Good year for grapes
By GREG STILES
Weather conditions combined to make for a plentiful harvest so far for the roughly 110 growers who tend 2,000 acres in Jackson and Josephine counties.
"All indications are that it's going to be a very good vintage," said Mark Wisnovsky of Valley View Vineyard in Ruch. Growers are midway through their harvest.
"It could be great, but it's too early to tell now. The balance of sugar and acids will tell, but the yields are good."
Typically, local growers harvest their grapes two to five weeks with lower elevations generally getting the early nod.
"Traditionally, Gold Hill is one of the earliest locations because of its lower elevation, but it was not as early this year," Wisnovsky said. "We can be as long as five weeks between first and last grapes coming in. This year, we're not as late in the Applegate and this year they're not as early."
While rainy weather hampered grape growers in California's Napa an Sonoma valleys, dry conditions have been the norm through Southern Oregon's harvest season.
"When we had clouds for several days, it was pouring in Napa," Wisnovsky said. "They had all their reds out still. When everything is dry and plants are struggling to get that last little bit of sugar, it's not good to get all that water poured on plants because it lowers the flavor. They're steadily ripening here, which is good and nobody is rushed."
Wisnovsky said individual berry size is a bit larger than normal. Although many factors enter into fruit size, he believes last year's wet winter was a key contributor.
"We didn't get a lot of rain when the vines budded out, but the ground was certainly saturated," Wisnovsky said. "Plants need water the first month and a half, but nobody watered and it didn't matter because there was abundant water (in the soil)."
Likewise, when there are a lot of berries on the vine, they tend to ripen faster and have less juice, he said.
Because of the scarcity of farm labor up and down the coast, growers have had to pay pickers more to keep them around.
"They've had to pay more to get people here and pay more to make sure they stay throughout the day," Wisnovsky said. "They've been getting around a dollar per (20-pound) bucket. We have to pay at least minimum wage, but many are making $14 to $15 per her hour."
Pear and grape harvests meshed better than some years when migrant pickers left the area as soon as they were through with pears.
"If it doesn't look like there is work, they'll go someplace else," Wisnovsky said. "In this case there was a little bit of an overlap. I suspect in the next week or so, there will be more people available to pick grapes. What I'm finding is that there has been picking on weekends and that means there are people living here with regular jobs doing the picking. That's not the migrant crowd."
Chris Martin at Troon Vineyard said competition for pickers has upped the ante significantly on his hillside crop.
"Usually, it gets done for around $200 per ton," Martin said. "But we're having to pay by the hour instead of the ton and it has cost us more than $300 a ton to pick by the hour."
Activity has picked up at Troon Vineyard every year since Martin and his family took over the Applegate Valley winery in 2002. The first year, Troon produced 1,200 cases and more than doubled that figure to 2,700 cases in 2003. It grew to 3,500 cases and then to 5,500 last year.
This month, Troon will pick 20 tons off of its acreage and process close to 120 tons in producing 7,000 cases, representing 24 wines from a dozen or so varietals.
"Our ultimate goal is 8,000 cases," Martin says. "We've built our facility and team around 8,000 cases and we have another 16 acres coming on line next year."
At Shady Cove-based Crater Lake Cellars, Mary Gardner said husband Steve was scrambling to work on 40 acres of merlot grapes in Grants Pass after bringing in 18 acres near Eagle Point.
"We didn't have any early frosts and that last bit of heat when it was the 80s and 90s made everything ripen faster at the end," she said. "The merlot is just incredible, a beautiful dark red. It's like everything went our way."
Rob Wallace at Del Rio Vineyards, which operates 185 acres with 13 varietals that are shipped to wineries throughout Oregon and California, isn't ready to pronounce the year a success yet.
"The weather was good, the crop is looking good and so far we're doing good with the harvest," Wallace said. "But there is still a lot of fruit in the vineyards and it won't be fermented until December."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail email@example.com.