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Growers outside Ashland breathe a sigh of relief

For grape growers, a year's worth of work hangs in a harvest. In 2010, already weather-beaten fruit ripened late in the Rogue Valley and much of it was eaten by birds, costing some growers up to a third of their yields. In 2011, the roller-coastering cold, wet weather never allowed some grapes to reach desired sugar levels or flavors.

In those two years, instead of having weeks to harvest different varieties of grapes — from early ripening whites and to more time-demanding reds — crews, equipment and crush pads were operating round the clock in a compressed time to beat the worsening weather.

This year? In one word: Whew.

With almost all of the region's wine grapes harvested, crushed and tucked away in tanks, Rogue Valley growers, who typically face this time of year holding their breath, can relax.

Some are even dreaming of leisure-time activities.

Rene Eichmann, the vice president and winemaker of Bridgeview Vineyards, which has about 300 acres of vines in the Illinois and Applegate valleys, is relieved that the harvest won't stretch through Halloween as it did last year.

"Maybe we will have a chance to go to a silly party," he says. "If so, I may dress as a purple grape."

Barbara Steele of Cowhorn Vineyard in Jacksonville says her small crew looks forward to watching sports. "There is nothing like putting in a long, hard and wildly satisfying day in the vineyard and winery during crush, and then settling into warm, dry clothes and playoff baseball," she says. "Once we come down from that high, there is football."

Rene Brons, whose family owns Schmidt Family Vineyards in Grants Pass, has another dream to celebrate harvest: "I think we will be grabbing a bottle of our favorite wine, make something tasty to share, and then sit back and reflect on the year."

Growers are thankful for this year's warm, dry summer and fall, including an August heat wave, and cool evenings that allowed berries to reach desirable brix (sugar) levels. Across the state, grape growers experienced one of the driest harvest seasons on record, according to the Oregon Wine Board.

Unlike the past two years, grapes were ready to be picked two to three weeks earlier, putting them back on the schedule growers were accustomed to before 2010.

"We are over the hump," says Rob Wallace of Del Rio Vineyards, where 15 types of grapes are grown on 205 acres in Gold Hill. "The varietals that are susceptible to cool weather are harvested."

He says that the past two nerve-racking years threw everything at growers, but this year was "a breeze," even though yields may be slightly less than last year because of a winter freeze that damaged some buds.

"The crop isn't as heavy, but it's a decent crop," he says.

Herb Quady, the Applegate Valley winemaker at Troon Vineyard and his own company, Quady North, expects very ripe, very rich wines from this vintage. He says the zinfandel is perhaps the best he's seen since he arrived here in 2004.

"Damn straight," he says, talking from Troon's lab on Tuesday. "We deserve an easy year compared to the last two."

This year, picking has been conducted under mostly sunny skies, and weather predictions have encouraged some growers to allow thicker-skin grapes to stay longer on the vines to increase flavor intensity.

At Bridgeview, Eichmann oversees a 200-acre vineyard in the Illinois Valley where pinot noir, pinot gris and other cooler-weather grapes grow. A 100-acre vineyard in the Applegate Valley is mostly planted with warmer climate merlot and other Bordeaux varietals.

He and his crew can process up to 100 tons of fruit a day, aided by a harvest machine.

"This year has been absolutely fabulous," says Eichmann. "We have been able to harvest everything in a timely manner. It's been easier to manage the labor schedule, and the numbers (grape sugar and other readings) have been picture perfect."


Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com.