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.

Signs of Spring

The vineyard is warming up and bud break is approaching. During the past week, the vines have begun to bleed, meaning that water is pushing up through the pruning wounds and that is really the beginning of bud break. Hormones are moved from the roots up through the vines, basically waking up the plant for the season. Soon the bud scales will begin to crack, then the bud will swell (often called “wooly bud stage”) and finally the leaves will begin to unfurl. How quickly this happens depends upon the weather. I am guessing the first leaves will appear near the end of April, which would indicate a normal bud break.

The 2017/2018 fall and winter seasons were dry, especially when compared to the 2017 growing season. I have therefore started to apply water to the soil; dry soil during bud break can limit the number of buds that push and the uniformity of early shoot growth. I will also apply a small dose of minerals to the soil that will include the macro and micronutrients. Humates will be added to help start the soil microbes, jumping the soil ecology into motion.

Plans are underway for an irrigation trial in blocks 1 through 9. We will be adding greater quantities of water prior to bud break in order to mimic the high rainfall we experienced during the early part of the 2017 growing season. I have chosen these blocks because the soil is more uniform throughout the rows. My hope is that we will not need to irrigate these blocks again until June. If all works well, we will continue this pattern in blocks 1 through 9 throughout the 2018 growing season, meaning fewer irrigation sets of greater hours. If all works well, and this will likely take a couple years to determine, we may take the program to other blocks throughout the vineyard.

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