A cool, wet start to the growing season contributed to a delayed harvest and a very large crop. An unseasonably warm October both rescued the vintage and resulted in high quality.

Longtime Yakima Valley and Red Mountain grower Dick Boushey succinctly sums up the 2022 growing season in Washington. “We had three extremes,” Boushey says. “We had the coldest spring, we had some tremendous heat in the middle, and then we were saved by the warmest October ever.”

A cool start to the season

After a cold, wet winter, the growing season in the state began ominously. Buds started to break in late March/beginning of April for early varieties, somewhat early but by no means unprecedented in recent years. Then came a blizzard April 11th through 13th, the likes of which eastern Washington has seldom seen that time of year. In addition to record snowfall in some areas and 40 mile-per-hour winds, temperatures dipped into the mid-20s.

“I had never seen snow with my wind machines running,” says Boushey. The snow melted quickly, but the cold temperatures had their effect.

“We had a lot of primaries that were damaged,” says Kendall Mix, winemaker at Milbrandt Vineyards and Wahluke Wine Company, which works with vineyards in Ancient Lakes, Wahluke Slope, and Yakima Valley. Chardonnay and other early budding varieties were particularly impacted.

Quite cool weather followed. Buds that were swelling or had started to break at times did not finish doing so for as much as three weeks. This led to an extended bud break that ultimately was two to three weeks behind recent years. The snow, combined with the wet winter, also resulted in an odd mixture in the vineyard.

“It led to the vines having a lot of growth and a lot of growing points on it,” says Lacey Lybeck, vineyard manager at Sagemoor Vineyards, which farms in the White Bluffs, Wahluke Slope, and Walla Walla Valley. This contributed to significant variability within blocks, with a mixture of primary, secondary, and, in some cases, even tertiary buds.

Hoping for a fruitful year

Throughout 2022, growers were mindful of recent challenges. 2019 was marked by an October frost that shortened the crop, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. 2020’s tonnage was down dramatically due to wildfire smoke. Finally, 2021 had historically low yields due, in part, to a heat dome in June.

“After two short years, everybody, including us, was saying we needed to leave a few more buds,” says Kerry Shiels, owner/winemaker at Côte Bonneville in Yakima Valley. “You do have to balance quality with a little bit of quantity.”

While growers hoped for a fruitful year despite some early damage, they waited for warmer spring weather to arrive. It did not come. That, combined with the moisture in the soil created challenging conditions.

“There was so much capacity in the vines that we spent a lot of time dropping shoots, dropping canopy, and thinning,” says Shiels. “It was very much a year of combating excess vigor.”

Cool temperatures remained through much of June, putting bloom two to three weeks behind recent years. June was also wetter than average, particularly in Walla Walla, which had one of its coolest and wettest June’s on record.

“Spring was terrible,” says Chris Figgins, president of Figgins Family Wine Estates in Walla Walla Valley. “It was just so cold.”

Recent years lead to second guessing

Some areas of Columbia Valley went through bloom quickly, others much more slowly. After set, one thing became clear to all. Given the short crop the year before and the conditions at the beginning of the growing season, the crop size looked enormous.

“With a spring that was cool and all of that early cell division and growth happening under cool conditions, we were set up for a big crop in a cool year,” says Marty Clubb, owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Walla Walla Valley.

Traditionally, this might lead growers to put efforts into reducing the potential crop, decreasing canopy, and focusing all efforts on getting the fruit that was left ripe. However, everyone was mindful of the heat dome that had occurred just one year previously, when late June temperatures were as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

“In my mind, I was thinking ‘If we do too much aggressive viticultural work and open things up too early, what happens if we have another heat dome and we just cook everything that’s left?’” says Ryan Johnson, vineyard manager at WeatherEye Vineyards located at the top of Red Mountain.

On June 21, Washington was well on pace for a cool growing season. Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley had 365 Growing Degree Days (GDD), a measure of heat accumulation. In comparison, the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages had 390 and 308 respectively at that time.

Summer warmth arrives

Mercifully, summer heat finally came immediately thereafter. July and August were both quite warm and even brought multiple 100-plus degree days in some appellations. GDDs, which had been tracking closely with 2011, soon reached historical averages.

Still, at this point growers were as much as three weeks behind recent growing season markers. The typical summer heat also didn’t necessarily accelerate the growing season, shutting down both vines and vineyard work.

“We send our crew home when it hits 93 degrees, and it would be 93 degrees at 11 in the morning,” says Sadie Drury, vineyard manager at North Slope Management in Walla Walla Valley.

Growers spent time thinning their crops to align it with their targets as well as the late vintage. As the saying goes though, large crops get larger. That held true in 2022.

“There were things that I would have sworn were four tons an acre that were five,” says Clubb.

With an extended bud break, a mixture of primary, secondary, and tertiary buds and, in some cases, unsettled weather at bloom, veraison was drawn out. It also remained 14 to 21 days behind schedule.

“Veraison went on for weeks,” says Boushey. “I’ve never seen such differences. It was shocking.”

As late August arrived – the time when harvest traditionally starts in Washington – the stakes were clear. The weather at the end of the growing season would have to be exceptional to bring the year together. There was very little margin for error. Moreover, an October frost, as had happened in 2019, would be a state-wide disaster.

“Once you get into September and October, you can’t make up ground that quick,” notes Mike Sauer, whose family farms Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley.

A nail-biting September leads to an October miracle

By the third week of September, almost no fruit had been picked in the state. In contrast, in the blazing-hot 2015 vintage, much of the fruit had already been harvested by that time. The good news for winemakers was flavor maturity came early. The bad news was Brix levels were stubbornly low and acids were very high.

“When we picked, a lot of the time, we were waiting for acids to come down,” says James Mantone, owner and winemaker of Syncline Winery in the Columbia Gorge. Entering October, most wineries had picked an extremely small amount of fruit. For example, Wahluke Wine Company had picked just over 10% of its annual tonnage. “We really didn’t start harvest in any meaningful way until October,” says Mix.

What happened next though was something no one could have predicted. Warm temperatures started in late September and remained almost through the entire month of October. Temperatures were five degrees or more above average.

It was exactly what the state needed. That much heat that late in the season in what had started as a cool year was, however, unprecedented.

“We had this beautiful, even ripening at lower Brix, great color, the seeds were crunchy,” says Johnson. “Then it became a matter of ‘Well, how many Brix do you want to pick at?’”

A compressed harvest season

Despite efforts at thinning, the crop was still larger. “There were bigger berries for sure, but, overall, there were more berries set on the cluster too,” says Clubb.

Even the early frost damage didn’t appear to adversely impact the crop. “My Chardonnay that I thought was frosted pretty bad because I saw a lot of damage, I picked a normal crop there,” says Boushey.

Growers and winemakers raced to deal with what was now an exceptionally condensed harvest, doing 8 to 12 weeks of work in 4 to 6. Wineries were challenged for capacity, using every fermenter and barrel they could find. Harvest finished the third to fourth week of October for small wineries and well into the first week of November for production houses.

“There were some days when we were running the presses for 18 hours,” says Mix. The warm weather, however, was welcome, despite leading to what one winemaker referred to as a “Cab-alanche,”

“It was a lifesaver quite honestly,” says Mix.

In the end, due to the warm end to the season, Growing Degree Days for Columbia Valley finished well-above long-term averages. Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley had a whopping 332 GDD in October alone, with the site’s final number (3368) bearing greater resemblance to the hot 2014 vintage (3398) than cool 2011 (2403).

Growers and winemakers were happy with the results of what was a very stressful season. For those who took appropriate measures to manage crop size, quality is expected to be exceptional.

“Color is fantastic, structure is good, flavors are just amazing. It’s going to be a stunning vintage,” says Shiels. Growers who did not appropriately manage their crop size, however, paid a significant price in quality.

Many winemakers are particularly excited about the white wines. “The whites are going to be racy, [with] moderate alcohol,” says Mantone. “There’s a lot of acid, a lot of freshness.”

Overall, it was a year no one will likely forget. An April blizzard with freezing temperatures at bud break. Heat accumulation well below average, delaying all of the markers of the growing season by multiple weeks with a large crop that was difficult to manage. Then – miraculously – unprecedented warm weather saving the vintage in October, all resulting in high quality wines?

“That’s nothing short of impossible,” says Johnson. “It was the impossible vintage.”

Photos by Richard Duval. Images of Growing Degree Days by Washington State University.