Freezing temperatures in April chilled the region’s vineyards

Growing grapes to make wine at home can be surprisingly easy, but it can take a few seasons to learn the intricacies of cultivation.

Fortunately, the Tri-Cities has no shortage of wine experts to help answer questions.

After an unusual cold snap late in the season, it’s a good idea to check your garden vineyard for damage in order to plan your growing season.

Marcus Keller, professor of viticulture at Washington State University, told the Herald that certain grape varieties are more likely to have been affected by the cool April temperatures.

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Workers harvest Sauvignon Blanc grapes at Klipsun Vineyards in the Red Mountain wine region near Benton City. Tri-City Herald File

“It depends on where you’re talking about, and it also depends on the variety,” Keller said. “We have varieties like Concord grapes that were already budding. Depending on which cultivator you talk to, you have between 0 and 90% damage. The (vines) that trailed a little behind completely escaped it.

Keller said it’s easy to tell if your vines have suffered frost damage and it may not be as bad as you think.

“Once that sprout turns brown, it means it’s been damaged, it’s dead. After that, the vines actually have (secondary) clusters that will grow, but they’re usually less fruitful,” Keller said.

“Very soon they will be able to see leaves coming out and little clusters of flowers being born, and they will be able to tell very quickly if there has been frost damage,” he said.

On average, it only takes about 10 bunches to make a bottle of wine. In a good year, four or five vines can produce enough grapes for an entire crate.

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Merlot grapes shown on the vine late in the growing season at Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain. This year’s late cold spell could harm some varieties. Tri-City Herald File

According to decanter.com, a variety of factors impact yield, including soil, location, and variety.

Keller said Chardonnay grapes are the wine variety most susceptible to damage in the Tri-Cities region, but the most popular variety is budding later.

“There are low areas with varieties like Chardonnay starting to come out. So those will have damage, we don’t know how much yet,” he said. “Then we have our biggest varieties, in Washington, is Cabernet Sauvignon, which is mostly still dormant, so they would have completely escaped that.”

Keller said the impact of the freeze won’t be seen by consumers anytime soon. He said it would probably take a year or more before a reduction in Chardonnay production was noticed.

Juice businesses will be most immediately impacted by weather damage.

Anticipate the weather

Keller said a late cold snap isn’t that unusual for the region and it’s possible the region will see more nights that are cold enough to damage buds.

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Red Mountain vineyards near Benton City and throughout Washington wine country are beginning to emerge from winter. Tri-City Herald File

Operating wineries in Washington requires a lot of planning for the unexpected. For many wineries, that means having wind turbines ready.

“If you drive through Yakima Valley, you’ll see all these white towers, and near Red Mountain toward the highway,” Keller said. “These are wind turbines, and what they do is generate air movement.”

Wind turbines look a lot like smaller versions of energy turbines. They are designed to circulate air through the vines, moving cold air away from the ground and away from the vines, while pushing warm air down.

Once the weather gets warmer, growers will need to prepare for the summer heat.

Keller said many crops may have been damaged by a heat wave last summer.

While it’s still too early to predict how this growing season will unfold, Keller is optimistic it will be another great year for vineyards in the Tri-City area.

This story was originally published May 9, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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Cory is an award-winning investigative journalist. He joined the Tri-City Herald in December 2021 as an editor/reporter covering housing and development. His past work can be found in the Tyler Morning Telegraph and other Texas newspapers. He was a member of the Education Writers Association 2019-2020 and has been featured on The Murder Tapes, Grave Mysteries and Crime Watch Daily with Chris Hansen.

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