The grapes of this cabernet sauvignon are pressed and then poured into barrels for winemaking. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Weather into Wine

The cooler, wetter, harvest climate could have a significant impact on the 2007 vintage of wines, but some say it's just another typical Oregon harvest.

Timing the wine grape harvest is perhaps the most crucial science of the process. And if any one of the dozens of elements outside the winemaker's control goes wrong, years of work can be jeopardized. Groundbreaking wine can come from these adverse conditions, but so can flops.

Weisinger's of Ashland winemaker Chanda Beeghley, a first-year winemaker, has had a less-than-ideal first harvest on her own.

She graduated in 2005 with a degree in biology from Southern Oregon University, and for the past six years she's been working as an assistant to Southern Oregon winemakers John Weisinger and Gus Janeway. Since February, she has been the chief winemaker at Weisinger's.

She said the region's winery and vineyard workers had planned on an early harvest in September — two and a half weeks earlier than usual. But the sudden drop in temperature and early rain showers pushed those plans a month back — Weisinger's harvested 70 percent of their fruit in the past few weeks. Because of the lack of sunshine, final maturation of the grapes couldn't occur.

A complicated thing occurs when grapes are still on the vine and there is too much rain, but to put it simply, the excess water dilutes the sugar content, thereby decreasing the alcohol content, and affecting the overall flavor and quality of the wine.

If the weather stayed dreary, and the recent warm weather stretch had not come, the 2007 vintage would have been dire.

"During the warm stretch over the last couple weeks we tried to let the fruit dehydrate, and continue ripening on the vine," Beeghley said.

Beeghley, 27, said she's blessed to have worked under mentors Janeway and Weisinger for the past six years. She said their guidance has helped her with this first challenging year and she still seeks their advice and counsel.

Despite Mother Nature's lack of cooperation, there was a high yield of grapes this year. Beeghley said Weisinger's was expecting to harvest about 58 tons of grapes and instead harvested 63. Unfortunately, they followed the "quantity, not quality" rule. Beeghley is mixing up the fermentation, pressing and blending processes to compensate for the quality of grapes, and to ensure that they make the best possible wine.

Just in time for this difficult harvest, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has relaxed some of its wine labeling laws, allowing a varietal to contain 75 percent of that specific grape instead of 90 percent.

Beeghley says that rather than having a single varietal of wine, they'll make a blend.

Also, by using several different types of yeast during the fermentation process, each of which gives off a different character, she is taking a thin wine and cultivating more "mouth feel" and aroma.

Beeghley said many wineries have short, hot fermentations that last about a week, but these fermentations are better suited for grapes with high sugar content.

At Weisinger's, they are doing much longer, cold fermentations to extract the full fruit flavors over two to three weeks.

Ashland was not alone in experiencing adverse weather conditions. Applegate Valley winemakers also reported low sugar content, but some brushed it off as a "typical Oregon harvest."

Dave Palmer, owner of Jacksonville Vineyards, explains why one vineyard can be so different from its neighbor.

Palmer, who yielded a record crop of 52 tons, said the right site for a vineyard is crucial. Sun exposure and soil quality are vital elements when selecting a site.

"Grapes have about twice as much sugar as any other fruit. That's the reason grapes are what we make wine from. When it reaches 22 percent or higher, it produces a high quality red wine," Palmer said.

René Eichmann, vice president and winemaker at Bridgeview Winery in Cave Junction, said that despite the wet month, they were able to harvest all their grapes on dry days — an extremely important step in the harvesting process.

There were no disease problems in the fruit, but he did report low sugar.

He thinks it will be a bad year for cabernet franc, but said their popular pinot noir came in "picture perfect."

"That is the allure of Southern Oregon wines: Despite the weather, we consistently make good wine," Eichmann said.

Applegate Valley winemaker Jim Devitt of Devitt Winery said of the harvest, "Some people may think it was a typical Oregon year, but I don't think so. Over the last five years, this was the coldest and it had more impact on some of the grapes than other years."

Many winemakers were hoping to get their sugar levels up, and while they were waiting, the rain came. He said he was bringing in fruit at 18 percent.

Both Devitt and Eichmann said they will be making a lot of rosé wine instead of blending their low sugar reds.

"It's called drawing down," said Devitt. "You get more intense flavors by taking off a percentage of the sugars, and that juice makes a rosé."

Despite a less than wonderful harvest, part of the beauty of enjoying local wines is the variations from year to year. With larger, international labels like Yellowtail, the wines consistently taste the same year after year. To achieve this sameness, extra acid or sugar is added.

Beeghley says she would rather make the year's own wine, regardless of the weather conditions, than mimic the previous year's style.

"Last year was a perfect year weatherwise for winemaking," Beeghley said. "Even mediocre winemakers could make good wines."

"This is a pivotal year. The wines will really reflect the winemaker's capability," she said.

Megan Shreeve is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail her at

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