Drought actually helped state vineyards

YAKIMA – Wine grape growers in Washington state had a record harvest this year, proving that some crops fare well even in drought conditions.

The Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers estimates the harvest at 116,760 tons, surpassing the previous record of 115,000 tons in 2002. The harvest was 100,500 tons in 2004, when a harsh winter left many vineyards with freeze damage.

Washington is the nation’s No. 2 premium wine producer, behind California, with an industry valued at $2.4 billion. It is home to more than 360 wineries and 350 wine grape growers.

Many farmers entered this year’s growing season concerned about drought after the meager winter snowpack resulted in reduced streamflows and dry conditions. Wine grape growers worried a little less, because they often reduce irrigation to their vineyards to stress the grapes anyway. Smaller grapes concentrate the juice and make better wine.

“It really is one of the few crops that can survive the drought,” said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the wine grape growers group. “We’ve had growers that have said this is just going to be the harvest of the decades.”

Scharlau said vintners have said that many times already in the past decade.

“I’m sure that one of these years we’re not going to be able to say that, but this year seems to be another great vintage. We’re thrilled with that,” she said.

The warm summer, followed by steady, cool fall temperatures and a frost-free harvest, allowed the fruit to hang on the vine longer, said Jeff Gordon, chairman of the Washington Wine Commission.

“Mother Nature was definitely on our side this year,” Gordon said. Gordon also owns Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards in Pasco.

A heavy freeze reduced the 2004 harvest in some parts of the state, but new acreage in what has become a booming industry balanced out the losses. This year, there were only a couple of hundred new acres in the state, Scharlau said.

More than 30,000 acres have been cultivated for wine grapes in Washington. The acreage is divided nearly 50-50 between red and white varieties. Leading red varieties include cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling leading the white varieties.

Associated Press

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