Recent winter freezes in Washington's Columbia Valley:
1949-50: Back-to-back devastaing winters hurt
Washington's fledgling wine industry. In 1949, temperatures got
down to -8°F, and in 1950, they reached -20°F. These
two years caused extensive damage and discouraged further plantings.
1955: On Dec. 10, temperatures were in the
mid-60s, then dropped below zero in five days, causing significant
1957: In mid-January, temperatures were in
the 40s, then hit -18°F for three straight days.
1964: On Dec. 4, temperatures reached 60 degrees,
then dropped to -7°F by Dec. 16.
1968: On Dec. 28, temperatures went from 43
to -11°F in two days.
1972: This was bad on both ends of the calendar.
In January, temperature extremes were near 60°F and -1°F.
And in November, temperatures went from the mid-50s to -7°F.
1978-79: One of the worst winters in the past
half-century occurred when Christmas Day temperatures reached
the mid-50s, then dropped to -4°F by Dec. 30. A deep freeze
continued until early February, causing catastrophic damage to
1983-84: On Dec. 14, temperatures reached 45°F
but dropped to -14°F just 10 days later, causing extensive
1985: In early November, temperatures reached
the mid-60s, then dropped as low as -7°F. Damage was mostly
to younger vines.
1989: On Jan. 31, temperatures hit 65°F,
then dropped two days later to -1°F. Damage was moderate.
1990-91: On Dec. 17, temperatures rose to the
mid-50s, then dropped to -3°F, then rose to 50°F and
dropped again to -8°F. The result was significant vineyard
damage across the valley.
1996: In mid-January, temperatures rose to
the mid-50s, then dropped as low as -18°F in late January.
Widespread damage in Yakima Valley, Tri-Cities and Walla Walla
Valley, though Paterson and Canoe Ridge were hardly affected.
Washington grape growers and winemakers don't
like to think about it, but they can feel it lurking out there in the
darkness of winter.
Cold Temperatures can mean Devastation
Washington Wine Grape Growers
by Andy Perdue, Wine
Press NW Winter
"It" is a devasting winter freeze
that occurs in Washington wine country every six years or so. The
last was in early 1996, and
growers and winemakers know they're due for another.
Sara Spayd, a food scientist for Washington State University in Prosser,
has been studying the phenomenon since she arrived in the Yakima Valley
"Mother Nature reminds us every five to seven years why we grow
riesling," she says with a wry smile.
Riesling, a white wine grape upon which the Washington wine industry
built its reputation in the '60s and '70s, has been spurned in the
past decade for more fashionable varieties, such as chardonnay, merlot
and syrah. Unfortunately, these three varieties are more susceptible
to bad winters, as shown in 1996 when Washington's merlot crop was
less than a third of normal because of the freeze.
This phenomenon that growers, winemakers
and consumers alike are concerned with is not just about cold temperatures;
it's all about how and when
it occurs. For instance, in late January 1996, temperatures rose to
a balmy 55 degrees Fahrenheit in many areas of the Columbia Valley,
then plunged to minus-18 by Feb. 3. When the temperature went up, the
vines "awoke" from their winter slumber and rehydrated the
wood. And when temperatures dropped 75 degrees in such a short period,
the water in the wood froze and expanded, damaging the vines' trunks
and buds, often destroying everything above the soil.
To make matters worse in '96, snow on the ground reflected the bright
sun during the day and warmed the vines. When the sun set and temperatures
plummeted again, damage to the vines' trunks was even greater.
"Location is Everything"
Some areas were hit worse than others. From Zillah in the western
Yakima Valley to Walla Walla in the east, chardonnay and merlot vines
were generally devastated. Yet south over the Horse Heaven Hills, little
damage was noted because a heavy fog regulated the temperature.
"If you're in an area prone to extremes, the potential for damage
is much greater," Spayd says.
Location is everything, she emphasizes. Vineyard sites with good slope
and elevation tend to survive better when harsh winters occur.
Someone who knows about bad winter freezes is Mike Sauer, owner of
Red Willow Vineyards in the western Yakima Valley. His first experience
was in 1971, when he was working with Concord grapes, two years before
he began growing wine grapes. Since then, he can recall a half-dozen
Sauer wasn't badly hit in 1996, with the only casualties some merlot
vines in marginal locations.
"There's no substitute for a good site," Sauer
Sauer has had especially good luck with syrah, a darling among red
wine consumers but a somewhat tender variety. Red Willow Vineyard had
the first commercial planting of syrah in Washington in 1986 on a steep
slope that is less affected by cold winters.
Methods to Reduce Damage
Sauer and other growers have learned a number of ways to lessen the
damage when winter freezes threaten the wine industry. In addition
to site selection, growers also will use fall irrigation to their advantage.
Sauer wants his vineyards nice and wet going into winter because moist
soil acts as insulation for a vine's root system. This is especially
significant in 2001 because of season-long drought conditions. While
a lack of water didn't seem to affect growers through harvest, many
irrigation systems shut down earlier, leaving those dependent on late-fall
watering - literally - high and dry. A devastating winter could cause
Another method is piling up soil around the grapevines' trunks, which
can protect a few more inches in case of prolonged freezing temperatures.
This, however, is labor-intensive and difficult.
Some growers take advantage of wind machines, which can mix the air,
and therefore its temperature, as well as keep it moving.
Spring Frosts Can Also Hurt Vines
The devastation can take place in many
forms, says Kevin Corliss, director of viticulture for Stimson
Lane Vineyards & Estates, the
Northwest's largest wine producer.
In addition to freezes like the one in '96 that destroyed vines back
to the ground, fall and spring frosts can damage buds. A vine's buds,
which eventually flower and become grape clusters, are formed around
June of the previous year. So the buds for the 1996 vintage were formed
in 1995. If those buds are injured or killed, they can't become grapes.
This is vital to Stimson Lane, which owns such wineries as Columbia
Crest, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Snoqualmie Vineyards and Northstar. It
owns or has contracts for 15,700 acres in Washington, more than half
of the state's vineyards.
Winter 78-79- A Bad One
Corliss, who grew up in the Yakima Valley and works at Stimson's facility
in Grandview, has lived through a number of freezes since he started
working for the company after high school in 1983. And the Washington
State University graduate has heard plenty of stories about the past,
one of the worst being the notorious 1978-79 winter. On Christmas Day
1978, temperatures in the Columbia Valley reached the mid-50s, then
plummeted 60 degrees in five days. It stayed cold for more than a month,
hitting a high of 32 degrees only three times until Feb. 4. As a result,
the ground froze 8-9 inches deep. Such a deep freeze will destroy anything
in its path.
"Kill the roots and you're pretty much done," Corliss says. "You
get the opportunity to change varieties."
For Stimson Lane, that winter was especially devastating. U.S. Tobacco
had purchased Ste. Michelle Vintners in the early '70s, soon after
Cold Creek Vineyard was planted. The '78-79 winter killed most of the
vineyard because the vines were planted too shallow, about six inches
"Back in the old days, we took our planting methods right out
of the California book," Corliss says. "We didn't worry too
much about freezes and frosts."
Fortunately, U.S. Tobacco didn't blink at replanting the vineyard
- this time much deeper - and today, Chateau Ste. Michelle's Cold Creek
Vineyard wines are among the most prized in Washington.
Phylloxera another Potential Problem
In 1996, Stimson Lane ended up with only about 40 percent of its crop
because of that winter's freeze. And it would have lost more if its
vineyards along Canoe Ridge and Columbia Crest facing the Columbia
River hadn't been relatively protected by foggy and breezy conditions.
The company also was generous to the rest of the region. Then-President
Allen Shoup wanted to make sure the Washington wine industry wasn't
wiped out, so Stimson helped smaller producers by selling them grapes.
The experts point out that even when terrible winter damage occurs,
the industry is able to bounce back quickly, usually by the next season.
One of the main reasons for this is that, unlike many other wine regions
of the world, Washington grapevines are planted on their own roots
rather than grafted onto rootstock. A century ago, a little bug known
as phylloxera gobbled its way across Europe, devastating three-fourths
of the continent's vineyards. The solution was to graft the classic
European grapevines onto American grapevine roots, which were resistant
Today, phylloxera continues to plague grape growers, particularly
in California and, to a small extent, in Oregon.
But Washington has an advantage. Its soils tend to be sandy, which
phylloxera doesn't like. And the industry is young, spread out and
doesn't have large farming companies that move their equipment around,
a practice that can spread the louse. Because of its relative youth,
Washington's wine industry grew up under quarantine conditions, thus
making it more difficult for unwanted pests to make their way here.
Canoe Ridge Vineyard, January 2004
As a result, nearly all Washington vineyards
are not grafted onto rootstock but are "own-rooted." This
helps in two ways. When a devastating freeze does happen, vines grafted
on rootstock tend to
sustain greater damage. And when own-rooted vines are knocked back
to the ground, they can be retrained the same year and produce grapes
the next vintage. If they were grafted onto non-European roots, the
vines wouldn't produce the intended variety but whatever grape the
root was from.
Corliss keeps a close eye, too, on how different varieties do during
"Riesling is tremendously tough," he says. "We can
always count on a regular crop of riesling." So is cabernet franc,
a red wine grape often blended with merlot or cabernet sauvignon. "It's
a hedge against winter. In a year like '96, you have cab franc."
While it's well known that chardonnay and merlot did poorly in '96,
cabernet sauvignon also can be susceptible, especially if the freeze
is earlier, such as November. Grenache, a tasty though less popular
red wine grape, is one of the most tender, Corliss says, though Stimson
still gets plenty of fruit from vines planted in 1978.
And syrah? That's a big question mark because
many of the plantings have occurred since the last bad winter. "The jury's still out
on syrah," Corliss says. "It hasn't been tested. But if it's
sensitive, we'll find out and have to deal with it."
And that's what Washington's grape growers and winemakers do. They
know going in that the Columbia Valley is not always a wine grape growers'
paradise. Every six years or so, they can count on it.
ANDY PERDUE is editor of Wine Press Northwest.
Winter Weather Cycles and the Washington
by Andy Perdue,
Wine Press NW
Low Temperatures may Distress Crops
by Anna King,
Wine Press NW
Part 2 -
A Tale of two Cellars-
out of Inbalance
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