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Delayed harvest

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This time last year, Jim Fety wasn't out picking grapes at Rocky Knoll vineyard off Foothill Road. But as the sun rose over the heavy bunches of dark fruit, from 7:30 a.m. to early afternoon Sunday, he and a few dozen other volunteers diligently made their way through the rows, toting clippers and buckets.

Last harvest, Fety said, they did so about a month earlier.

“And if you recall, last year it was very smoky from forest fires,” he said. “I don’t know if that affected the harvest, but this year there seem to be more grapes. There were more merlot for sure.”

A few rows away, Emily Mosteu, owner of Dunbar Farms and Rocky Knoll, was also clipping, removing the last grapes of the year, the cabernet sauvignon.

“In our climate, it’s absolutely the latest,” she said. “And it just takes a long time to ripen.”

A much milder summer for wildfire this year brought welcome relief to local vintners who for the last few years have navigated fears in the market about smoke taint. However, another unforeseen challenge arose: the impacts of a wet, cold September that delayed the sugar accumulation in the grapes.

But aside from pushing back harvest times for several weeks, growers from small and large local vineyards said 2019 shaped up to be an encouraging change from past summers.

“Overall, I’m really impressed with the grapes,” said Russ Lyon, co-owner with his wife Margaret of Daisy Creek Vineyards in Jacksonville. “I think they really have done a good job.”

Like Rocky Knoll, Daisy Creek also delayed harvesting some of its grapes by a few weeks, though Lyon said he’s experienced that before in 18 years of making wine.

“It just pushed us back a few weeks,” he said.

Daisy Creek is classified as “boutique” for its small size, putting out fewer than 1,500 cases of wine every season (Lyon said their 23.5 acres yield about 800 to 950 cases). It doesn’t distribute its wine through wholesalers, but relies on its approximately 350 wine club members to form a steady customer base.

Smoke taint wasn’t much of a concern for his vineyard in recent summers, Lyon said. The worst impact he can remember was in 2002 — the year of the Biscuit fire.

“We were really concerned,” he said. “There were some vineyards that dumped their wines — just gave up on ‘em — but we went ahead and processed our and just let it age on into the next year or so.”

Giving the wine extra time and blending it with newer vintages resulted in a pleasing aroma that customers were enthusiastic about, he said.

“(It’s) just the way we handled it, I guess,” he said.

Rob Wallace, owner of Del Rio Vineyards, however, had a different take.

“I think if smoke isn’t on your mind, you’ve had your head in a hole for a couple of years,” he said.

Last year, Southern Oregon vintners fought back when California winery Copper Cane rejected fruit from several local vintners growing pinot noir, claiming smoke taint from the grapes was unacceptably strong. The winery said it had come to the decision after testing the fruit itself and asking three other laboratories to test it.

In a show of solidarity, Willamette Valley vintners bought the grapes and made them into wines, which were showcased at the Oregon Wine Experience this summer and sold out completely. But local growers didn’t want to go through that again.

“We’re all hoping we don’t have smoke, everybody’s hoping that,” Wallace said. “I think that the powers that be finally got that message. This year they really did an extraordinary job of controlling those issues.”

Del Rio, which relies on machinery to harvest its almost 500 acres of vines, finished its harvest about the normal time, Wallace said. Pinot noir, which makes up about half of Del Rio’s acreage, can be especially vulnerable to rot and mildew because of how tightly its bunches grow.

But when warmer weather returned, the grapes dried out and could be harvested, to Wallace’s relief.

“We just kinda got ’er done,” Wallace said.

Mosteu, too, said the wet weather left little lasting damage to her harvest. The compressed timeline for harvesting their Bordeaux varietals, all of which require enough time to develop the sugars they need, mostly meant that volunteers had to work a little harder to get it all done, she said.

“Here we are in the last week of October and we’re picking our last variety,” she said. “We made it, that’s good.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Larry Rubenstein helps pick grapes Sunday at Dunbar farms in medford. Photo by Denise Baratta
Better late than never at local vineyardsThumbnail