Bringing in the bounty from Yamhill Valley vineyards

Editor’s Note: Here, from a 2006 Oregon Wine Press article, is a look at some of the conditions faced annually by winegrowers of the Yamhill Valley.


Michael Stevenson, gearing up for the 2006 harvest at Panther Creek Cellars in McMinnville, may not have been the first to say, "We live and die by the weather." But he was right on the money in describing events of that fall run-up to harvest.

As he visited vineyards around the valley in early September, things seemed to be shaping up for a banner year. At Temperance Hill Vineyard in the Eola Hills – one of the largest and most diverse vineyards of the area – he found Vineyard Manager Dai Crisp delighted at the prospects.

One way vineyardists tell when grapes are nearing maturity is by monitoring the lignification process, wherein stems turn from green and malleable to brown and woody.

"Everything is looking great. I don't recall ever seeing ligature this early on pinot noir," Crisp said, referring to the hardening of grape cluster stems.

But shortly after the visit, the weather changed dramatically. Cooler temperatures accompanied by sporadic but persistent periods of rain set in for more than a week.

Crisp said the rain helped relieve vine stress brought on by a hot summer. "We've had as much heat as 2003," he said.

Had it continued, it would have threatened the prospect of moldy, under-ripe grapes. If a little rain is good, a lot is definitely not. As it turned out, high pressure brought clear skies and above-normal temperatures, so Mother Nature have given the grapes a shot of agricultural adrenaline and then smiled favorably on north Willamette vineyards at exactly the right moment.

Around the valley, growers were scrambling to bring in the harvest.

From dawn to mid-day is prime picking time, but that was being extended into the early afternoon to take full advantage of a week-long window of ideal weather. After all, Mother's next mood swing could come soon and be considerably less kind.

Shea Vineyard, east of Yamhill on Highway 240, started picking in mid-September. Said vineyard manager Javier marin:

"The younger plantings on blocks at the lowest elevations were our first," he said. "We tested for sugar level in the vineyard, and they came in at 23 to 24 brix.”

The field check is done by picking six or seven clusters from different spots, hand-squeezing the juice and taking readings with a light refractometer. Each winery using a vineyard’s grapes must make a final decision on when to pick, based on a lab analysis of sugar, acidity and pH, plus their own tastebud analysis of flavors and tannins.

The Brix level converts to alcohol at approximately 55 percent, if fermented fully dry. In other words, 23 brix would yield slightly more than 12.5 percent alcohol.

For a dry wine like pinot noir, the winery is looking to pick at about 24 Brix, and certainly no higher than 26. For late harvest wine, or others where some residual sugar is desirable, the grapes will be left to hang longer and accumulate higher sugar levels.

As for the actual harvest, the criteria for proficiency in picking pinot noir lies not only in quantity, but in finesse – the thin-skinned grapes require gentle treatment. Pickers must cradle the clusters, not squeeze them. They average about 10 buckets an hour, but the fastest can do as many as 20.

Marin’s early assessment of that 2006 harvest was optimistic: "I think it will be great," he said. "We have large, perfect clusters, tight and even."

The Yamhill Valley wines from 2006, as many can attest, proved him correct.

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