Friday, November 28, 2014

Love the AVA, but Hate the Name or Which Will Sell More Wine – Yakima Valley or Rattlesnake Hills?

I have spent 20+ years trying to promote the Yakima Valley AVA. I gave up and petitioned the TTB to form the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.
I remember the olden days before the Rattlesnake Hills when Ste. Michelle bought most of its grapes from the Yakima Valley, but labeled them Columbia Valley. We tried in vain as the Yakima Valley Wine Growers to get them to recognize the AVA and put it on their labels. They never did. Maybe for good reason. They quit buying red grapes from the Yakima Valley a few years back. Seems the wines from Wahluke and Horse Heaven Hills were superior.
The Yakima Valley is an incredibly diverse AVA with soils ranging from deep alluvial bottom lands (90% of the AVA) where grapes cannot be grown to rocky shallow soils (ancient cobbles) of the Ellensburg Formation. The climate ranges from barely region I in the colder areas to a low Region IV in the warmer areas. This renders the AVA on a label totally meaningless.
I think the Yakima Valley AVA got a bad rap in the early days being the first AVA in the state. Honestly a lot of the wines were poorly made back then. Ste Michelle came along with professional quality wines under the Columbia Valley AVA. Walla Walla had some talented wine makers using the Walla Walla AVA and then Red Mountain came along with good wines and the Yakima Valley faded into ‘not very good’. A Seattle wine writer once wrote, “The wine gets better the further east you go.”
Then there is the reputation of Yakima (not in the AVA) for being a gang-bang city, but we don’t want to go there. I consider it as safe as, well maybe safer than, downtown Seattle.
I can name five well-known wineries investing heavily in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, but are ashamed to market their wines labeled with the AVA. Their wines are labeled under the generic Yakima Valley AVA.
So what is it about rattlesnakes that bothers you? Every place in eastern Washington less than 4000 feet elevation is rattlesnake country. If you are looking for rattlesnakes, don’t bother looking in the AVA. They are few and far between. Try anywhere along the Columbia River.
The Rattlesnake Hills AVA was carved out of the Yakima Valley for the reason of defining an area similar to the Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla in terms of heat units (growing degree days). It is recognized for its ability to produce high quality Bordeaux-style red wines. The Yakima Valley is known for somewhat vegetative reds in many years.
There is even a prestigious wine from California from the Rattlesnake Hill Vineyard. It got a 96 in the Spectator and sells for $110 a bottle. The name is catchy and it sells – much better than Yakima.
Maryhill Winery is one that uses Rattlesnake Hills on award winning wines. They currently have three releases from the Rattlesnake Hills.
The marketing power is there should you plan to use it. If you are not going to use Rattlesnake Hills, you would be better off with the more generic Columbia Valley and thereby drop any negative connotations associated with Yakima.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Arctic Outbreak or Déjà Vu All Over Again

I hate to say it, but I told you so. This is the second Arctic Outbreak this year and we are only in November. Let's hope it gets it out of its system before things get really cold up north.
Tuesday night, November 11/12 temperatures dipped into the teens across Eastern Washington.
Buena Station (WSU recorded a low of 18.9o. Buena is the coldest station in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. Walla Walla was a chilly 16.1o. Patterson recorded 17.0 o.
Since the vines still had green leaves  WSU had not started cold hardiness testing yet, so we don't know at what temperature bud loss starts to occur.
According to the WSU model, we should be fine with no loss. Of course the tip buds are toast, but those are not used in Washington to produce fruit since most everyone uses spur pruning instead of cane pruning.
The rest of the week is forecast to be near or below freezing. This means good cold hardiness will develop quickly.
Am I going out to check for dead buds? No way. It's freezing out there. It's not important information until pruning time at the end of February at which time pruning can be adjusted for damage.
Let's all hope the Grumpy Winemaker is wrong and this really isn't a pattern for the rest of the winter.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Growing Degrees days for 2014. And the Winner is..

The Wahluke Slope, but there was plenty of heat to go around this summer. Even the Yakima Valley, known for cool climate grapes, came up with enough heat units to ripen Bordeaux reds this year.
There was little to complain about this year, except maybe high sugars. The season started normally with no frost here in the Rattlesnake Hills. Early season was normal with little hint of the heat to come and stay. Because of the sustained high temperatures, powdery mildew was not a problem. Veraison occurred about ten days early followed by a dry, beautiful, sunny fall. The harvest was a wrap by mid October - then is started to rain and is raining still - great moisture for heading into winter.

2014 Degree Day Summary (WSU
Red Mountain
Horse Heaven
Rattlesnake Hills
Walla Walla
Yakima Valley

How much warmer was it? Well here is the average of the last six years which includes 2011, the coldest on record. (WSU
Horse Heaven
Red Mountain
Rattlesnake Hills
Walla Walla
Yakima Valley

It is interesting to note that Horse Heaven edged out (though not statistically significant) Red Mountain over the six year period.
In conclusion, if you are growing heat-loving vines like Zinfandel or Italian varieties, Wahluke is the place to be. On the other hand, for cool climate Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay, head for Prosser. For Bordeaux Reds stay in the middle.

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.