Monday, September 29, 2014

The Myth of "Rich Volcanic Soils" Or How I Learned to Love Molisols.

A lot of Washington grape growers tout the "rich volcanic soils" that our grapes are grown on. There is even a writer in the area writing a book about it. Perhaps that isn't the case and a little clarification is necessary.

Yes, the occasional volcano blows up to the west in the Cascade Mountains and some ash blows eastward. Does this make up our soils? Big ole Mt. Mazama gave us about 12 inches of new soil but that was about 8000 years ago. In 1980 Mt. St. Helens deposited about 1/2 inch of dust on the Rattlesnake Hills. Often the wind blows this dust to the west as it did the day Mt. St. Helens covered Portland in ash.

Volcanic soils are called Andisols and occur in the close vicinity of volcanoes. Hawaii, the South Pacific, Japan and even soils within the Cascade Range are known for Andisols. The grapes around Mt. Etna in Sicily are grown on Andisols.

So, if the soils in wine country aren't Andisols, what are they? It turns out the majority of the soils in Eastern Washington are Molisols with some Aridisols. They are less than 1% Andisols.

Molisols are formed by grasslands and you might know that the desert steppe of eastern Washington was at one time a great grassland covered by the native blue bunch wheat grass. The surface horizon was formed by wind-blown (Aeolian) sediments from the retreating glaciers of the ice age with the occasional deposit of volcanic ash for the Cascades.

Aridisols are the desert soils that occupy arid shrublands. They are found in the center of the Columbia Basin (known to many as the Columbia Valley.)

The next time some well-know and often-quoted grape grower spouts off about "rich volcanic soils" you may now correct him. They are Molisols and Aridisols. Sorry, no Andisols.

By the way, Molisols and Aridisols are great for growing wine grapes!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

First Polar Outbreak Portends Ominous Winter

The northeast wind blew ferociously all night last night. You may not have noticed, but we here in Eastern Washington are in the midst of a Polar Outbreak - a weather pattern that reeks havoc with wine grapes in the winter. You didn't notice? That's because the temperatures up north where the cold air comes from are still moderately warm.
Here is what happens. The jet stream makes a big loop up the Pacific Ocean into Alaska, then turns south into Alberta, Canada, the southwest into eastern Washington.
Normally, this big loop misses us and hits Montana, but yesterday and today it is looping further west and hitting us.
Why does this portend a nasty winter? First there is an El Niño developing in the Pacific - good news for California, but bad news for Washington. (Oddly there is a point in southern Oregon that is not affected either way during El Niño/ La Niña.) The jet stream has a wet and dry side. El Niño puts California on the wet side and Washington on the dry side. It is also the time that Polar Outbreaks are most likely to happen and happen strongly. Usually we get two or three of these per winter. This is the earliest I can remember. Because we are on the dry side of the jet stream, next year could be a short water year in the Yakima Basin.
Another serious problem with a Polar Outbreak is that they are often preceded by the Pineapple Express, a strong jet stream directly from Hawaii. This causes the grapes to lose their cold hardiness. Like a giant snake, the jet stream then loops northward in a matter of hours.
The forecast for tonight is 37o. The normal low is 45o and the record low is 35o. If this were winter it would be serious.
What to watch for: if the temperature in Fairbanks, Alaska reaches 40o below this winter, expect a serious Arctic Outbreak.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

Piss, moan, and complain. I hear a lot of this these days about tasting room traffic or mainly the lack thereof. Some tasting rooms have only a couple of guests per day. Maybe I can give them a little insight, since they don't seem to be in creative problem solving mode.

Along about 2008 a lot of people opened wineries - well at least tasting rooms. Traffic was heavy to tasting rooms back then and they saw they could sell a $3.00 bottle of wine for $40.00. Wow, that's $37.00 profit per bottle. If I sell a mere 2500 cases, I will make a million dollars. I'll have people waiting to be on my waiting list to buy my wine. I'll only be open for special events, the rest of the time I will be in Hawaii. 850+ wineries later, the world has changed. Wine tasting is no longer a pastime. People buy wine at Total Wine or Grocery Outlet. Frankly, the fun is gone. (True confession: I don't go wine tasting any more.) There are just too many people in business (not the hospitality business, no, the business of making money.) - a business  they didn't understand to begin with.

To counter this the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail devised a passport to its wineries. Each winery was to offer some special enticement to get customers to choose their winery from all the rest. Logic says the better the deal, the more customers you will get. Right? Most wineries didn't get it. What they offered amounted to a free drink of water with a wine purchase. Three of the wineries that charge a tasting fee, offered to waive the tasting fee for a passport holder. Trust me on this. Waiving the tasting fee for any reason is good business. These wineries get it. People may be used to tasting fees, but that doesn't mean they like them. One winery would not waive the tasting fee because they made more money on tasting fees than wine sales. (I would look seriously at the price/quality of my wine.) The other benefit was that by selling a passport, other wineries in the area would share the wealth by keeping people in the area. Only about three wineries sell passports. The rest say it is too much trouble to support the marketing group. (They reason: if I sold a customer a passport, I would have to give them a 3% discount on a $30 purchase except reserve wines which are not discounted.) Why do you even belong to a marketing group if you are not going to participate? Oh, to be on 'the map.' Well, dummy, the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau gives away a free map with every winery on it - members or not! What part of stupid don't you get?

If you buy a passport, you are invited to the Passport Party where you are supposedly able to schmooze with the winemakers and owners. These things are huge in the Napa Valley and cost a bundle. The Snake in the Glass party was only $35. One hundred people signed up. (Some of these people had never been to our winery. It was a good chance to invite them personally.)

Wow, a chance to massage 100 of your top customers is one I wouldn't pass up. I keep repeating myself; some wineries don't get it. One winery didn't even deliver their wine to be poured. They appeared as 'information not available' on the program. Another dropped off their wine and quickly headed to something more important than 100 customers. Others got their wine there, but didn't show. The best they could do is send the tasting room staff. (Duh, I see them in the tasting room. I don't go to a paid special event to see them. I go to rub shoulders with the owners and winemakers.)

Repeat customers are the best customers. I can't believe how many stories I get about people being put off by wineries. One winery refused to stamp the passport if the person didn't taste wine. Stamp the goddam passport. It doesn't cost a thing. The customer said they would never go back.

Speaking of repeat customers, one winery has a wonderful tasting room employee and the other one does not want to be there. Every day she works repeat customers are lost. If you can't be good, do yourself a favor and just be closed.

Does anyone want to form a marketing group where all the wineries agree on the ground rules? 1. Whatever we do, we all do it? Participation is a mandatory. 2. We guarantee the customer will have a positive quality experience at all of our tasting rooms. 3. If you don't follow through, you are gone. 4. You can be on 'the map.'

Monday, July 28, 2014


Tom Campbell, Paul Vandenberg, Gail Puryear, Paul Portteus

When you read the press about Washington grapes and wine, the same old tired stories get retold over and over. People must think the industry is very small and very new to have so few stories.
In one picture we have over 140 years of Washington winemaking history - thousands of stories that have never been told because the Wine Commission doesn't know them. Do they care? Probably not.  They are holed up in Seattle in their ivory towers. When a writer comes looking for a story, they get the same old press kit.
Each winemaker in the picture started in the industry in the 1970s. It reminds me of that old Jimmy Buffet tune, "All the stories they could tell, if it all blows up and goes to hell."
It's nice to know you can be successful in the Washington wine industry in spite of the Washington Wine Omission.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Do you want me to hate you? or what not to say in the tasting room.

Our tasting room 'wine wench' was seeking a partridge in a pear tree when she fell from the ladder and shattered her forearm, so I have been working tasting room a lot lately. Most people are nice and considerate and fun to talk to, but the few that aren't drive me to go into the back room to look at the sign that says, “My face hurts from pretending to like you.” Here are some of the things not to say.

“I'm just tasting today. I'll be back tomorrow to buy.” You are lying. You are an outright liar. Tomorrow, you won't even remember the name of the wineries you visited today, let alone drive all the way back out here from Yakima, Prosser, or the Tri-cities to buy a bottle of wine. Are you trying to make me feel good? Well, you are not. You are making me hate you. Oh yes, it did happen once. The person did come back and buy, but it is better to surprise me than make me hate you for 24 hours.

“We're just getting started, so we're not buying now.” Oh, I get it. You are going to taste Chardonnay flavor, Cabernet flavor, Riesling flavor, and Cola flavor and you are going to buy a bottle of the flavor you like best at the last winery you visit at the end of the day. Thanks for nothing. Why not just say “thank you” for wasting the last hour of my time and get out of my face.

“I didn't find anything that turned me on.” Am I missing something here? Are you looking for an aphrodisiac or wine? There are some hookers on First Street, why don't you find one and see what she can do for you. I doubt if she will give samples away for free like I did. Or just stop by a porn shop and save me time to work with real customers.

“Well, that's really different.” No, it really isn't. I have judged hundreds of wines and that wine is not 'really different.' It is varietally correct and not flawed. Perhaps you had a wine with high volatile acidity at the last winery or perhaps a lot of brettanomyces. Maybe it was the gum you were chewing when you walked in. I guess then it might be really different, but your comment shows more ignorance than insight.

“We're from Canada and can't take anything home with us.” Yes you can. If you go into BC, you can take two bottles without paying tax and duty. You can declare your purchase pay tax and duty. If you go into AB, you can take about 3 cases with you and pay minimal tax. You can also drink it here in the 'Sunny Soothlund.' Drink it in your hotel room. Take it to dinner and pay the corkage fee (Yakima has a corkage-free zone for locally purchased wine). I think you really meant to say you are a cheapskate. Lots of Canadians do buy wine.

“What's your best wine?” Well, our only good wine is the Sunset pink table wine. The rest is just crap we bottle. I was suckered on this one a long time ago. I poured our Cabernet. The woman puckered up badly and exclaimed, “don't you have anything sweeter?” The answer is always the same, “The wine you like best is our best wine.” so don't ask or I might just pour you Sunset, our answer to White Zin. It might be a good guess or a bad one if you expected our $40 Cab Sauv.

“I'm looking for big reds.” You just ran your finger nails across the blackboard. So what does that mean? You want alcohol over 15%? You want no noticeable tannins? Flabby, with no acid? A sweetness on the palate? Lack of varietal character? Overripe raisin/jammy flavors? Sorry, we don't make cocktails, we make wine - a food product that is made to go with food. What you should have said is, “I haven't a clue, but I think I'll impress you by saying 'big reds.'” or “I only drink wine Robert Parker says is good.”

“Well, I didn't like that!” Keep your trap shut and your opinions to yourself. I'd rather not know than hate you. I'm going into the back look and look at the sign.

The people who don't pay the reserve wine tasting fee of $5 up front and walk away from the counter like they are going to select a wine to buy, then sneak out the door when you aren't looking. You are basically a shop lifter, a crook, I'd like to see you rot in jail.

If you work in a tasting room, please share your 'favorite' customers.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Veraison in the Rattlesnake Hills

July 22, Veraison in the Rattlesnake Hills! Yep, with perfect weather, veraison is starting here. The forecast is for continuing temperatures in the low to mid 90s. Disease pressure is low. This is shaping up to be a banner year. Hard to be grumpy about this.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Drought in the Rattlesnake Hills

A customer came through last weekend who was returning from Walla Walla. A tasting room employee there said they felt sorry for the Rattlesnake Hills because our grapes weren't going to be any good this year because of the drought. Drought? We get six inches annual rainfall – less than Phoenix, Arizona. We wouldn't recognize a drought even if it didn't rain for months. Saying there is a drought in the Rattlesnake Hills is like saying it rains in Seattle. Who starts these rumors anyway and why?
Hardly drought stressed. Note the large leaves and long node spacing.
All the grapes in the Rattlesnake Hills are irrigated either by wells or the Yakima Basin Water Project. The only drought that somewhat affects us is a drought in the Cascade Mountains and there isn't one this year. Snow pack is near normal and the reservoirs are full. Water is plentiful.
Even this old Cabernet vineyard planted in 1968 is alive and well.

 We had some temperatures over 90 a couple of weeks ago and we got two weeks of growth in two days. The grapes are in full bloom this week - a week early. It is starting out to be a banner year.

Last week we got an unprecedented two inches of rain, so we can skip an irrigation cycle or two. It looks like deficit irrigation will start early this year since we have so much cane growth already.
Don't feel sorry for us. My rain gauge says we've had 8.05 inches in the last 365 days. Mushrooms are growing in the sagebrush. With no spring frosts, we will have plenty of high quality grapes for the Walla Walla wineries.