WHAT'S UP WITH THAT ?: Fall cold snap still stings for grape growers

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A two-day cold snap in November might have destroyed between 20 percent to 40 percent of the Walla Walla Valley's wine grape crop.

Just two days? Really? What's up with that?

Well, local grape growers say the cold snap, which reached minus 10 degrees in some parts of the Valley, came so early that most of the grapes had not gone dormant for the winter. Generally the first frost of the year involves temperatures hovering around 32 degrees, which eases the grapes into the dormancy that naturally protects them through the winter.

At this point the growers cannot accurately assess the damage because of this spring's unseasonably cold and wet weather. The grape crop is coming along more slowly than usual making it impossible to determine just how much of the crop has been lost, which is why the estimated range is 20 percent to 40 percent.

Jean-Francois Pellet, winemaker and partner at Pepper Bridge Winery and the vice president of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, said Tuesday it appears vineyards in the Valley located below 1,000 feet are where almost all of the damage occurred.

"All the vineyards on the valley floor -- it is a big bowl -- were damaged. It took quite a bit of the crop away. It is still hard to tell in terms of percentage. We had a very late spring, so it is behind," Pellet said, adding that vineyards located above 1,000 feet appear to have little damage.

Jay DeWitt, manager of Minnick Hills Vineyard and a co-owner of Dumas Station Winery, agreed that almost all the damage occurred to grapes grown below 1,000 feet. He estimates that up to 40 percent of this year's grape crop could be lost.

And statewide between 25 percent and a third of the crop could be lost, said DeWitt, the grower representative on the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance Board. The Walla Walla Valley Appellation (the designated wine grape growing area) has about 1,800 acres of vines. Washington state has about 40,000 acres of vines in all.

The damage occurred Nov. 23 and 24, the two days before Thanksgiving. An arctic front hit the Pacific Northwest hard, driving temperatures in the city of Walla Walla to below zero for two days. It was even colder in rural areas.

"I remember it well," Pellet said. "I was up all night running wind machines."

The temperatures, however, were so low they could not be mitigated by wind machines.

While the grape crop will be significantly reduced for this year, DeWitt and Pellet don't believe the vines have been permanently damaged.

"It's not so bad we will have to replant," Pellet said. "We will be back in business next year."

DeWitt and Pellet have seen this before in the Valley. The pre-Thanksgiving freeze is similar to the freeze that occurred in the winter of 2004.

This year's damaged vines will likely have to be cut back to the ground. The trunks that are above ground have likely been damaged to the point they won't carry water and nutrition to the grapes.

Those vines grow quickly and should yield a full crop next year, DeWitt said.

But if the plants in the ground are damaged and have to be replanted it would take years to get to the point they are bearing fruit.

The economic impact of the grape damage will be felt more by growers than winemakers, DeWitt said. The recession has slowed the overall sales of ultra premium wines such as those made in the Valley, which would have likely resulted in less wine being made, he said.

Most growers have crop insurance, although the insurance never fully covers the actual loss, DeWitt said. The insurance, however, should provide enough money to keep the growers afloat until next year's crop is harvested.

Rick Eskil can be reached at rickeskil@wwub.com or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what's up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.

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