A Comparison of the 2015 and 2016 Growing Seasons

SWC-Mail-Chimp-small-1The 2016 growing season began about the same as in 2015, with bud-break and bloom times very similar. Veraison, however, is different in 2016. The white varietals seem to have about the same veraison time as in 2015, but the red varietals are later to hit veraison in 2016 compared to last year.  This should be good news for winemakers because there should be more separation in ripening dates between the white grapes and red grapes than last year. The harvest of 2015 was very difficult due to the white and red grape varietals ripening close together. So this year’s harvest should be a little more relaxed.

The separation between the white varietals and reds this year can be somewhat explained by the differences in heat patterns. April, May and June were very warm in both 2015 and 2016, but July 2016 was much cooler than last year.

  • July 2016 maximum temperatures averaged 84.4 with average minimum temperatures of 59.3.
  • July 2015 maximum temperatures averaged 89.5 with average minimum temperatures of 63.4

That is a lot of heat difference!  Additionally, July 2016 had multiple rain showers, higher humidity and less wind than in July 2015. This is likely the reason for greater separation in white and red varietals at veraison.

August has turned warm — hot actually — so we will see what happens for harvest. The weather is supposed to be in the upper 80’s this week and lower 80’s next week, perfect weather for photosynthesis. If this weather keeps up, look for grapes to ripen at a good pace.

We are now adjusting crop loads around the vineyard. Cluster sizes seem more or less normal so we are using cluster counts similar to last year. Skin color looks good and the vine canopies are strong. This should be a very good year for Stillwater Creek fruit.

We just ran our first set of grapes samples so everyone should be looking to the website for harvest data. The Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are showing brix of 22, so we will likely sample again early next week.  PHOTOS

July Temps Ideal; Veraison Underway

thumb_P8010063_1024The 2015 growing season was our earliest bud break and veraison on record, and 2016 has been following in its footsteps. We may be a little earlier than last year with veraison on the white varietals, but we seem to be a little later with the red varietals so far. This is likely due to the cooler July weather we experienced this year versus July 2015 temps. In 2015, we had no breaks from the hot, dry, windy weather. In 2016 we had a much cooler July weather pattern, along with a number of thunder showers.

I was not sure how the cooler July would affect the grapes compared to 2015. Even though the weather is cooler this year, the canopy is stronger and photosynthesis is more efficient with temps in the 80’s to low 90’s as opposed to the upper 90’s and 100’s last year. We will have to wait for the final data, but it looks like full veraison in many of the red varietals could be a week or more behind last year.

One of the benefits to what we are seeing, if it stays this way, is a separation in the ripening of whites and reds. I am sure this will be disappointing to those winemakers that want everything coming in at the same time.

The canopies are looking great. Leaf color is good, and grape exposure is excellent. If everything keeps going as it is, I have high hopes for excellent quality fruit this year, with better hang times than last year. We will see.  Have a look for yourself.

Bloom Almost Complete

thumb_P6040052_1024-3We are almost through bloom now. It began very early, then the weather cooled and slowed things down a bit, though we are still ahead of 2015 this year but not by much.

From the looks of the flowering and the weather I am guessing that set will be excellent in 2016. I’ll know more in ten days or so.

Flower clusters in most varieties are much larger in 2016 than I have seen in the past and cluster counts are high so we should have good yields. Again, I will know more after set. The exception is in the Phelps Syrah, which appears to have a lower cluster count. I will make cluster counts within the next few weeks so I can be more accurate in predicting yields.

Shoot growth slowed down during bloom due to a cool down period, but has picked up again. Leaf color also looks good. All this tells me the vines are in good shape for this point in time.

We still have a lot of work to do in canopy management as we are still working on cordon suckering. The suckering process has taken much longer this year because most of the primary, secondary and tertiary shoots have pushed, coupled with very early and rapid growth. (Every bud we see on a cane really has three growing points and in most years it’s mainly the primary bud that grows and some percentage of the secondary buds. When we sucker the cordon we usually take off the secondary shoots that have grown leaving only the primary shoots.) This year, however, a high percentage of all three growing points pushed. Removing so many secondary and tertiary shoots has added a great deal of time to suckering and shoot selection on the cordon.  We will now also begin to position shoots into the vertical wires.

For more information, view photos of the vineyard this spring.  Dates for bloom by block are also available.

Another Early Bud Break

thumbnail-bud-breakBud break was very early this year, about the same as 2015, our earliest. (View 2016 bud break dates by block here.)  To date, we are approximately 8 inches ahead of last year in shoot growth. The crew is working on cordon and crown suckering. We will complete the white varieties and then move to the Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and finish up with the north block’s along the runway.

Soon we will add foliar mineral to the vines. We will begin with a mix of foliar applied multi-minerals and calcium, important to build strong cell walls this time of year.

More spring photos of the vineyard can be viewed here.

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


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.