Walla Walla grape growers desperately seeking sunshine

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The 2013 Walla Walla Valley grape crush got back on track last week after a multiday hiatus due to occasional rain and cold temperatures. What once had appeared to be a vintage that might end historically early due to a very warm summer now looks to be extended well into this month, as growers and vintners wait for Mother Nature to bestow that last little bit of sunshine to help their grapes attain a perfect level of maturity before harvest.

Ultimately, the 2013 vintage seems as if it will end up as a two-part affair: the part that occurred before last month’s infamous dust storm, and the part that occurred after, when summerlike weather suddenly gave way to a much wetter and cooler regime more reminiscent of November.

This past weekend did much to restore the faith of local viticulturists and winemakers in the essential goodness of the universe. Brilliant sunshine in a cerulean sky helped boost high temperatures Saturday and Sunday to levels not seen here for a couple of weeks as the mercury surpassed the 70-degree mark.

Clear skies, light winds and a dry atmosphere allowed for maximum radiational cooling on Friday night and the resulting minimum readings on Saturday morning served as a fine illustration of the effects of topography on our area weather, and why it plays such a crucial role in our viticulture here. Early Saturday morning, the airport — at an elevation of 1,204 feet — recorded a minimum temperature of 41 degrees, while a scant 15 miles or so to the west, at an automated weather station near Touchet — at an elevation of 518 feet — the low temperature dropped to a frosty 28 degrees. The implications of that large disparity for successful grape growing are huge and very obvious, helping to explain why there are precious few vineyard sites as one proceeds westward from Walla Walla. Cold air acts very much like water, in that it will flow downhill and fill up the low spots first. The subfreezing air risk occurs in the spring, too, making grape growing highly problematic in this area, as the growing season is sharply attenuated by the twin threats of an early fall frost as well as one occurring in the late spring.

Regrettably, it appears as if it may be quite some time before the Valley sees 70 degrees again. As a matter of fact, your weatherperson is taking bets on which occurs first: 70 degrees; an end to the seemingly interminable road project on Pleasant Street — which now more closely resembles the site of an Egyptian archeological dig and has already taken longer than it took Michelangelo to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; or for certain members of our bullheaded and micro-brained Congress to stop playing fast and loose with the functioning of our government in order to advance a myopic and mean-spirited effort to derail what is already established as the law of the land.

A cold front swept across the state yesterday, bringing much cooler temperatures and a period of gusty winds with its passage. Another one is hot on its heels today. This one will reinforce the chillier air mass in place, as well as providing a modest chance of a few light showers today and tonight before skies clear on Wednesday, leaving mostly sunny to partly cloudy skies and afternoon readings only in the upper 50s. This should hold until Saturday, at which time another fairly weak Pacific front may lead to a slight chance of showers during the day and into the evening.

The possibly inclement forecast for Saturday should in no way dissuade anyone from attending the delightful Entwine affair at Walla Walla Community College, a benefit for the excellent culinary and grape growing/wine making programs at that exceptional institution. Great wines, delicious food and good company will certainly make for a memorable event!

A lifelong fan of both the weather and the Baltimore Orioles, Jeff Popick is an instructor at the Center for Enology and Viticulture 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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