Summer gives wine grapes last kiss before fall

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This 14th century bookplate image by an unknown artist shows a grape harvest in full swing.

Delightful late-summer weather was the rule last week in the Walla Walla Valley, and early morning temperatures on Friday and Saturday spoke loudly of the change of seasons that is fast approaching on the Sept. 22 equinox.

The passage of a fairly robust Pacific cold front last Tuesday dropped our afternoon highs some 10 to 15 degrees, and clear skies at night allowed for cooling that led to a couple of unusually chilly nights, the likes of which have not been experienced here since April.

Walla Walla’s low temperature of 49 degrees Saturday morning sent many locals in search of sweatshirts and light jackets that had hung long-forgotten in dark recesses of a slightly musty closet for several months.

Pendleton’s record-tying low of 43 that same morning seemed positively glacial to those who had been accustomed to a considerably warmer summertime regime.

The reassertion of high pressure over the Pacific Northwest in the wake of the front brought a gradual warming trend that boosted readings back into a more seasonally appropriate range for the weekend.

But our area had been effectively placed on notice that the carefree days of play, pools and backyard parties inevitably give way, as always, to September and the more serious pursuits of the imminent fall season.

As if to reinforce this somewhat disturbing notion, another cold front associated with a deep trough of low pressure was poised to make landfall on the Washington coast, bringing a slim chance of showers spilling over the Cascades into our vicinity sometime late today.

The front appears mostly devoid of moisture, so any rainfall resulting as it sweeps across eastern Washington will be quite spotty and light.

Behind it, cooler and somewhat breezy weather will overspread the Valley with highs on Wednesday and Thursday restricted to the mid- and upper-70s before high pressure once again restores those below normal daytime high temperatures back to the mid-80s the latter part of this week, where they should be climatologically for this time of year.

Those of us practicing viticulture here in the Valley can hardly believe what good fortune the weather has bestowed upon us this year — particularly compared to the horror story that was written by the summer of 2011.

Ripening of red and white grapes is proceeding nicely with each passing sunny, warm and dry day, and many of us can easily envision a start to vintage 2012 sometime in the next two to three weeks.

Meanwhile, this is the time of year when it is appropriate to assess the nutrient status of our vines by plucking leaf samples from our vineyard blocks and sending them off to the lab for macro- and micro-nutrient content analysis to provide a snapshot that can be used next year to plan soil amendments or foliar applications for any nutrients that are lacking.

It is also the time of year when viticulturists and winemakers alike think about getting in one last crack at a few days of rest and relaxation before the grape skins hit the proverbial fan next month.

As such, your weather forecaster himself will be taking advantage of the lull before the upcoming storm to head to the much cloudier and cooler coast with significant other and dogs in tow to commune with the Pacific and re-establish contact with his Piscean roots by way of multiple gastronomic encounters with several varieties of shellfish.

In addition, the trip will serve as a scouting mission to locate possible hideouts in preparation for the looming civil war recently predicted by Lubbock County Judge Tom “Empty” Head on Fox News. The Texan, a summa cum laude graduate of the “Todd Akin School of Utter(-ed) Nonsense” foresees UN troops led by evil leftist emissaries in the current administration — should they survive past Nov. 6 — battling it out with “loyal” Americans for control of the United States.

I think I’ll sit this one out.

A lifelong fan of both the weather and the Baltimore Orioles, Jeff Popick is an instructor at the Enology and Viticulture Center at Walla Walla Community College and manages the school’s teaching vineyard. Send your questions and comments to him at jeffrey.popick@wwcc.edu.

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