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Patiently Waiting

POLK COUNTY -- In 2010, winemakers hoped for a sunny and warm October to bring their grapes to a perfect balance of ripeness and flavor development.

POLK COUNTY -- In 2010, winemakers hoped for a sunny and warm October to bring their grapes to a perfect balance of ripeness and flavor development.

Looks like 2011 could be round 2 of that waiting, wishing and hoping routine.

Andreas Wetzel, the winemaker at Chateau Bianca west of Dallas, said with the exception of the recent stretch of warm -- even hot -- temperatures, the season has been cool. Last year, similar conditions pushed the harvest so late it broke records at many vineyards.

"We are seeing the same kind of pattern this year," Wetzel said.

Having to wait until late in the season to harvest risks running into an early rainy season and the onslaught of hungry birds.

"Last year's bird pressure was really bad," Wetzel said. If the season extends as long as winemakers are predicting -- well into October -- that could be an issue once again this year.

In 2010, grape growers lost 3,066 tons of grapes to animals, compared to 275 tons the year before, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service 2010 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report.

Using last year as a reference point and years of experience in Oregon's often wacky weather patterns, Polk County grape growers are coping.

"It (ripening) has caught up with last year and might be a tad ahead now," said Mary Olson, owner of Airlie Winery, a 32-acre vineyard southwest of Monmouth. "We are very optimistic. It will still be a late harvest, but we are going to have the best October ever."

Recent summerlike temperatures have helped ripen Oregon's predominate -- and sensitive -- variety, pinot noir.

"Any time we can get into the upper 80s, that is great," Olson said. "The upper 90s are not. Pinot is a true Oregonian, it doesn't like it too hot."

Wetzel said the weather outlook, at least right now, calls for more perfect ripening temperatures in the 70s and 80s, with warm and dry conditions through September.

Grape growers are, nonetheless, employing a few tricks they learned last year.

Wetzel said Chateau Bianca opted to remove fruit to allow the remaining grapes to ripen quicker.

Olson said Airlie's cool-season mitigating efforts started even earlier and seems to be keeping fungus and mildew at bay.

"We did leaf pulling at bloom ... to expose the grapes much earlier than we have before, and I love what I'm seeing now," Olson said.

As far as ripening is concerned, the Mid-Valley does have an advantage over other winemaking regions: cool evenings.

Wetzel said cool nights encourage flavor development, which means vineyards don't have to wait for the peak sugar development to harvest.

"We can make really nice wine from fruit with low sugar levels," Wetzel said.

Wetzel said he is encouraged by what he is seeing now, but remains just cautiously optimistic.

"The question is what is going to happen with Mother Nature," Wetzel pondered. "What does she have in store?"

Olson agreed, saying while ripening looks good now, there still is plenty of growing season left.

"The next five weeks will tell," she said.

Early rains are the biggest worry. Rain dilutes the fruit, both on the outside and inside as the grapes soak it up.

Olson said it takes a few days without rain to recover, leaving winemakers hoping for a warm and dry autumn.

"We don't want fall to start before maybe mid-November," Olson said with a laugh.

Even if an uncharacteristically warm and dry fall doesn't materialize, Olson's hopes remain high for 2011.

"Oregon grape growers have seen a lot of weather ... and they do all they can to bring in a great crop," Olson said. "We will do it again this year."

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