Mid-Columbia vineyards get a head start to the growing season

Tri-City HeraldMarch 27, 2015 

The early appearance of fuzzy buds on grapevines has some Mid-Columbia growers a little worried.

These tiny buds are preparing to unfurl leaves to protect the beginnings of grape clusters that will become Washington’s 2015 vintage.

But an early “bud break” heightens concerns growers have about possible frost damage. It also means that growers get a head start to the growing season, which can improve chances for ripening grapes later in the year.

Dick Boushey, a Grandview wine and juice grape grower, already is seeing his Sangiovese grapevines bud and his juice grapes vines are even farther along.

Buds also were unfurling in some of the vineyards Boushey manages on Red Mountain, including Merlot vines for Woodinville winery Force Majeure. He calls bud break the “wooly stage” because of the fuzzy outsides of the new buds.

Budding is about a week earlier than 2013 and about two weeks earlier than last year, Boushey said. And 2013 was the earliest year seen in some time.

While some Red Mountain vineyards are at less risk of frost damage because of the elevation and the slope of the mountain, budding vineyards in low-laying areas have a higher risk during the next month with the early budding, Boushey said.

“We just need nice weather, like this,” he said Friday, a day when Red Mountain experienced warm weather and a light breeze.

Between budding and bloom tends to be a time of high concern for frost. That’s because the vines more vulnerable to frost damage, which is more likely this time of year, Boushey said.

Bloom, the next major stage of the growing season, could happen in another three weeks.

“There is nothing better than an early bloom,” Boushey said. The goal is to get a good set, which means that the cluster has a full complement of berries, he said.

An early start to the growing season is a concern for young grapevines, which are more vulnerable. They are closer to the ground, and there can be a 5-degree temperature difference between the top of older grapevines and the ground, he said.

Newly planted grapevines can be seen throughout the Mid-Columbia as Washington’s wine industry continues to expand. Those baby vines, encased in grow tubes, can especially be seen on Red Mountain, where newly available Yakima River water is allowing bare ground to transform into fruitful vineyards.

Boushey helped Duckhorn Wine Co. plant new acres of Cabernet Sauvignon for its Canvasback wine last year. Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards, the largest landowner in the growing area, is set to plant its vineyards this spring.

Other vineyards in the grape growing region near Benton City also are expanding as international acclaim increases demand for Red Mountain grapes and wine.

Early bud break means growers are scrambling to catch up with the vines. Boushey’s crews are pruning now, preparing the vines for this year’s growing season. But while the workers are ahead from where they normally would be, the grapevines are even farther ahead, at least a week to 10 days, he said.

Boushey said he added workers, but wasn’t able to find as many as he would have liked. There is a small shortage of workers now, as farmers in other crops compete for the available labor force.

On Friday morning, one of Boushey’s crews pruned at Upchurch Vineyard. The 20-acre Red Mountain estate vineyard is more time-consuming to prune because winemaker Chris Upchurch likes to use a specific training system that helps him keep his yield low and allows him to produce the flavorful grapes he’s looking for when making premium wines for his own label and DeLille Cellars.

The challenge is to “capture the greatness that Mother Nature gave us” and have that reflected in his wines, he said.

Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristiAPihl

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