Recent rains have turned Southern Oregon's grape harvest into a multiple-act play with extended intermissions.
After a warm, dry summer hastened the harvest, showers that arrived in September accelerated picking for some varieties and put the grape stomp on hold in others.
"We have about half of our fruit in right now, but our cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo are still hanging," said Trium Winery's Kurt Lotspeich, following the second-wettest September on record with 2.76 inches of precipitation falling at the Medford airport. "They've had to deal with this in the Willamette Valley many times, but usually we're lucky and these rains start in November, sometimes in middle or late October."
Lotspeich and his wife Laura have worked their 171/2;-acre vineyard outside Talent since 1990.
"This much rain is not great for us, but it does allow the flavor to catch up with the sugar," he said. "The cab had good (sugar) numbers to pick, but the flavors weren't quite right. So we elected to let them hang, probably for another week, possibly two, because the rain has diluted the juice."
Persistent damp weather can create another kind of difficulty in the form of botrytis — a fungus that forms a grayish powdery mold sometimes known as noble rot.
"In some varieties you like it, but you don't want it in reds. It taints the wine, so we're a little concerned about that," said Lotspeich, who has brought in in four of the six varieties in his vineyard. "When there is a lot of moisture on the grapes themselves infections can start, but the varieties hanging out there are pretty resistant."
The good news for growers is that less rain fell than predicted, said Mark Wisnovsky of Valley View Winery in Ruch.
"It was closer to an inch than the 2 inches predicted," Wisnovsky said. "Chances of 2 inches falling this time of year are pretty rare."
Wisnovsky said he's going with the odds, and historical weather norms, rather than rush to yank grapes off the vine.
"We have to remember this is barely Oct. 1, not Nov. 1," Wisnovsky said. "A lot of people panic and to pick all their fruit — even the stuff that's not quite ready. Historically, we have several more weeks of good growing weather."
So far, 25 to 30 percent of Valley View's 36 acres have been harvested, a job squeezed in primarily on weekends because the early start made pickers harder to recruit.
"The wine grape harvest was early, so we caught the end of the pear harvest," Wisnovsky said. "Traditionally, pears are done when the grapes start and that allows harvest workers to move from one fruit to the other. It was a little tight for a while, so we picked on the weekends for the first time in a long time, partially because of rain, and we were able to get a lot more people on weekends."
Two decades ago, he said, weekend harvests were the norm, because pickers with Monday-through-Friday schedules were available on weekends.
"The last 15 or 20 years we've been able to get enough people to pick during the week," Wisnovsky said. "We had 15 people picking last Saturday."
Anne Root at Edenvale Winery said she's hoping for an Indian summer pattern to follow the moist September.
"This rain has everyone wondering what's going to happen," Root said. "The clusters of grapes are at risk with the rain and cooling temperatures can lead to mildew. We need some sun to dry it out."
Grapes were nearing perfect ripeness, she said, with growers just waiting for acidity balance and sugar levels to hit harvest targets. Then rain hit, diluting the sugars and concentrated flavors.
"It makes it much harder on the winemaker," Root said.
Herb Quady, of Quady North and Applegate Vineyards, elected to step up the pace on more than 200 acres of grapes.
"We decided to pick all the sensitive varieties and thin-skinned grapes before the rain so we picked aggressively Friday and Saturday," Quady said. "What's out there now is pretty hearty."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness.