Marcus Larson / News-Register##Argyle Winery employees J.C. Jogerst, left, and Dustin Rice, lower right, work to load the presser with close to six tons of freshly picked pinot noir grapes.
Marcus Larson / News-Register##Argyle Winery employees J.C. Jogerst, left, and Dustin Rice, lower right, work to load the presser with close to six tons of freshly picked pinot noir grapes.
Marcus Larson / News-Register##Dustin Rice with Argyle Winery picks up a pallet of pinot noir grapes to load into the presser machine.
Marcus Larson / News-Register##Dustin Rice with Argyle Winery picks up a pallet of pinot noir grapes to load into the presser machine.
By David Bates • Staff Writer • 

Hot summer fuels early grape harvest

Thanks to a hot summer, most crops in the Willamette Valley have been ripening two to three weeks earlier this year. That means an August for the wine grape harvest, an anomaly that last occurred in 1992, according to local winemakers.

Early harvest is not necessarily a bad thing, though.

Argyle Winery viticulturist Allen Holstein, in his 36th year tending to Yamhill Valley grapes, still has his hand-typed notes from 1992. That year, picking started Aug. 25 — almost the very date his crews started last week picking what he estimates at almost 500 linear miles of grapevine rows, spread across 300 acres in three different locations.

Holstein recalls, “Ninety-two turned out to be perfectly acceptable, as a matter of fact. The wines held up over time better than some other vintages that were more flash-in-the pan.

“I always say that the best vintage is the one where the wine sells. If it doesn’t, you hear about it.”

Wine Enthusiast Magazine scores Oregon’s 1992 wines a “very good” rating on its vintage list. Winemakers have honed their craft since then, as evidenced by vintages in “superb” territory in the last few years.

Meanwhile, explosive sales have made wine grapes Oregon’s most lucrative crop, valued at $168 million in 2014.

It’s still early in the harvest, obviously. And as winemakers know very well, the region’s weather can turn suddenly.

But the long-term forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for “warmer than normal” conditions in the West, with the best odds for that outlook here in the Pacific Northwest. That prediction has winemakers and industry insiders discussing a repeat — or something very close to it — of 2014, a record-busting year the Oregon Wine Board boldly credits with producing “the vintage of a lifetime.”

Which would be a nice way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first planting of pinot grapes by David Lett in February 1965 in the Dundee hills. He’d landed in Oregon after a hunt for the perfect place to plant the variety, which he’d discovered in France. 

Fifty years later, more than 17,000 acres of pinot noir blanket the north valley, and Oregon boasts a $3.3 billion wine industry.

Erath Winery, which started four years after Lett, received its first fruit Thursday, according to spokesman Ryan Pennington. “I’m hearing that flavor development is occurring at relatively low sugar levels, which should contribute to beautifully complex wines with relatively modest alcohol levels,” he said. 

Winemaker Gary Horner said crews have already started bringing in pinot noir from the Umpqua Valley and Columbia Gorge, which typically run about 10 days ahead of the Willamette Valley.

Last year, harvest in those regions started Sept. 15. “That gives you an idea of how early we are,” Horner said.

Greg Jones, a Southern Oregon University climatologist who has spent decades studying the interaction between climate and viticulture, said the early start is definitely “unusual.”

It is not, however, just a West Coast event.

“This is not only happening here,” he said. “The harvest last year in Australia was one of the earliest on record, and the harvest in Europe this year is considered to be one of the earliest on record. It’s global in terms of wine harvests, the growing season being very warm, and the harvest being much earlier than normal.”

That’s not to say climate change means an August wine grape harvest is the new norm. Even within the context of a warmer planet, variability at the local level can still be a factor, Jones cautions. 

“Two years in a row of really early harvest doesn’t make a new norm,” he said. “However, if you look at the trend, it has slowly been to earlier and earlier harvest.

“Climate is still variable. It’s still changing. So there could be years that push it back. I think we are trending to earlier, but I just think there is some variability still in the system.”

Argyle’s Holstein agrees.

“I don’t deny man-induced climate change, but that’s what it is, is change,” he said. “Variability.

“It was four short years ago that we didn’t finish harvest until Nov. 5. So I think we’ll have variation. We’ll have more in August, and we’ll have more in November.”

Although rains still could delay this year’s harvest, nobody’s talking about picking grapes in November this year. With his two crews of about 40 workers, Holstein expects to be finished by mid-September — about the time he normally starts.

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