Late grape harvest means risky business but great potential for 2011 vintage

October 1, 2011

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Grapes at Phelps Creek Vineyard in Hood River.

Last Tuesday looked, felt and sounded like a typical September morning at Phelps Creek Vineyard.

Neat rows of grapes sloped off in every direction across the steep hillside on Bob Morus's Westside vineyard. The contours of the Hood River Valley undulated below, with snow-capped Mount Hood soaring into a cloudless sky beyond.

At 9 a.m., the sun was already heating the 30 acres of grapes, with not a breath of wind and the promise of several days of the same ahead.

The morning quiet was pierced every few seconds by the sound of shrill bird calls emitting from the electronic bird repellers set among the rows of vines.

But Morus - along with every grape grower in the Gorge - knew it wasn't typical in every way. The grapes are at least two weeks behind schedule this year, thanks to the cool, wet spring and early summer.

"We're just finishing a stage called 'veraison,'" said Morus, stopping to examine a grape cluster as he walked between rows of pinot noir grapes. Veraison is when the grapes turn from green to purple, and it typically happens closer to the beginning of September.

But then, the last couple of years have had many winegrowers wondering what exactly is typical anymore.

"In 2010, we had the coolest vintage on record," Morus said. "Until this year. We've broken that record." Prior to that, 2009 was one of the warmest years.

With the grapes ripening behind schedule, growers worry about the inevitable rains that typically start in October. If the grapes have to endure much rain before they're ready to be harvested, they can suffer from botrytis, or rot.

"We tend to go into harvest not too worried about botrytis," Morus said. "But when the season is late, we start pushing up against the October rains."

Morus has been growing grapes long enough - nearly 20 years - to have seen many different seasonal challenges and to have tricks up his sleeve to help meet them. He "drops" more than half of the grapes his vines are capable of growing, so that the plants can put their energy into the remaining fruit. That means less wine in the end, but higher-quality wine.

"We also do a lot of canopy management," Morus said. Vine leaves are removed on the "morning" side of the grapes so the fruit can heat more quickly with the sun. He and his employees also do intensive row-to-row hand labor as the season progresses.

"Every cluster is touched at least 12 times during the season," Morus said, adding that in a challenging year, those labor-intensive steps become even more important.

"We just keep on doing what we do best, which is, don't skip any steps," he said. "You can't pull back from that."

Morus has a mental catalog of the last few years: 2006 was a good year; 2007 was a cool and wet year, producing a vintage that some critics dismissed; 2008 was one of the best years for Oregon wines as a whole; 2009 was a warm year, producing "big" wines that were crowd-pleasers; 2010 was the coolest vintage until this year.

While some winegrowers may worry about the wide seasonal fluctuations, Morus is philosophical about it.

"When you're making nice wine, vintage variations are good," he said. In 2007, when it got cool and wet well before harvest and many vintners struggled with their wines, Phelps Creek had a "breakout year," according to Morus. Phelps Creek produces primarily pinot noir, which Morus describes as being "about elegance, finesse and complexity."

"A cooler vintage tends to bring that out," he said.

In Burgundy, France, the "mother" of pinot noir regions, grapes are generally picked at a less-ripe stage, according to Morus - partly because of the potential for rain, hail and frost around harvest time.

"They still make a very flavorful wine, but there will be more aggressiveness in the winemaking" process, he said. Also, Burgundy wines tend to be aged much longer in the bottle than Northwest wines.

So, some warm fall days in the weeks ahead would be welcome to bring the grapes to the finish line in good form at Phelps Creek - and Gorge-wide.

"To grow optimally, you want it to take the whole season," Morus said. In the Gorge, with its potential for unpredictable weather conditions, winegrowers have to be prepared for anything.

"We're living on the edge," Morus said. "But really great wine is made by living on the edge."

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Welcome to your sing-able Christmas gift list. What follows is an emergency rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” – for outfitting your home or car in case of snow storm, earthquake, flood or other emergency. Read it as a simple list, or sing it to the tune of “12 Days” – you know, as in “ … and a partridge in a pear tree…” Not to make light of it, but the song is a familiar framework for a set of gift ideas that you could consider gathering together, even if the recipient already owns items such as a bunch of coats, tire chains and flashlights. Stores throughout the Gorge are stocked up on all these items. Buying all 12 days might be prohibitive, but here are three ideas for checking any of the dozen off your list (notations follow, 1-12.) The gift items needed to stay warm, dry and safe are also coded to suggest items in your abode (A) in your car (C) or both (B). 12 Gallons of Water (A) 11 Family meals (B) 10 Cans of propane (A) 9 Hygiene bags (B) 8 Packs of batteries (A) 7 Spare coats (B) 6 Bright red flares (C) 5 Cozy blankets (B) 4 Tire chains (C) 3 Flashlights (B) 2 cell phone chargers (B) 1 And a crush-proof first aid kit (B) Price ranges? Here’s a few quotes for days Three, Two, Four and Nine: n A family gift of flashlights (three will run $15-30, Hood River Supply, Tum-A-Lum) n Cell phone chargers (two will run $30-60) n Tire chains (basic set, $30, Les Schwab, returnable if unused for the winter) n Family meals ($100 or so should cover the basics for three or four reasonably well-fed days) n The home kit should be kept in a handy place near an exit, and remember that water needs to be replenished every few months. If you have a solid first aid kit already, switch out the gift idea with “and-a-sto-o-u-t- tub-for it-all …” Otherwise, it’s a case of assembling your home or car kits and making sure all members of the family know what the resources are and how to use them (ie flares and propane). Emergency situations are at worst life-threatening, at best deeply uncomfortable if you and your family are left without power for an extended period, or traveling and find yourself in a situation where you need to wait out a storm, lengthy traffic delay, or other crisis. Notes on the 12 gift ideas: 12 – Gallons of water: that’s one per person in a four-member family to last for three days, the recommended minimum to be prepared for utility outages. 11 – Easy-open packaged goods, energy bars, dried food and nuts are good things to include for nutrition. Think of what your family of four needs for three days to stay fortified and hydrated (see number 12). Can-opener also recommended 10 – If you have a propane camping stove, keep extra fuel handy. 9 – Hygiene bags: put packaged moistened towelettes, toilet paper, and plastic ties in large garbage bags (for personal sanitation) Resource list courtesy of Hood River County Emergency Management, Barbara Ayers, manager/ 541-386-1213. The county also reminds residents to Get a Kit, Make A Plan to connect your family if separated, and Stay Informed. See www.co.hood-river.or.us to opt-in for citizen alerts. Enlarge



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