After a number of near perfect vintages the past decade, Washington is in the midst of a vintage that is far from it. In many respects it started with the frost last October, which put a punctuation mark on that year’s harvest. Since that time the weather has ranged from unusually warm to unusually cool leading to delays in ripening. At present growers across Washington State are significantly behind schedule. One week into September, is there still time to recover?

Perhaps, but a multitude of factors make it seem increasingly unlikely that many of the area’s growers will be able to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. This spring saw bud break in many areas thirty or more days ahead of schedule due to unseasonably warm weather. This was followed by an unusually cool April through June – the coolest since the 1960s according to Dr. Gregory V. Jones at the Department of Environmental Studies at Southern Oregon University.

Just how bad is it? In some areas of Walla Walla and Chelan, veraison has yet to take place. Even on notoriously warm Red Mountain, certain grapes have yet to turn color. At present, most vineyard managers I talk to say they are fourteen days behind schedule. Several report being even further back. Some growers report that their grapes are not yet above fifteen brix. If grapes ripen at 1.5 brix per week at, say, eighty-degree temperatures, this means an additional six weeks would be needed to reach 24 brix. This is assuming temperatures reach these levels (or higher) throughout this period. This could happen – but many of the state’s growers now need it to happen.

Many vineyards have been dropping fruit to try to catch up. In some cases, the decision to do so was made easier by wineries dropping contracts due to the poor economy.

The low levels of heat have not been the only problem. Adding to the difficulties have been unusual amounts of precipitation in eastern Washington. Numerous growers have reported issues controlling mildew in the vineyard. Additionally, shatter in some areas of Walla Walla was more significant than initially realized.

What could the impacts of the unusual growing season be? It could be a near ‘perfect storm’ for Washington’s growers and winemakers. Many vineyards throughout the state were not in existence in 1999, so experience with this type of adversity is limited in some cases. Additionally, many of the state’s new winemakers have been riding the success of excellent vintages since 2005. While people often say that ‘wine is made in the vineyard,’ many of the state’s new winemakers have no experience dealing with a ‘winemaker’s vintage’ where they must exert their expertise to produce quality wine. 2010 is a year that will strongly favor experienced growers and winemakers. Warmer areas will fare better than cooler areas. Of course, in terms of grapes, late ripening varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, stand to be the most affected if conditions don’t improve.

Throughout the growing season, many have been recollecting the 1999 vintage – a year that was quite cool but that ultimately produced outstanding wines. The recipe that year was a warm September. If the start of this month is any indication, the cavalry might not be coming. At this point, the effects of a cool season can be corrected if, and only if, there is an extended warm stretch in September such as was seen in 1999. However, a cool September or everyone’s biggest fear – an early frost – would spell disaster. There is still time for the 2010 vintage to right itself, but the window is closing very, very quickly.

Graphics courtesy of Gregory V. Jones, Department of Environmental Studies, Southern Oregon University.