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Grape harvest down, but quality looks good

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneGrapes are harvested Friday at a vineyard near Griffin Creek Elementary School.

Two Rogue Valley vineyard owners operating on opposite ends of the acreage spectrum reported that crop yield is down but quality looks extremely good as the operations finish harvesting.

Michael Moore of Quail Run Vineyards in Talent oversees 350 acres of plantings in 13 vineyards with 28 varieties of grapes from Jacksonville to Talent. Eric Weisinger operates his family winery on 10 acres in Ashland and manages an additional six acres for others.

“There is great quality. I think that everyone is thrilled,” said Moore. “I think that everyone is a little surprised, if not shocked, by the quality that we were able to get ... given the fact that we had water shutoff in mid-summer.”

“We are seeing yields that are down some times 20% to 30% on our acreage and for our clients,” said Weisinger. “We have seen the fruit come in early. Somewhere around two weeks early, sooner with some varieties. It’s a very good harvest in terms of quality.”

Smoke and heat appeared to have little effect on this year’s grape crop, but the lack of irrigation water likely curtailed yield. Both say other operators are reporting similar results for quantity, quality and environmental impacts.

Quail Run gets water from both Talent and the Medford irrigations districts. TID shut off supplies mid-July, and MID delivers stopped around the same time. Some vineyards purchased water, he noted

“It was kind of trial by fire for everyone to try to figure out how to navigate this year,” said Moore. “It was really kind of a distressing moment to figure out what to do before the canals shut off.”

Quail Run got a permit and constructed a large pond in just over seven days, then spent three days filling it with the last of allotments before the canals went dry. That allowed irrigation for 55 acres of grapes that would not have made it otherwise, said Moore.

“We are definitely seeing yields down,” said Moore. Only a couple grape varieties, Marsanne and Roussanne, didn’t perform well with the lack of water, but overall yield was down 15% to 20%. Quail Run’s website showed all but two 2021 grape varieties sold out.

Weisinger relies on well water for its irrigation, although it has rights to a supply from TID.

“In some cases, there were growers that weren’t even able to get a crop,” said Weisinger. “There are vineyards out there that just weren’t even picked. When you cut off the irrigation your plants come under an incredible amount of stress. Particularly with young plants, that can be too much.”

A couple of days of 110 degrees plus in late June didn’t appear to have an impact on the crop, said Weisinger. Grapes are really exceptional at withstanding heat spikes, said Moore. They shut down and stop metabolizing so they are not wasting water when it gets really hot, he said.

Growers worry about wildfire smoke affecting the harvest, said Moore, but there was not a problem this year despite smokey days in August and September.

“It was from distant fires so it didn’t penetrate the skin and impact the quality. That was really surprising for all of us, not only grape growers but also vegetable farmers,” said Moore. Smoke actually helped the grapes by cutting down UV rays preventing sunburn. Instead, the grapes were able to continue growing through convection, he said.

Finding workers for the harvest was a struggle, said Moore. About one-quarter of his harvest was done by a machine operated by a three-person crew. Moore says mechanization will increase on his vineyards in future years given the worker shortage. But machinery may not be an option for smaller operations, he added.

Weisinger’s used employees from its tasting room as well as regular staff and management to assemble 10- to 12-person picking crews. They usually worked from 7 to 11 a.m. and would finish up the following day if needed, said Weisinger.

From a business perspective it has been a good year, said Weisinger. The winery doubled its tasting room’s outdoor deck size in late 2019 and that enabled it to host more people outside during various pandemic surges both this year and in 2020.

Quail Run operates the South Stage Cellars tasting room in a historic Jacksonville house. A large outdoor garden with seating at the location has allowed the business to do well, said Moore.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.