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Earliest crush on record

ASHLAND — From a subzero winter cold snap to the warmest July on record, weather played a role in the earliest crush in the history of Weisinger's Winery.

While there are many grape varieties to be picked in the coming weeks, never before has Weisinger harvested its sauvignon blanc — one of the region's oldest Bordeaux crops — in August. Usually, harvest begins the second or third week of September, General Manager and winemaker Eric Weisinger said. 

"Grape growing is kind of like a horse race,"  Weisinger said. "In a sense, the harvest time comes down to that last furlong. You can have a year when you look really strong, and then coming off that last corner heading toward the finish line, things really slow up. We had a really fast last three or four weeks, though, and that sealed their fate."

Two tons were collected and crushed Monday. A combination of things, starting with a warm summer, triggered the early harvest, he said. The type of grape factored in as well.

"Even though sauvignon blanc has been grown for a long time here, it hasn't been grown in the quantity that we have today," Weisinger said.

Unlike many varietals, sauvignon blanc doesn't require a high-sugar reading.

"Typically, the fruit around here measures at 24 Brix when it is ripe," he said. "For sauv blanc, however, we're looking for something in the 21½ to 22½ range, because it's a grape in which we're looking for lower sugars."

Early varietals will be picked elsewhere around the Rogue Valley next week, said Herb Quady, a vineyard manager and winemaker for several operations in the region.

"There've been years when we haven't harvested anything in September, so it's very early," Quady said. "We're somewhere around three weeks earlier than normal, and 10 days earlier than last year. We think we might bring in some pinot for rosé next week in the Bear Creek area."

The relatively dry summer contributed to the early harvest,  suggested John Weisinger, who pioneered the Siskiyou Boulevard operation in 1979 and began commercial production in the late 1980s.

"That probably hurried things up a bit," John Weisinger said. "A combination of heat and not having enough water in the watershed from lack of snow played a part."

Eric Weisinger said the yield is slightly down from 2013, most likely the result of last winter's cold snap, resulting in several nights where the temperature hit zero or close to it in the region.

"Some of the lower yield has to do with the severe freeze," he said. "Often when you have a drop in yield and a warmer year, fruit coming in earlier isn't unusual."

While the yield may suffer modestly throughout lower elevations, the impact of the late-2013 freeze on the coming vintage remains an unknown, Weisinger said.

"We can make a fairly good estimate in terms of quantity," he said. "The worst-affected areas are where the vineyards are very young; they experienced quite a bit of damage and pushed the production back for another year."

The cold snap, however, will help growers determine what kind of grapes to plant going forward.

"We're able to see what varieties can handle that kind of cold," Weisinger said. "Certain Italian varieties — such as Nebbiolo and Dolcetto — got hammered. We're still in the experimental stage, but in the past 10 years we've gone through huge leaps in understanding what grapes and varietals grow best in our area. Sometimes it takes a traumatic event to push that learning forward."

 Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Eric Weisinger uses a density meter to test three sauvignon blanc grapes that are nearly ready for harvesting. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell