Weather embraces Valley's wine crush

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Your peripatetic weather forecaster has recently returned wandering through some of western Washington’s most dazzling natural wonders and is left with an even deeper appreciation for the wealth of beauty offered by his adoptive state.

In addition, he has accumulated an impressive quantity of potentially useful information from his travels, including the approximate distance from Queets to La Push; how marmots overwinter in the harsh environment of high elevations; and that Taholah High School’s mascot is the chitwin, what the Quinaults call a black bear.

There were also some fascinating meteorological tidbits: the town of Forks on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula receives about 100 more inches of rain annually than Sequim, just 60 miles away tucked neatly into the northeastern corner of the same peninsula.

In fact, Sequim’s annual precipitation of just over 16 inches is even less than Walla Walla’s by about three inches so, contrary to my erroneous belief that everything is dripping wet and draped in moss all the time on the west side. The weather there even allows for the successful practice of viticulture if correct varieties are chosen.

The Olympic Mountains provide the same sort of “rain shadow” effect for Sequim and its near environs as do the Cascades for the eastern part of the Evergreen State. Stevens Pass, for example, gets drenched with annual precipitation of nearly 80 inches, dwarfing the 11-plus inches the little town of Waterville gets only 50 miles to the east across the Columbia River.

In both instances, moist air intercepted by the two mountain ranges is forced to rise, cooling sufficiently as it does to condense that moisture into the rain and snow that falls copiously on the windward side of those ranges.

On the leeward side, the air sinks, dries out and is warmed by compression as it descends. At the highest if elevations like Mount Rainier, which thrusts a stately 14,410 feet into the thin air above, incredible amounts of snow are accumulated on its flanks owing to this phenomenon. It averages a whopping 680 inches of snow a year, with an exceptionally snowy winter season topping the 1,000-inch mark at the Paradise Ranger Station.

Though that sort of weather remains (it is hoped) many weeks away, a couple of fairly strong cold fronts brought brisk westerly winds and a significant drop in temperature to Walla Walla on Sunday and Monday, along with some threatening clouds that failed to yield any measurable precipitation.

The first front did provide some fulgent entertainment very early Sunday morning just outside Mount Rainier National Park, where lightning, thunder and rain were sufficiently loud to awaken your stertorously sleeping prognosticator who was dreaming blissfully of the large plate of perfectly fried oysters he’d had in the comely burg of Quilcene.

With the passage of the twin fronts, the last vestiges of our gloriously warm late summer flew away on the westerly winds in their wake. High temperatures that had been regularly hitting the mid-80s for virtually the entire month were knocked down a good 10 to 15 degrees and thoughts of a lingering summer season were starting to fade like a neglected tan.

Dry air and light winds tonight will permit some serious radiational cooling, and lows may dip close to 40 degrees in some spots — even cooler in low-lying areas west of town, further banishing those summery thoughts.

For those reluctant to let it go, there is reason for hope.

As high pressure builds and moves over southeastern Washington during the next few days, subsiding air and ample sunshine will combine to push afternoon readings back into the 80s for the second half of this week and into the weekend before another dry front arrives Sunday to cool things off by 5 to 8 degrees for the beginning of next week.

All this is good news for our local wine grapes as well.

The delightfully dry and warm August and September has allowed the fruit to ripen beautifully and without incident so far. The 16-day Global Forecast System outlook offers nothing to discourage the continuation of this very benign pattern with only the slightest of threats for rainfall around Sept. 23 or 24.

Grapes will be arriving at local crush pads with increasing frequency over the next several days as the near-perfect weather pushes the harvest along into what will likely be its busiest period two to three weeks from now.

With fingers and other appendages crossed, grape growers and winemakers alike will be hoping that Mother Nature maintains her benevolent disposition towards crush 2012.

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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