Thursday, November 19, 2015

Growing Degree Days 2015 - This Was the Year that Was Warm

The results are in, thanks to WSU AgWeathernet. And the winners are....well just about everybody. It was a really warm year and in the northwest warm years are good years. Even the Yakima Valley eked out over 3000 growing degree days, although their harvest was two weeks to a month behind the warmer AVAs. At Bonair Winery, it was a wrap on September 30. We continued to process Yakima Valley grapes through October for other wineries.
Red Mountain
Rattlesnake Hills
Horse Heaven
Walla Walla
Yakima Valley
Wahluke is always the winner, so no news there. Red Mountain was significantly warmer than the next three AVAs which were almost identical at around 3175 GDD. Red Mountain usually is not that much warmer, but this year it was almost 500 GDD warmer. Go figure that one.
The rain prize goes to Walla Walla which lies up against the Blue Mountains and the drought prize goes to the Rattlesnake Hills, usually the driest AVA in eastern Washington. Summer storms seem to avoid the AVA by going north, south, east, or west of the AVA.
The bulk of the state's wine grapes are produced in these six AVAs. If you are interested in the other AVAs, the data can be found at

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Let's Go Swimming Continued, Time to Fill the Pool

I guess the answer is 'NO'. We cannot sell all that wine.
A winery, which I will not name, just got permission from the TTB to dump 10,000 gallons of Riesling. It reportedly was offered at as little as $2.00 per gallon (approximately 40 cents a bottle) with no takers.
I wonder how many other wineries have received the same permission. It is not something you advertise.
What is the Washington Wine (C)Omission doing to help us?
Now the quandary. Where in the hell do you dump 10,000 gallons of wine?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Go West Young Man or How to Get out of the Cold

 When we started our vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills in 1980 the wine grape guru for the state was Jack Watson, WSU extension agent in Prosser. In 1980 very little was known about wine grape growing in the state, but Jack knew more than anybody – except perhaps Dr. Walter Clore who was still alive at the time. When we asked Jack about planting grapes in Zillah, he was skeptical that it would be successful, after all, Red Mountain is warm and Prosser is cold, and the further west you go toward the Cascades, the colder it gets. So went the conventional wisdom.
Dr. Walter Clore visits Bonair Winery
In 2004 Sagebrush Ridge or Prosser Flats as I call it was the center of Washington viticulture with over 11,000 acres of wine grapes. It was and still IS the Yakima Valley. This area was so notoriously cold that in the 1990s the Washington Wine Commission held ‘cold climate’ wine symposiums. In retrospect, this seems crazy considering that the important AVAs in the state are as warm as the Napa Valley.
Then Ch. Ste. Michelle cancelled red wine contracts in Prosser Flats much to the chagrin of the growers there who thought their grapes were fine – 23o brix and some pyrazines. (Pyrazines cause vegetative/weedy aromas in red wine.) No problem.
The Rattlesnake Hills AVA was an outgrowth of Bonair Winery trying to make non-vegetal reds from the Faire Acre Vineyard mother block at 1150 feet elevation (just above the Roza Canal) on Sagebrush Ridge. It was obvious these grapes were different from Rattlesnake Hills grapes but all had to be labeled Yakima Valley so the consumer couldn’t distinguish.
At that time the cold climate of Prosser Flats was a mystery, but I think I have solved it. It is caused by two features of geography.
First, it sits under Rattlesnake Mountain 3500 feet tall and having the dubious distinction of being the tallest treeless mountain in the United States. At 3500 feet, it is tall enough to generate weather and cold air. This cold air drops into the shallow valley that sits between Rattlesnake Ridge and Sagebrush Ridge. It easily slides over and through Sagebrush Ridge (the gap) filling the constricted valley between Sagebrush Ridge and the Horse Heaven Hills.
Second, the valley between Sagebrush Ridge and the Horse Heaven Hills is very narrow and fills with cold air easily up as far as the summit of Sagebrush Ridge.
The Rattlesnake Hills AVA, on the other hand, is bounded on the north by the Rattlesnake Hills which at their western end are less than 2000 feet in elevation, not high enough to generate gobs of cold air. The valley below, the Central Yakima Valley, is 14 miles wide and never fills very full of cold air.
To further dispel the myth of it getting colder as you travel west, Red Willow vineyard is on Autanum Ridge (an extension of the Rattlesnake Hills west of Union Gap) and it is warmer than Prosser Flats.
As of this writing, the warmest AVA in the state is Red Mountain followed by the Rattlesnake Hills. Maybe the Rattlesnake Hills AVA’s identity is obscured by the fact that the area is great for all wines, red and white, not just red like Red Mountain, but it is definitely red wine country.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

You Can't Fix Stupid

Ron White does a comedy routine where he says you can fix most anything these days. You can even take a woman to the boob store and say, "I want those boobs on this woman." But, "You can't fix stupid."
Take the guy that wanted to buy red grape juice to make red wine. I patiently explained that the juice of red (really black) grapes is clear and that the best he might get is a light rosé from freshly pressed juice.  No, he insisted that he bought red grape juice in Seattle all the time to make wine. I explained the process of heating the must on the skins to 130o to extract the color and then pressing off the juice to sell to clueless amateur winemakers, but nobody in Washington uses this method to make red wine. Red wine comes from fermenting the must with the skins which contain the color pigments for making red wine. He continued to argue, so I mentioned Teinturier grapes and that he might find someone in the state that grows them, since almost every know variety of grapes is grown somewhere in the state. No, he insisted he wanted red MERLOT juice. Dude, it ain't gonna happen. You can't fix stupid.
A couple of weeks ago a lady came into the tasting room and wanted to taste the fresh wine we just made. We have a 2014 Riesling and that is as fresh as it gets. No, she wanted to taste the wine we made last week. She knew we made wine every week. No, lady, 2014 is as fresh as it gets. If she couldn't taste any fresh wine, she wanted to taste the grapes we use to make the fresh wine with. You just walked through the vineyard to get to the tasting room, those little green things about the size of BBs are grapes. They will be ripe in September. Come back then. Since we didn't have 'fresh' wine, she wanted to know where a winery was that had fresh wine. Try New Zealand. You can't fix stupid.
A woman last week (this is written in June) emailed several wineries that she would be over from Seattle to buy 20 lbs. of wine grapes this coming weekend.
With the advent of 747 food, Americans are totally clueless about agriculture. They think that because Safeway has grapes year-round, wineries in the northern hemisphere, where it gets down to zero in the winter time, have grapes year round. They also believe that organic produce is not sprayed with pesticides!
Damn you Ron White! You really can't fix stupid!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Drought in the Rattlesnake Hills - Revisited, Or California It's Not


What does the California Drought and the Yakima Valley drought have in common? Well, they are both on the west coast and if you are from 'back east' you know that states are only an hour apart. (Out west, counties are sometimes an hour apart usually more.) Beyond sharing the same coast, not much is the same regarding the two droughts.
First of all, California's drought is in its third year. The reservoirs are empty. Ground water is being tapped out. The Yakima Valley is coming off a huge water year. The reservoirs are overfull. In fact some are several feet over full.
If a reservoir is one foot over filled, how much can that help? If the lake is 1000 acres on the surface, one foot of extra water will provide a full water right of three acre feet for 333 acres. A little more storage at the top of a lake can go a long way.
The truth is the Rattlesnake Hills AVA is not experiencing a drought at all. In fact rainfall is very slightly above normal, but as stated earlier, rain on the desert is immaterial. A few hundredth of an inch on five and one half inches just doesn't register. I still have to water my cactus garden!
Green grass between the rows
The Cascades which provide water for the Yakima Basin are somewhat short on precipitation, but nothing like California. In fact the Drought Severity Index published by NOAA says that our precipitation is near normal. SE Washington, including Walla Walla, is having a moist spell.
So why did Governor Jay declare a drought emergency? Maybe because he used to live in Selah or he just likes being governor and making declarations. You get your picture on TV!
The real problem is not the lack of precipitation as in California, it is the lack of storage. Five reservoirs serve the Yakima Basin Project. Those reservoirs are full to the brim and overflowing. The problem lies with what we call the sixth reservoir - snowpack. Due to the mild winter, there is no snow in the Cascades! Normally the snowpack serves the irrigation needs into June at which time we start to tap the reservoirs. This year the reservoirs will be tapped early and tapped out by season's end.
Back to the drought in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. The western and southern portions of the AVA are served by senior water rights. That means they get three acre feet of water or 100% before junior water rights get a drop. No drought there. Junior water rights like the Roza Irrigation District are scheduled to get 73% this year - not bad for vineyards which typically only need 50% of their allocation. North of the Roza ,the AVA gets its water from wells and unlike California, the wells are not going dry, yet.
With the drought declaration, I can tap into my emergency well which has more water than my Roza water right and water transfers are allowed.
I think the Rattlesnake Hills AVA will get along just fine this year so we can supply California with much-needed high-quality grapes.
Next year, as the skiers say, "THINK SNOW!'

Thursday, February 19, 2015

If We Are Going to Tell the Story, Let's Tell the Whole Story

 The 2015 Washington State Wine Tour Guide just came out. The lead article is Fire and Ice by Julie H. Case. Why is this article important? Well, a lot of other writers will look at it for content and copy it. I found it a little confusing but other than that it seems accurate. It is written in a style that is meant to be exciting (not instructive) which makes it a little hard to follow.
First off, the picture they chose is of Mt. Hood in Oregon. Although the picture was taken in Washington, all the land shown is in Oregon. A picture of Mt. Adams in Washington from the Rattlesnake Hills AVA would be more appropriate.
In the fine print, the story is essentially correct. But I quote, "Vines scatter across a basalt cliff formed by ancient volcanoes." When one thinks of volcanoes, the picture of the beautiful stratovolcanoes of the Cascade Range comes to mind; one of which is Mt. Hood along with Mt. Adams. The other type of volcano is  the shield volcano, like Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Ancient volcanoes consist of remnant cores like Morro Rock in California. None of this will be found in the Columbia Plateau. Shortly after the eruptions, the land was perfectly flat. It wasn't until California started pushing northward into the "perfect climate for wine" did the wrinkling occur. I assume with global warming California will continue to push northward - in more ways than one.
The whole story is even more interesting. The type of volcanism that created the basalt cliffs of Eastern Washington no longer exists in the world, that is at this time anyway. Fortunately for humankind there are no active examples because.......
The source of the lava was giant fissures in the earth, not the cones or mountains we call volcanoes. These fissures were more than 100 miles long is places, unlike a volcano that has a single vent. The lava that flowed from these fissures was unique in that it was very fluid and able to travel at great speeds and cover great distances before cooling. It is estimated that this lava travelled at a speed of three miles per hour covering distances of over 375 miles from central Idaho to the Pacific Ocean before solidifying.
The quantity of lava extruded from them was also amazing. Geologists say that enough lava was released from the Grande Ronde Basalt flow to cover the entire United States in twelve feet of lava.
Luckily, according to the Humane Society, no dinosaurs were harmed during this event. You see the dinosaurs were gone 66 million years ago and the majority of the lava flows occurred only 17 to 15.5 million years ago. Considering the Earth is 4.54 billion years or 6000 years old, depending on the story you believe, either way, the Columbia Plateau is a relatively recent event.
Not included in the article are the wines grown on the ancient cobbles of the Yakima River (called the Ellensburg formation) found in the Rattlesnake Hills above 1100 feet. These wines have a unique minerality and complexity with a lack of herbaceous notes not found elsewhere in the state. With the same warmth as the Horse Heaven Hills it is the perfect site for Bordeaux-style reds. Unfortunately these unique wines are hard to identify, since many examples are labeled as generic Yakima Valley and can't be distinguished from wines grown on Warden soils. Two good examples of wines grown on the ancient cobbles are Portteus Vineyards' Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonair Winery's Morrison Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.