2017 was another warm vintage in Washington, though it certainly didn’t start out that way. Winter into early spring was cool and wet, with well above average snowfall in eastern Washington.

“Snow was on the ground for nearly two months,” said grower Dick Boushey of Boushey Vineyards in Yakima Valley. Boushey also manages properties on Red Mountain. “Everyone was behind from the beginning because you couldn’t get into the field.”

To some, it looked like perhaps a cool vintage was on the way. “In April and even early May, we thought we might have another 2011 on our hands,” said Bob Betz, who consults for Betz Family Winery and Col Solare.

The cool weather delayed early markers of the growing season. “We ended up having a very late bud break,” said grower Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley. Sauer noted it occurred around April 25th, ten days to two weeks later than historical averages.

“Bud break and bloom were really pushed back,” agreed grower Will Beightol of Double Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Growing Degree Days (GDD), a measure of heat accumulation, from May 12th at Red Willow Vineyard show what this cool start looked like (and just how outrageously warm 2016 started).

Table 1: May 12th GDDs Red Willow Vineyard

Year                 GDD
2017               130
2016                392
2015                207
2014                200
2011                50
2010                107

Increased canopy management and powdery mildew pressure

The additional winter moisture led to increased canopy management efforts. “We went into the spring with full moisture capacity,” said Boushey. “That stimulated a lot of growth and vigor. People were doing a lot of shoot thinning and suckering.”

The moisture also contributed to significant powdery mildew pressure, the most the state has experienced since the cool 2011 vintage. “There was a lot of winter moisture so the canopy was pretty big,” said Sauer. “It was an ideal scenario to develop mildew.”

In some sites, it became a serious problem. “There were some places where it got out of control,” said Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, which sources fruit from Walla Walla Valley and throughout the Columbia Valley. However, Clubb noted there was no impact on the final wines. “We were able to work hard enough to drop, bypass, or avoid picking in certain areas such that mildew for us was an absolute non-issue at the end of the day.”

However, it was an issue at some larger sites, where economic factors came into play. “If you’re a production vineyard and you get a big dose of mildew, what you need to do is send a hand crew through to drop that,” Boushey explained. “Some people said, ‘I can’t afford to do that or I can’t find people to do it.’ So you just kind of walk away from it.”

“You heard of entire vineyards not being harvested because of mildew in clusters,” said Beightol.

“It cost everyone one way or another,” said Kent Waliser of Sagemoor Vineyards in the Columbia Valley.

Winter cold weather events affect certain areas, varieties

Three low temperature episodes in December and January also affected certain areas, such as the Rocks District, as well as sensitive varieties, particularly Merlot. “There was some trunk damage in a lot of places,” Boushey said. “You didn’t have quite the clusters per bud. The whole crop was quite a bit less.”

The Rocks District in Walla Walla Valley was particularly affected by winter damage. “We got hit pretty hard even with the fans moving around,” said Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley, which is part owner of Stoney Vine Vineyard. “For a good percentage of the Syrah down there, we got about half a ton per acre. We’d normally do about three and a half tons.”

Together the winter events and powdery mildew issues contributed to lower grape tonnage in 2017. “Across the board, crop sizes were down,” said Beightol. “Whereas 2016 was 120% of what we thought we were going to see, on the Cabernet side in particular, [in 2017] we were 85-90% of what we thought we would be seeing in the vineyard.”

However, due to the bumper 2017 crop, few were concerned. “Wineries weren’t complaining about getting less fruit,” said Waliser. “They were happy to be 5-10% under.”

Summer temperatures return to normal then warm up

Whereas spring was cool, early summer temperatures aligned with historical averages and then mid to late summer temperatures were above average. This allowed heat accumulation to catch up from the slow start and move ahead of long term averages. This is reflected in the GDD numbers below from Red Willow Vineyard on July 1st as well as the vineyard’s final GDD numbers, which reflect a warm season.

Table 2: July 1st Growing Degree Days at Red Willow Vineyard

Year                 GDDs
2017                1751
2016                1933
2015                2103
2014                1854
2013                1871
2012                1603
2011                1134
2010                1371

Table 3: End of season GDDs at Red Willow

Year                 GDDs
2017                3165
2016                3203
2012                3075
LT Average      2928

“This was a very, very cool year to start with and we never fully caught up, even though the heat units would say this was actually a pretty warm year after all,” noted Sauer. “The timing of the heat has a lot to do with it.”

Veraison began in the third week of July. Harvest started the third week of August for rosés and sparkling wines and began at the end of the first week of September for red varieties. Betz noted that for Betz Family Winery, which only works with red grapes, harvest began on September 12th, compared to August 24th the year before. The winery finished picking on October 24th, though some growers continued picking well into the first week of November.   

Summer smoke and September cooldown defining events

There were two significant smoke events in eastern Washington in 2017. The first was in August from Canadian forest fires. The second was in early September, during the beginning of harvest, from Cascade and Columbia Gorge fires. Smoke from these generally distant fires hung in the air for a series of days each time before clearing. While it brought concerns of potential smoke taint, in the end most felt the smoke, counterintuitively, had a positive effect on the vintage, in part by lowering above average forecast temperatures.

“Even though you’d look at the weather and it would say it was going to be 98, it was 88,” said Trey Busch, winemaker and co-owner at Sleight of Hand Cellars.

“The smoke did two things,” said Clubb. “First, it significantly moderated the heat, which was a good thing. Two, you might think of it as a gigantic sun filter. It really slowed photosynthesis in the fruit.”

Once the smoked cleared, temperatures cooled down markedly for the remainder of the month, which significantly slowed development. “If you tracked your sugar, acid, pH, we saw very little progress,” said Clubb. “There was a two or three-week period where the fruit was not moving that much.”

“Everything just stalled,” agreed Johnson. “We had 10 days where we didn’t bring any red fruit in. We just stopped.” This allowed growers and winemakers to harvest at a more leisurely pace. “We never really felt hurried like we have in the past three or four vintages,” Busch said.

The cooler temperatures also slowed sugar accumulation. Acids held. “If you’re in 95-degree weather, you expect a brick a day possibly,” said Clubb. “We were seeing a brick a week, maybe not even that. That essentially gave you much longer hang time, which usually means bigger color development and better wines.”

“It allowed for some amazing hang time,” Waliser said of the September cool down. “I think it will really show on some of the whites that will come out with better balance than some years that we’ve had.”

In a switch from recent warm vintages, winemakers had to wait for acids to drop before picking instead of harvesting because of spiking sugars. The end result was higher acidity than recent years. “We had higher natural acidity across the board,” said Clubb.

While most felt the smoke ironically had a positive effect on the vintage, it was certainly a cautionary tale. “It’s not something you want to have every year,” Boushey said. “We were on the ragged edge of potentially having a lot of smoke taint issues. If it hadn’t have cleared out when it did, I think it might have had a big effect.”

“I’m not sure I want to throw those dice every year,” agreed Betz. Thus far, there have been few reported incidences of smoke taint, with most coming from vineyards in immediate proximity to the fires.

High quality wines to come

While many said between the cool start, powdery mildew issues, and smoke it was a somewhat stressful year (when isn’t it in agriculture?), overall growers and winemakers were extremely pleased with the end results.

“Ultimately, I think we picked some of the best fruit we have in a long time in terms of balance,” said Boushey.

“Everything we have in the cellar is either really good or really, really good,” Clubb said. “Whites in particular are amazing. It’s a blockbuster white year.”

“The whites are beautiful,” agreed Busch, who also noted that the higher acidities give the wines a sense of freshness. “We haven’t seen acid numbers like that since 2010. I think we’ll have lower alcohol levels than we have in the past few years but not lacking depth or structure or weight.”

“Everything is very fresh with natural acidity,” said Johnson. “I love the tannin profile, even silkier than last year. I wish I could put my finger on it and repeat it.”

“The wines I’ve gone through from 2017 have a nice fleshiness to them,” Betz said. “Coming off the ‘16s, I think we’re seeing a little more flesh, a little more muscle on the shoulder for the 2017s, and that’s a good thing.”

The first whites and rosés from the 2017 vintage are just being released, so you can decide for yourself!

NB: Interviews for this article were conducted in December 2017.
All pictures by Richard Duval.