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The Winemaker

Have a question for winemaker Joe Will? Click here and send via email. Each month Joe will choose one question to answer.

Q: Has the cold winter weather affected the vines?

For the second year in a row, winter temperatures have dropped low enough to damage grape plants and reduce the crop in the subsequent season. The combined effect of three deeply-cold episodes in the winter of 2002-2003 reduced the overall industry harvest last year by 50 per cent. Strewn's crop was about half its normal level, and we lost about 10 per cent of our vines which we will replant this spring.

The severity of damage varied with variety, location and age of plant. Merlot, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay were the most affected while Vidal, Cabernet Franc and Riesling survived the best. Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc were in between.

The vines in low spots, where cold heavier air could pool, or where trees and brush sheltered them from air movement, had the highest crop loss and highest vine loss. At the winery location, the west end of the vineyard dips about 15 feet as it approaches Four-Mile Creek; virtually every vine more than halfway down the hill needs to be replanted.

The most severely affected were our older plantings (from 1995) of Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. Each year, grape vines sprout some new shoots from near the graft at ground level; as the trunks get older, fewer shoots emerge. The Merlot, which is noted for being winter-sensitive, produced no grapes last year, but we lost virtually no plants. Its younger (from 1999) trunks generated a proliferation of new growth from which to select new trunks and, hopefully, will give us at least a half crop this year.

I write "hopefully" because we had some temperatures of minus 18 to ** in January, 2004, which is cold enough to cause some bud damage and to lower the crop, especially with the Merlot. These temperatures are not as likely to kill plants outright. While it is too early to predict accurately the crop loss for the coming season, industry estimates are in the range of a 30 to 40 per cent reduction.

Records and experience indicate we can expect severe winter damage about one year in 10. However, that doesn't rule out two damaging winters in a row and this seems to be exactly what has happened.

We have learned a couple of "cold" lessons from these winters.

First, we have begun to practice regular trunk renewal, bringing up young shoots from the near the graft every three or four years. This will maintain young wood at the base and a steady supply of renewal shoots. Strewn doesn't want to be caught with only "old" trunks again. Second, we will likely extend our practice of hilling up vines with soil in the fall to provide an insulating layer over the graft. A couple of inches of soil is enough to raise the temperature several degrees on a cold night, and that is all the extra protection that is needed for the dormant buds. In extreme cold we could still lose the upper portion of the vine and that year's crop - but the plant would survive and in the second year we could again harvest a crop. In the past we have only hilled up young vines, as they are generally most vulnerable until they are fully established.

And there is a bit of "good news" associated with all this. During the vintage of 2002, which was good quality, we purchased additional locally-grown grapes to increase our inventory. Our intent was to mature our wines, especially our reds, for a longer period so they would be more ready-to-drink when we release them to our customers. This additional supply should avert any shortages in our very best Terroir series of wines and in our premium Strewn line.

Some of our premium Strewn reds now are available and the rest will be in the shop before summer. The Terroir reds - currently available on the futures program - will be released in early September. And we still have available many reds from the very good 2001 vintage, and a some of our flagship red "Strewn three"from 1998 and 1999.

Joe Will
September, 2004