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Low temperatures may distress crops

Canoe Ridge Vineyard, January 2004

This story was published Jan. 7, 2004
By Anna King
Wine Press Northwest

Scientists, growers and winemakers won't know until they prune their vines early next month to what degree this week's sub-zero temperatures have damaged the 2004 crop of Mid-Columbia wine grapes.

The frigid temperatures remind many in the industry of 1996, when cold devastated about 40 percent of Washington's wine grape crop. The industry is valued at about $2.4 billion.

"There is not much you can do about it," said Scott Williams, wine maker and vineyard manager at Kiona Vineyards near Benton City. "From a grape grower point of view, you should be worried."

Kiona Winemaker Scott Williams

At Kiona, Sunday night's temperature plummeted to about minus 13 degrees, Williams said. He said it's too early to determine how much damage has occurred, but he estimated some buds, where the plant will grow this spring, probably were damaged. Fields closer to the region's rivers were expected to fare better because of generally warmer temperatures. Those hardest hit are expected to be at lower elevations, such as valleys away from the water.

However, some scientists say many vineyard owners have adopted new growing techniques since the last big freeze and might be a little better off.

Not everybody was as optimistic.

"I think it could be a lot like '96," said Sara Spayd, a Washington State University extension food scientist based in Prosser. "The major difference is that we haven't had a lot of sunlight, which was one of the problems in 1996."

That year sunlight warmed the trunks of vines quickly during the day from the reflective snow, but at night temperatures would plummet, Spayd said. The grape vines couldn't handle the extreme differences in temperature, she said.

This week's weather has been more cloudy, keeping the vines at a more constant, cold temperature.

In 1996, the cold snap followed warm weather, so vines weren't as dormant and prepared for the cold, Spayd said. This year, the cold set in more gradually.

Spayd said such extreme cold snaps strike every five to six years.

"We try and prepare new growers that every five to seven years you are going to loose a crop," she said. "And this is year eight."

Bud Break will show how Washington's
Vines Survived the Cold Winter

The industry has grown dramatically in that time. In 1996 the state had about 13,000 acres of wine grapes, said Stacie Jacob, spokeswoman for the Washington Wine Commission. This year that figure grew to about 28,000 acres, with nearly 99 percent of those grown in Eastern Washington, she said.

Jack Watson, a WSU extension horticulturist, said certain varieties are less hardy than others. He said tender varieties include grenache, syrah, merlot and sangiovese. Some of the more hardy varieties include riesling and gewürztraminer.

Ironically, some of the most tender varieties are the most popular and valuable, Watson said.

Location also is an important factor. Cold air sinks and follows land elevations, so valleys become much colder. Watson said growers who plant more hardy varieties where cold air settles or use wind machines to raise the temperatures might experience less damage.

Because of the vastness of many Eastern Washington vineyards, many growers find the protective practice of burying their vines or wrapping them in plastic too costly, Watson said.

In February, when growers prune, they may decide to leave more buds on the vines to make up for those that might have been killed, Watson said. But it still is too early to say how extensive the damage will be, he added.

Despite the expected hardship, Washington remains one of the best places to grow wine grapes, Kiona's Williams said.

"It's not going to be a banner year, but you never can tell," he said.


Vintage 2003

Winter Weather Cycles and the Washington
Wine Industry

by Andy Perdue,
Wine Press NW

Low Temperatures may Distress Crops
by Anna King,
Wine Press NW



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