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Vineyard harvest a bit light, but quality is good

Grape growers cite wet spring, light wildfire smoke
Grapes await harvest at DANCIN Vineyards Friday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
DANCIN co-owner Dan Marca checks on grapes near his tasting room Friday. “The weather is perfect. This is the dream end of the season because we are able to ripen slowly, to build up intensities and ripen flavors,” said Marca. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

Vineyard harvests may be a little light in terms of quantity in Southern Oregon this fall, but quality is good. Growers got through a season of water concerns aided by wet spring weather, and they are liking the warmer temperatures so far this fall.

Harvesting is nearly complete on most white varietals, but reds are just beginning, with harvesting likely to continue through October, said Alec Levin, a viticulturist with Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center.

“It’s not a super low yield; it’s just lighter than normal,” said Levin. “We had this kind of cooler, wetter spring. There was some frost damage, depending on where you were in the early spring.”

Dan Marca with DANCIN Vineyards and Ross Allen with 2Hawk Vineyard both say the quality of this year’s grapes is excellent, but they noted the harvest quantity was a little below normal levels.

“Reds have been getting going last week and this,” said Levin. “If the leaves are still green and it’s not getting frozen, people are going to wait to pick as late as you can and wait to get the sugar and flavor up.”

“The weather is perfect. This is the dream end of the season because we are able to ripen slowly, to build up intensities and ripen flavors,” said Marca. DANCIN grows pinot and chardonnay grapes, which come in early, and as a result the harvest will be done by the second week in October. He’s already had several heavy days of harvesting.

Quality is looking really great this year, said Levin. While there are always trade-offs, a lot of the fruit has ripened during a cooler part of the year. Disease has not appeared to be much of an issue this year. Last year’s crop ripened during the early part of the season.

“There’s a really good balance of the chemistry, good ripeness with what we are harvesting,” said Allen. So far 2Hawk has only picked white grapes, with the reds starting soon and continuing throughout October and possibly into November.

“Hot spells didn’t really affect the crop much. The story this year was the freeze in the beginning and the cold and wet spring delaying development,” said Levin. “It was kind of a blessing with so many people being on edge due to the water supply issue.”

The wetter spring was in contrast to a very warm and dry May in 2021. Due to the weather, irrigation districts didn’t start to deliver water until early July this year, and some kept supplies going into mid-August.

Grapes originally planted at DANCIN around the tasting room are now dry-farmed and drawing no water from the allotment the vineyard has from the irrigation district. The vineyard has been working toward dry-farming that area for the past five years.

“Every year, what we have done, we pushed (watering) out two weeks at a time. Little by little, the roots of the grapevine are able to acclimatize successfully,” said Marca.

“The yields are down a little bit in the dry-farming area,” said Marca. “Less water results in smaller berries and smaller than normal yields.”

Finding workers is still a concern, but less of an issue than in recent years when the hemp industry was drawing agricultural workers. Hemp employment appears to have stabilized somewhat, said Levin. Helping the labor issue is an ongoing increase of mechanized harvesting in the fields.

“There are more machine picks. That’s not going to go down. More and more folks will use machinery to do more work,” said Levin. As growers plant new acreage, they design them with machines in mind.

2Hawk harvests 100% by hand, said Allen. “The machinery is a little rough on the fruit when you are trying to produce a premier-quality product.”

A full-time crew handles much of the harvest work at 2Hawk, but additional labor has been available, although it’s a little tight, said Allen. DANCIN’s labor force has been steady, and there are still team members who were on the crew that did planting of the first grapevines, said Marca.

Smoke was not much of an issue for vineyards because there was less than in previous years, said Levin. The McKinney Fire in Siskiyou County sent smoke into the valley for a couple of days and before fruit was ripening. Containment efforts on the Rum Creek Fire in Josephine County also held down potential smoke damage.

“From an agricultural standpoint, this year has probably been the best year we have seen in five,” said Allen, commenting on the lack of smoke events.

OSU is doing a multiyear study of smoke’s effect on wine grapes, with Levin working on the project locally.

“There’s still a million questions on how smoke affects grapes,” he said.

2Hawk’s tasting room is still seeing a lot of local traffic, but gas prices may have held back more visitors from out of the region, Allen said. Marca said his tasting-room visits have recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

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