H/t: The Register-Guard

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