Washington winemakers await effect of El Nino winter on grapes




Posted on March 16, 2010 at 10:45 AM

SEATTLE -- We're not even to spring yet, but it's never too early to talk about the wine grape harvest. Of course, we're in an El Nino winter. So what does that mean for Washington wines?

Ben Smith does typical late winter work at his winery Cadence. The last dozen years have been good for Cadence Winery since its inception in 1998 - a success mirrored by the Washington wine industry as a whole.

"We continued to grow up until the 2006 vintage where we hit 2,500 cases of production, which is about 40 tons of fruit, and that's a good size for the three of us - myself, my wife and our kid," said Smith.

It's a long way off, but soon the focus of the wine world will be on harvest time.  The vineyards of Eastern Washington supply product to a record number of wine makers.

"We've got 670 wineries throughout the state of Washington that, combined with 350 wine grape growers, the industry is growing by leaps and bounds and it's a very exciting time," said Robin Pollard, Washington State Wine Commission.

When you talk about the weather's impact on wine or, more specifically, grape growing, there are three crucial points: winter, summer and fall.

It's been a relatively mild winter this year, thanks to El Nino, so there hasn't been any undue stress on vines. The real concern is later in the summer, when conditions can get very hot. Too hot, and it's bad for the harvest.

"My crystal ball's a little bit cloudy as far as what's going to happen later in the season, but on Red Mountain, with which I'm most familiar, we haven't hit bud-break, there's been no freeze issues to speak of so it's steady as we go," said Smith.

So right now, it's that late winter, leading into spring chores a wine maker must do, waiting for the real test of time.

"What's crucial for us is the weather in July, August and September," said Smith.