2017 Growing Season Overview

You’ve got to love Washington viticulture. In the last seven growing seasons, we have had the hottest year, even hotter year, coldest year, hail, combination hottest and coldest years, rainy harvests, dry harvests and all the weather-related record events that go with such years. To grow the best grapes here in Washington, one must be ever mindful of all aspects of quality grape growing, expect the unexpected, and be ready to react. In other words, you have to stay on the balls of your feet!

The 2017 growing season was the mirror image of the 2016 growing season in many ways. The 2016 growing season began hot and dry, then in July turned cool and wet. The 2017 growing season began cool and wet, then in July turned hot and dry. In both cases, we set up vineyard activities to match what we thought the weather was trending towards. Then when July changes hit, we had to slam on the brakes and change strategies in order to achieve the highest wine quality, despite the change in weather.

The 2017 growing season did yield a set of events that have potentially created an award-winning vintage. While we will not know this for a while, here are my impressions of the milestone events that suggest 2017 will be remembered as a banner vintage for Stillwater Creek:

  • 2016 was a bumper crop year, with large clusters and high yields. Typically, in a year following a bumper crop year, there will be fewer and smaller clusters, as was the case for the 2017 growing season.
  • Spring through early summer was cool and rainy. We had rains about once per week up through June. This lead to fewer berries per cluster, due to rain and cool weather during bloom, which caused more shatter than normal – in other words, fewer berries.
  • July hit and the weather turned very hot and dry. This hot, dry weather helped to keep berry size small as we moved towards veraison.
  • After veraison, the weather stayed warm and then September cooled down significantly. September days were mild and the nights became cold but not freezing. It is my experience that these harvest conditions often lead to high quality wine, particularly with Cabernet Sauvignon, which is favored by nights near freezing during harvest and mild days with very little rain.

So, the 2017 growing season gave us smaller clusters with fewer and smaller berries. Due to the open nature of the clusters, light was able to penetrate the clusters and color the berries from all sides. The result was very high skin color and a higher than normal surface-to-volume ratio. These fruit characteristics, combined with what I viewed as nearly perfect ripening weather from veraison through harvest, created wine grapes that may stand out as the best fruit I have seen since my arrival in Washington in 2011. My hope is that 2017 will be a “Vintage Year.” Time will tell.

There were other unique factors to the 2017 growing season. One in particular that affected many other vineyard growing decisions was soil moisture. We began the 2017 growing season with over one and one-half feet of snow on the ground. When we pruned in February, there was still over a foot of snow in the vineyard. By bud break, the snow had melted and we had Mike Stewart come to the vineyard to measure soil moisture. The soil moisture profile was full. Additionally, there were rains about once per week. Normally we would irrigate prior to bud break and our normal vineyard irrigation program would begin at bud break. In 2017, we did not begin irrigating until late June. The extra soil moisture affected vineyard operations in many ways, including these three factors:

  • Fertilization – Normally we would have added minerals to the pre-bud break irrigation, but we did not want to add more moisture to the soil for fear of creating overly vigorous vines. I did not begin to add minerals, via irrigation, until July.
  • Root expansion – This again deals with minerals. The normal pre-bud break irrigation wets a very small area of the soil profile. In 2017, due to the high winter snow fall and early season rains, the entire soil profile was saturated. Our assumption was that the grapevine roots would move throughout the entire soil profile, now full of moisture, and mine minerals that have not been available to the grapevines for many years. Therefore, the decision was made to only apply minerals to the foliage because we did not want to over irrigate or fertilize in order to control vine vigor.
  • Irrigation – Began in late June, but only in areas of rocky soils because the deeper soils still had a great deal of water. So, we applied deficit irrigation to the deeper soils while maintaining necessary water to the rocky areas, attempting to maintain uniform growth throughout the vineyard.

Due to the frequency and amount of rain we received through June, we took steps to protect against mildew, and thankfully we were successful. The vineyard did not experience any powdery mildew infections.

 

When we have contrasting years, such as 2016 and 2017, there is a great deal to learn about grape growing and wine quality, with plenty of food for thought. To me, the 2017 ripening conditions and fruit character were better than in 2016. I am beginning to be less concerned about weather in the early months of the growing season and will pay closer attention to weather patterns beginning in July. I am now moved to take a closer look at our irrigation and fertilization techniques and timing in order to improve wine quality yearly; I liked the look and health of the vines leading into harvest in 2017. We obviously cannot recreate the weather patterns of 2017, but we can work with the weather patterns we have and manage our vineyard operations to recreate, as much as possible, the positive wine grape characters exhibited in 2017.

All in all, I feel 2017 was a very good year for Stillwater Creek Vineyard. For all the potential problems the year presented, our fruit turned out clean and disease free, the quality was excellent, and we met most of our targeted yields without over-producing. Wineries seemed very pleased with the picking and fruit quality. We received a number of compliments this year on the looks of the vineyard, the lack of powdery mildew, the cleanliness and timing of our picking, and most importantly, the fruit quality.

I cannot find much negative with the 2017 season, although it was a very tough season. I feel the year taught us a great deal about fruit quality and how we can manage our vineyard operations to help us grow consistently higher quality fruit.

Ed Kelly

Washington Tasting Room Magazine Profiles Stillwater Creek

The Winter 2017-18 issue of Washington Tasting Room magazine includes a lengthy profile of Stillwater Creek, a dozen of the editor’s favorite Stillwater Creek-designated wines and interviews with several vintners working with the vineyard.

“The ability to blend a single variety with multiple clones provides incredible layers of fruit,” says JM Cellars’ John Bigelow, who credits vineyard manager Ed Kelly with growing high quality grapes.  “He understands the connection between the health of the vine and the minerals it receives from the soil better than any vineyard manager I have worked with in twenty years.”  For Novelty Hill winemaker Mike Januik, who advised Tom Alberg and his family on the planting of the vineyard, the site’s reds offer “a perfect combination of structure and suppleness,” according to the article.

Read more  on the history of Stillwater Creek, its elite selection of clones and top wines from the vineyard, here.

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Harvest Update

We have now just passed 500 tons of grapes picked. We have completed Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, most of the Chardonnay, all Semillon (except for late harvest). We still have some Syrah to pick, although very little. We are picking Cabernet Sauvignon daily now, along with Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Roussanne and are just beginning Petit Verdot.  I am quite pleased with how the harvest is turning out.

We have been short on crew, but we are getting the work done. The weather is becoming much cooler, colder, with most morning in the 30’s and the days in the 60’s. We still have many tons to pick and with the changing weather I expect many wineries to be making up their minds to pick soon. We’ll do our best to bring grapes in, but I am limited in crew numbers.

I believe the fruit quality will be very high this year. The Cabernet Sauvignon is showing strong fruit character and is holding up well. The cooler weather we have seen has given us a little more hang time.

Looking forward to tasting this year’s Merlot. The clusters were smaller than normal with lighter set and, due to the high heat July onward, smaller berries. Sunlight in the lighter loose cluster reaches all sides of the berry and there is a higher skin to volume ratio. Typically, I leave 19 to 21 clusters in the Merlot to reach target yields. In 2017, based on cluster size, lower set and berry size, we left 28 clusters per vine and yields ended up right on target.

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Harvest is Underway

The 2017 growing season gave Stillwater Creek Vineyard its first grapes today. We picked Merlot this morning.  It is ripening much earlier than normal, so if you are a Stillwater Creek Merlot customer, keep a close eye on it.

Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are coming on strong as well and should be ready very soon.  Lab analysis will be available later in the week.  In the meantime, don’t hesitate to call me at 509-3803173 or email me if you have questions.  Ed Kelly

 

Sugars Starting to Climb as Harvest Approaches

We just took our first sugar samples, and we are getting close to beginning harvest. Sauvignon Blanc sugars were in the 22’s, Chardonnay 19’s and 20’s and the one Merlot Block we tested was 22.4. We’ll do more testing next week.

Veraison is finished in nearly all varieties, and we are catching up to last year in some of the reds. View completion dates by block here.  Due to the heat, I believe harvest dates will meet and maybe surpass 2016 in some of the red varieties. We will know more about that when we do more extensive sampling.

Currently, we are adjusting crop loads. Clusters are much smaller this year so I will be leaving more clusters per vine to achieve targeted yields.

Due to the high heat, I am increasing the amount of applied water this week. Usually I am decreasing water this time of year due to the shorter days and cooler nights, but this year the relentless heat is putting higher water demand on the grapevines. Check the website for more updates soon.



July Stays Hot and Dry


In a recent vineyard update I mentioned that the 2017 growing season was a mirror image of 2016.  To recap, 2016’s bud break set an early record, with very high accumulated heat units. The 2016 stayed warm/hot until July.  This year’s bud break was more “normal,” but the early growing season was cool with rain through June.

 

Here’s how July conditions compare between the two years:

July 2016

1)       Average Minimum Temperature = 59.3

2)       Average Maximum Temperature = 84.4

3)       Heat Units July 1, 2016 = 1088

4)       Heat Units July 31, 2016 = 1743

5)       Total July Heat Units = 654.8

July 2017

1)       Average Minimum Temperature = 62.2

2)       Average Maximum Temperature = 89.5

3)       Heat Units July 1, 2017 = 967.9

4)       Heat Units July 31, 2017 = 1746.6

5)       Total July Heat Units = 778.7

In summary, July 2016 began with more heat units than 2017, but by the end of this July, 2017 surpassed 2016 in accumulated heat units. We also had many rains in July of 2016 and there has been no rainfall in July 2017.  What a difference a month can make.

We are now into August and the heat spell is continuing, with no end in sight. I have altered our early season, cool and wet, canopy management and re-tuned for very hot and dry.

I have seen a few berries beginning to color, but nothing I would call veraison yet. I expect veraison will begin next week.

This growing season we did not begin irrigation until late June, due to the saturated soil profile from the winter snow and spring rains. We are making up for the lack of early irrigation now; the pumps are running five days a week.

We have also had hazy skies due to fires in Canada and the Okanagan Valley. From experience, the smoke is not enough to create any problems in wine but is probably keeping temperatures down a little.

Considering harvest dates, I’m not sure what to say quite yet. This year’s fruit has yielded smaller, lighter clusters and, coupled with the heat we are experiencing, I would expect smaller berries. If the heat keeps up I expect we may begin harvest a little behind last year, but harvest will likely go faster and end earlier. We could see reds and whites ripening at similar times.  I’ll know more when veraison is in full swing.

July Temperatures Remain Warm

July remains very warm, although the last couple days were only in the 80’s. But we have another heat spell coming early next week.

The warm July is helping to create what may shape up to be an outstanding fruit quality year.  I mentioned in an earlier update that due to 2016’s heavier crop, I expected this year’s crop to be smaller.  Well, in general there are fewer clusters per vine, but since we adjust our crop load that factor is a mere indicator.  What I feel is relevant to this year is smaller than normal clusters and looser clusters due to some shatter during the rainy bloom time. Now the high heat of July is helping to keep berry size down. Smaller clusters, less compacted clusters, and possibly smaller berry size, if the weather stays as excellent as it is now, could add up to a very high quality fruit year. Let’s keep our fingers crosses that the fine weather holds up.

In the vineyard, we are continuing to adjust our canopy for the proper light management and I am very pleased by the crew’s work.  Every year our crew gets better at these quality operations.  Following canopy management operations, we will begin to adjust crop loads. The cluster counts we are now making will help us to determine the best blocks to begin this process.

So, not to jinx things, but I am feeling much more at peace at this point in the growing season than I have in many seasons past. Again, I am hopeful for continued good weather.  We shall see.

Weather Mirror Image of 2016

This year’s weather has been a mirror image of 2016 thus far.  Last year’s growing season started off extremely early and warm and stayed that way until July when the weather turned rainy and cool.  The 2017 growing season began very cool and rainy and stayed that way until July.  Now we are in a heat spell.  We have had several days in the 90’s and 100’s and the weather looks like it will stay that way for a while. The next major benchmark for the year will be veraison, which will help us predict harvest timing this year.

With the heat spell, we have finally begun to irrigate and the vines growth is slowing down. This is the first time since my arrival at Stillwater Creek in 2011 that we have not irrigated prior to bud break.

In the vineyard, we have been removing the lower two leaves, and lateral growth on the east side of the vines to increase airflow through the vines. With the cooler early temperatures and rain some Washington vineyards are finding powdery mildew, though I am happy to report there is no mildew at Stillwater Creek.  The heat we are experiencing now will also help keep powdery mildew away as temperatures above 90 can kill the mildew. The heat has been extreme though, so I have halted the canopy work to avoid burn to the fruit. We are now making a second pass pulling trunk suckers.

The fruit is sizing up well and we have had a good berry set, so all looks well, so far.

Bloom is Complete

We are now through bloom. For a look at bloom and bud break by block, visit the Vintage Data section of the website.  During bloom there were a couple of rainy, cool weather periods so we will need to wait a week or so to know how well berries set.

In the vineyard, we are now working our second cordon suckering pass.  During this second pass, we are also removing the lower two leaves to open up the canopy.  With this season’s rain and cooler temperatures, it is important to open up the canopy for greater airflow.  By doing so, we not only avoid disease but also help newly forming berries develop stronger and thicker cell walls through exposure to sunlight.  We are also positioning the shoots vertically in the trellis wire and hedging the shoots to the proper length.

Bloom Expected Soon

We are not yet in bloom, but I am guessing we begin by late next week.  If that happens, bloom will be similar to the 2012, 13 and 14 growing seasons.

Shoot growth is strong right now at around 1.5 inches growth per day.

Canopy management is underway.  We are currently suckering the cordon and the trunks. The cordon suckering is the first major quality control vineyard operation, following pruning, of course.  This is when we select the fruit bearing shoots we are going to keep. The goal is to obtain shoot density that will give us the best sunlight penetration into the canopy.  Suckering, coupled with leaf removal in a few weeks, is extremely important to wine quality.  We have about 40 workers on this project.

We have not had to water the vineyard yet this year due to the heavy snow this winter and the many spring rains that filled the soil profile. This is the first time since I arrived here in 2011 that I have not irrigated prior to bud break and that was almost a month ago.

The new plants we put in the ground last year are growing well.  Most have 30 to 40 inches of  shoot growth already.