Quality Grapes Through Canopy Management

Our picking is moving along steadily.

I seem to say this every year, but we have learned a great deal about growing grapes in Washington this year. The higher than normal heat of 2014 taught us how to adjust canopy management for hot weather like we experienced in 2015. As a result, I believe our fruit quality is excellent, particularly in the Merlot. Of course the quality of the vintage will be measured in the wines, but I’m feeling good about the grapes we’ve grown this year.

Since 2011 we have had the coldest year, hottest year, hotter than hot year, earliest and latest bud break, earliest and maybe latest harvest and July hail. I will not ask what is next because I am sure we will see it.  Recent Photos.

New Single Vineyard Wines

Sem

Not only is Stillwater Creek the source for Novelty Hill’s top rated estate wines, the vineyard also grows grapes for some of Washington’s best wineries; and increasingly the Stillwater Creek name is making its way on to the front of the label.  Two recent releases include L’Ecole 41’s 2014 Stillwater Creek Semillon and Pondera Winery’s 2012 Stillwater Creek Reserve Malbec.

Marty Clubb’s reputation for Semillon is legendary.  It has been a while since L’Ecole made a single-vineyard Sem so we were particularly honored Marty liked our fruit enough to make 290 cases of this delicious wine from the 2014 vintage.  L’Ecole describes it as a “crisp, aromatic gem (that) shows multiple layers of fresh Pink Lady apple and lanolin with floral passion fruit aromas and hints of lemon and tropical fruit on a refreshingly balanced finish.”

Woodinville’s Pondera Winery recently released a 2012 Stillwater Creek Reserve Malbec (90 pts. Wine Enthusiast).  Critic Sean Sullivan described it as showing a “classic Washington Malbec profile of green, stemmy herbs, citrus, black pepper and plum along with light barrel accents. It’s soft in feel, palate-staining with plum flavors, tart acids and lightly gritty tannins, disclosing blood-orange flavors on the finish.”

Look for more single vineyard bottlings of Stillwater Creek Vineyard wines from other acclaimed Washington producers this fall.

Here We Go!

I do not believe Stillwater Creek Vineyard has ever harvested in August, but that changed this year.  On Friday, August 28th, we began picking Block 8 Merlot and Block 25 Chardonnay.  Take a look at how this year is different from previous years:

2014: First day pickingSeptember 12; First day picking Merlot was September 16

2013: First day picking September 11; First day picking Merlot was September 18

2011: First day picking October 03; First day picking Merlot was October 7. . .41 days earlier than 2015!

More pictures from our first day of harvest here.

The Heat Continues and the Season Moves Ahead Quickly

stillwater creek vineyard, Washington wine, columbia ValleyVeraison is the beginning of the ripening process and the fact that veraison is underway tells us to expect an early harvest. Once veraison is complete, harvest is about 45 days away on average, depending on variety.  View photos.

When I say the 2015 growing season is early, I’m looking at varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, about 22 days ahead of 2014; and 2014 being an early year, this year’s Sauv Blanc is 41 days ahead of 2011. Chardonnay is looking to be about 14 days ahead on 2014. We’ll wait and see on the rest of the varieties as we are not quite to full veraison.

We have been applying more water than usual this year due to the heat, but must now be very careful not to have too much water in the soil and create shoot growth. As the ripening process begins, we want to direct all carbohydrate production to the fruit and not the vegetative parts on the vine. With the persistent heat this year, we need to balance water to the plants so as not to create excess vigor while at the same time protecting leaves from burning.

Due to the higher temperatures this year, we have been delayed leaf removal to protect the fruit from sunburn. We need to decide how much leaf coverage to leave this year to provide heat protection to the fruit but also to provide enough sun exposure for ripening. It’s a delicate balance. By leaving a little more canopy, we hope to reduce heat stress to the fruit.

To follow veraison by block, click here.

 

 

Growing Season Moves Ahead at Record Speed

We are now through bloom, well ahead of previous years. Now we wait and see what happens as the vines begin to set fruit.  A record of 2015 growing season milestones by block is available to download here.

Weather throughout bloom this spring was a mixed bag. The vineyard experience mild temperatures, extremely hot weather, some rain, mild winds and extremely high winds. Set looks good in most blocks, though the combination of hot weather and high winds might have impacted Cab in a few blocks. We will know more soon.

In the meantime, work continues in the vineyard. The crew has been busy with cordon suckering, shoot selection and now shoot positioning and hedging. Cane growth is very good throughout the vineyard, so now that we are through bloom we will need to slow shoot growth and redirect the plant’s carbohydrates to the fruit. As soon as shoot positioning is complete, we will begin vine leafing, concentrating on leaf removal on the morning side of the vine as well as in the interior fruit zone. For most blocks we will remove the laterals on the morning side up to the upper cluster. Lateral and leaf removal on the afternoon side of the vine will be determined by canopy density and heat; if the weather stays hot we do not want too much sun exposure on the west side of the vine.

Our crew is doing great work. Most days, we start at 5 am so we can send everyone home once the temps start to climb into the 90s.

Shoot Growth Underway

Young Flower Cluster, CFAs of today, bud break is officially complete. (Download a spreadsheet with bud break dates by block here.) Shoot growth is way ahead of last year, except for the Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet Sauvignon was much later to bud break than most other varieties in 2015. In previous years the Cab had bud break early in comparison with Petit Verdot, which usually finished last. I do not know why the Cab was later and Petit Verdot relatively early this year, but that’s the way it is in 2015.

Shoot growth is a little uneven this year, as was the bud break; maybe because of the early nature of bud break this season but possible due to some cold temperatures last winter.

We began cordon suckering today, starting with the Cabernet Franc as usual. After the Block 48 Cab Franc is complete, we will move to the white varietals to continue cordon suckering. This first pass of cordon suckering is to remove unwanted shoots along the cordon, leaving shoot that are well positioned and fruitful. As I have said in the past, cordon suckering is the first vineyard activity, other than pruning, to effect grape quality.

Pictures of Block 48 and a few other pictures from today are posted here. Some of the pictures I have taken during bloom this year are to show the beautiful the colors of the newly developing leaves, especially in some earlier pictures of Syrah and Semillon pictures. Each variety is a little different.

An Early Start to Spring

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking around the vineyard this morning I see many blocks that are close to unfurling their first leaves. Here’s what I found:

  • Chardonnay – all blocks showing bud swelling
  • Cabernet Franc – nearly at first leaves, though not quite
  • Syrah – advanced bud swell
  • Mourvedre – advanced bud swell
  • Malbec – advanced bud swell

Other varieties are not as advanced, but all are in some stage of bud break. The weather is supposed to cool a bit so I cannot predict exactly what happens from here, but we are about three weeks ahead of last year as of today. None of the local growers can remember bud break at this early date.

Today I am feeling really good about our decision to begin pruning early in 2015 as we are now done with everything but the training and the new planting of Chardonnay. Pruning while the buds are beginning to push allows for easily broken buds and crop loss, so the early start to bud break this year reinforces that the decision to start pruning early was the right thing to do.

I have a new camera this year.  Hope you enjoy these beautiful pictures.

Veraison Underway

 

002With all the heat this year, the growing season is moving right along; we are a little ahead of last year. This has been a very hot and dry July and August, but we have cooled slightly since the 15th and have been working hard to maintain moisture in the soil over the last few weeks.

We may want to take some initial Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc cluster samples sometime next week.  Information on veraison by block is available on the web site, along with a few recent pictures from the vineyard.

 

It’s Hot Out!

050A vineyard update is a good chance to come out of the HEAT, so I am doing just that.  So far we have not had extremely high heat, but a very long period of high heat; much more than I have experienced to date. We are now applying water six days a week to keep up with the demands of the vines. The vines are looking strong and leaf color is good. This heat is likely to continue for an extended period of time.

I have just noticed a few berries in the Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec that have turned color, though not a high enough percentage to call the beginning of veraison just yet.  Bud break and bloom were very similar to 2013, but with this heat I am guessing veraison will come on a little earlier in 2014, enough so that I am beginning to get harvest supplies arranged.

We are now seeing the new Chardonnay plants in block 23 emerging from the milk cartons and it looks like we have a very good take with this year’s new young plants. It feels good to see them get moving.

In the vineyard, we are working on leaf removal though with this heat we are not removing outside leaves, only those leaves bunched inside the canopy around the clusters. Removing the internal leaves will allow sunlight in while minimizing potential berry burning and improving conditions for fruit quality.  Following leaf removal we will begin to thin the crop to proper cluster counts, an important part of producing high quality fruit.

If all goes according to plan, wine quality should be high this year.  Hopefully, the weather cooperates. Here are a few recent pictures.

 

Bud Break 2014 Underway

020Bud break began much the same time as 2013, but we have had cooler weather than in 2013 so progress was a little slower this year, and the same was true for shoot growth. This week, however, the temperature climbed into the 80’s and shoot growth has begun to take off.  Photos from May 15 are available here.

Last week we added minerals into the irrigation water to assist with early season shoot growth and the minerals are now starting to take effect.  We increased our crew size and began to sucker the cordon and select primary shoots for fruit. We have completed suckering and shoot selection on about one-quarter of the vineyard so progress is good.

Also, we have now completed the trellis installation in the new Chardonnay block 23 planting.  The installation of the trellis was a little more difficult than expected due to rock in the upper section of the block. We had to rent a compressor and two 60-pound jackhammers to break the rock in order to install the line posts and the end posts.  All that remains to be done now, aside from planting, is to install the emitters in the drip line.  We are soaking the cuttings that I recently pulled from cold storage and will soon be callusing them, followed by planting. This process should take about three more weeks.

An update on bud break by block is available here.