Royal Slope is Washington’s Newest AVA


The Royal Slope is Washington State’s newest American Viticultural Area the TTB announced today, exciting news for wineries sourcing grapes from Stillwater Creek situated in the heart of the new AVA. The designation will differentiate the growing region from other areas of the Columbia Valley and help consumers further appreciate the quality and distinct character of the wines.

The Royal Slope, a sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley located on the south-facing slopes of the Frenchman Hills, is Washington State’s 15th AVA. It encompasses over 156,000 acres in Grant and Adams counties. The growing region is classified as warm but not excessively hot, in part due to the area’s elevation — 1,300 feet on average, compared to 600 feet on the Wahluke Slope, an AVA 15 miles south. These factors, along with the AVA’s steep, south-facing slopes, define the growing region.

Veteran Washington winemaker Mike Januik first visited Stillwater Creek in 1999 to consult on the vineyard’s planting. “I was immediately impressed by the site’s elevation and soils,” he recalls. “Unlike other growing regions surrounding the area, Stillwater Creek’s soils are distinguished by a large amount of fractured basalt. At an elevation of 1200-1500 ft., the soils found here are unlike soils deposited by the Great Missoula flood in neighboring appellations, further differentiating the Royal Slope from other vineyards outside the boundaries of the AVA.”

Stillwater Creek is also distinguished by its exceptional selection of premium varietal clones, including seven clones of Cabernet Sauvignon (2, 4, 6, 8, 47, 169 and 191) and four clones of Syrah (1, 174, 300 and Phelps). The site’s varying topography creates diverse mesoclimates, allowing a wide range of grape varieties to thrive here.

A Late June Report

Though bud break this year was earlier than 2019, bloom was later than 2019  due to cold, rainy  weather that started in mid-May and persisted through mid-June. In fact, we are receiving our first warm days of the year this week. Yesterday was about 90 degrees.

In a week I will report on fruit set. I am sure that there will be some shatter due to the weather we had during bloom.  I like to see a little shatter because these berries fall off the clusters, and it opens up the vine to more sunlight and better coloring of the fruit. 

The vineyard looks excellent at present. We are ahead of schedule on leafing, along with our second pass of cordon suckering. Whenever possible, we want to have the leafing complete before the berries become large — my preference is by the times berries are pea-sized. This allows the berries to acclimate to the sun and heat resulting in thicker skins that are more resistant to burn later in the season. When leafing is carried out too late and the berries are large, the fruit is more susceptible to sunburn and heat stress.

Another important tool that we have to create better fruit quality at this time is to minimize the vigor of the vine. Around the time when the berries are pea-sized. they are going through rapid cell division. If we can limit the total number of cells in the berries, we can keep berry size down; and smaller berries typically make better wines.

Vintage 2020 to Date

The weather in April was on the warm side and led to an early-average bud break, but the rapid development of buds from early bud swell to the unfurling of the leaves was unusual. With warm and dry weather, the vines exploded into bud break with little separation in bud break between varieties.

The weather following bud break remained warm until the second week of May when temperatures cooled, and it began raining frequently, with rainfall intervals becoming more frequent of late. To combat the wet weather, we are paying extra attention to canopy management. Our crew has completed cordon suckering and is now working on a leafing pass. An open canopy is crucial to a healthy vineyard and wine quality, and we are ahead of schedule here.

Denise Bonilla, who will be taking over for his father Regulo next year, has been doing a phenomenal job working with the crew this spring. Congratulations to Dennis who earned his master’s degree in Viticulture from Washington State University this spring. The crew is working efficiently and effectively under his leadership, and we are taking extra measures to keep everyone safe through COVID-19. We take temperature readings of every crew member before the work day begins, people are working at least two rows apart on all operations, vehicles are being sanitized regularly, and social distancing is followed during break time and lunch.

Bloom is now underway. We’ll have to wait and see if this season’s rain will impact fruit set, as it often does. A slighted reduced set, meaning fewer berries remaining in the cluster after pollination, can lead to high quality fruit. Slightly looser clusters allow light to penetrate the vine, developing fruit with high color pigmentation.

 

2019 Mid-Season Growing Report

Bloom is behind us (see dates by blocks), and we have now completed cordon suckering, trunk suckering, shoot positioning and hedging, and the leafing process is well underway too. Following leafing, we will begin crop load adjustments. So far, the canopy and fruit look great, and shoot growth is excellent. Here’s today’s look at Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, along with a few pictures of Sauvignon Blanc. 

Fruit set has varied around the vineyard due to rains and high winds during bloom. For the most part fruit set is good, but there are a few areas where it has been light. We will begin cluster counts soon in order to make adjustments for target crop loads.

The weather this year has been a little unusual. In general the temperatures have been slightly cooler than normal and have either been very warm or cool, with extreme fluctuations. Along with the temperature swings, we have had numerous thunderstorms, but I am happy to report the vineyard is free of mildew that sometimes accompanies such conditions.

Weed control has been a bit of an issue this season, in large measure due to the constant winds that have accompanied extreme temperatures. Because of snowy, cold temperatures conditions in February, weeds did not begin to grow until after bud break. We are finally getting control of situation, however. The purchase of two weed eaters and hand-mowing where needed has helped.

Fast Start to 2019

The first major benchmark of the 2019 growing season is behind us. Bud break is complete, and like 2018, it proceeded rapidly. Dates for bud break by block can be found here.

The weather has been very warm this spring and we now have up to 4” of growth in some blocks. I began irrigating last week and am applying some nutrients to give the vines a boost, including boron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and calcium. These are very important nutrients for the beginning stages of growth, so we are coming in early with them. 

Calcium and boron are particularly important at this point in the year. Calcium helps move water and nutrients through the vine and creates strong cell walls. It is also very important to the photosynthetic process. The boron helps with early season shoot growth, creating strong vertical growth while minimizing lateral shoot growth. When boron levels are deficient, shoot growth is stunted and many lateral shoots tend to grow; this is not a great combination for wine quality so we begin adjusting for it now.

View photos.

Pruning Underway Despite Weather Delays

We usually start pruning the first or second week of February, but we started about two weeks later this year due to cold, snowy weather throughout February and into early March.

Prior to February, the weather was mild with very little precipitation. I was concerned about a potential early bud break and set up the crew to begin pruning the first week of February. The day we were to begin work, temperatures dropped into the single digits and it began snowing − much too cold for the crew to work. These conditions lasted through much of February and though the weather wasn’t ideal, we began pruning in mid-February, with over a foot of snow on the ground. Last week, the weather finally made a dramatic change, and daytime temperatures were in the 50’s.

Pruning is progressing well. The crew is doing excellent work, and we hope to be complete with this by mid-April. Most of last year’s crew is back again this year, a real plus for the 2019 growing season.

Despite the challenges, the snowy weather has made for some beautiful scenery across the Royal Slope and Saddle Mountains. Enjoy the view!

It’s a Wrap

 

As of today, the 2018 Stillwater Creek Vineyard harvest is complete. 

The season started early and came on fast. We picked our first load of grapes on August 31st, but the picking soon slowed to a moderate pace; and in the end, we will remember 2018 as a long harvest. We had no major weather events. In fact, the weather throughout the harvest season was quite pleasant, with cool to warm days and cool nights. There was a mild frost during the third week of October that little effect, impacting only a few acres of the vineyard that had already been picked.

A more detailed review will follow, but for now, I wanted to acknowledge the completion of our 2018 growing season. We will begin cleanup and start to put the vineyard to rest for the winter.

 

So Far, So Good!

We began harvest on August 31st and have been picking small amounts of fruit daily. The pace is picking up though, and I have several larger picks scheduled through next week.

We have been harvesting Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and oddly enough some Phelps Syrah, which usually is picked 2-3 weeks later in the season. Equally surprising is the fact we are just now beginning to harvest Chardonnay. It is typically ready at the start of the picking season.

The weather has been perfect for harvest. The temperatures have cooled significantly so far this month. Our days have been in the 70’s and the nights in the 40’s. We had one brief rainfall to clean a summer’s worth of hot weather off the plants, and the vines look quite happy.

So far the yields are close to target, and I think the fruit is looking very good. This is just the beginning of harvest, but I am happy with what I am seeing. 

2018 Harvest is Here

The 2018 harvest has arrived! We picked our first block of Sauvignon Blanc last Friday, and the grapes are coming on fast. I expect more picking later this week and anticipate harvest will be in full swing next week.

This has been another interesting year for grape growing here in Washington. May was warm and the grapes grew quickly, shortening time between bud break and bloom. June cooled down a little but was not cold. July and August were hot. I am still gathering final heat unit numbers, but as of today, it appears 2018 has been hotter than 2016 and 2017 but not as hot as 2015.

Currently, we are dropping fruit throughout the vineyard for the second time this season. We dropped clusters on the first pass to achieve targeted yields but left a little extra fruit in anticipation of hot temperatures in July and August. The second pass is made to remove unwanted clusters showing signs of heat stress, resulting in better quality grapes when it comes time to pick.

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“Fast but Good”

Both July and August have fluctuated between warm and hot, similar to July and August 2017. If the current temperatures continue, I believe August 2018 will be warmer than last year. This year’s temperatures were warmer than April, May and June 2017, and our heat units (2,204) through August 13 are higher than both 2017 and 2016 but less than in 2015.

What all this means is difficult to say. We are in veraison around the vineyard. The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc reached full veraison on August 10 and the Syrah is just now in full veraison. All other varieties are getting close. These dates put the vineyard about five days ahead of 2017. 

The warm weather is expected to continue, therefore I would guess Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc will be ready to harvest early September or earlier. In general, I believe we will be about a week earlier than in 2017.

We are now working on adjusting the crop loads. We have gone through most of the whites and are beginning the Merlot, then on to the Syrah. Cluster weights seem larger than in 2017, but still slightly lighter than normal. So, we will be leaving slightly higher cluster counts than normal.

With the warm weather this year I have reduced the amount of leaf removal that we normally do. In particular we did very little leaf removal in the Cabernet Sauvignon; we emoved a few laterals on the morning side of the vines coupled with an additional cordon suckering. I believe a lower level of leaf removal will improve the wine quality by reducing heat stress.

In general, I am very pleased with the look of the vineyard. The canopies are in good condition, veraison is uniform and we have no real problems to address. It’s been a fast, but good year.