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Grapes are harvested at Del Rio Vineyards near Gold Hill on Friday. Wine-grape growers statewide are reporting excellent to near-record harvests. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

'A miracle harvest'

A loud sigh of relief has echoed through vineyards from Ashland to Dundee after wine-grape growers weathered a long, cold spring and a late-ripening crop to pull in what is being called a very good crop of wine grapes.

Valley View Vineyard in Ruch was among the last to start picking grapes when it began picking last Thursday, taking advantage of generally warm September and October temperatures.

"The weather has been incredible, in terms of great weather to harvest grapes," said Valley View Vineyard president Mark Wisnovsky. "In some varieties, we've had record yields."

Yield is important to Wisnovsky because of Valley View's connection to warehouse retailer Costco.

"We've had a series of lower-than-average yield years," Wisnovsky said. "This is really going to help fill up the warehouse and keep that program going."

Statewide, wine-industry representatives are calling it a "miracle harvest."

Following a 22 percent production decline in 2010, when late rains hampered harvest and migrating birds damaged crops, the state's vintners were more than a bit antsy with many grape varieties slow to ripen. This past week, however, the Oregon Wine Board reported the industry was poised to challenge tonnage records.

"Two weeks ago, we were literally in the bottom of the ninth inning, two runs behind with two outs," said Sam Tannahill, chairman of the Oregon Wine Board, in a statement. "Then things changed 180 degrees, the weather patterns shifted and the sun came out. Truly, this is a miracle harvest."

Micro-climates in mountainous Southern Oregon can cause significant differences in both ripening and quality over relatively small distances, but local growers are reporting almost uniform success.

Rob Wallace, whose agriculture experience predates his dozen years at Del Rio Vineyards outside Gold Hill, said he has no complaints.

"We got three weeks of sunshine that saved our bacon," he said. "I've been doing this for 25 years with a lot of different crops. Anyone in farming knows you always end up with a knot in the gut in mid-October, but we always seem to get it done."

Bridgeview Vineyard winemaker and vice president Rene Eichmann reported the three vineyards — two in the Illinois Valley and one in the Applegate Valley — actually matured faster this year than in 2010.

"We were never that far behind, and I'm a good solid week ahead of last year," Eichmann said. "There were some growers around who were thinking they were way behind and now, of course, everyone is jazzed over the last three weeks that were really nice."

The frost that hit in the final week of October hasn't been a problem, because the grapes had hit their sugar numbers.

"Overall, we're looking at a really, really good year," he said. "Definitely better than last year."

Wisnovsky is thankful tonnage is up, because it gives Valley View the ability to operate on lower margins.

"With the economy the way it is, our sales are up 25 percent this year," he said. "That's because we sell a lot in the $8 to $12 a bottle range. We need to sell a lot of those wines, because we're not selling a lot of $20 to $25 wine. With this tonnage we can make a lot of $12 wines. It's a great year in the sense that we can make some really good $12 to $14 wines and keep the market supplied."

Short-term, Wisnovsky's goal is to keep the engine running and be ready to accelerate when the economy cycles back.

"When you are selling thousands of cases for $5.99 or $8.99, you don't necessarily make money," he said. "But it allows growers to keep growing fruit, allows full employment for growers and wineries, and for people to buy it and enjoy it. We've been around for 35 years and seen recessions before. I don't know if it's the right way to do it, but it's the way we've managed to survive and succeed."

When the grape quality allows, Valley View produces its high-end Anna Maria line of vintages.

"Not every year is exceptional," Wisnovsky said. "If we are fortunate, we'll get a few cases, but I don't see a huge amount of Anna Maria this year."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

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