WAPATO — It has been only a decade since Mike Sauer experimented at his famous Red Willow Vineyard with Marquette, an early-ripening red wine grape developed at the University of Minnesota.
Sauer had achieved international acclaim growing classic French varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, which he first planted in 1973, and syrah in 1986. But back-to-back cold vintages in 2010 and 2011 had the storied wine grower wondering whether he needed to take portions of his family’s Yakima Valley vineyard in a different direction.
“We thought we were going back to the ice age,” Sauer says with a wry smile, seated in the shade of a gazebo surrounded by his vines near the Mount Adams foothills. “Literally, we were thinking, ‘Maybe this thing is going the other direction,’ because 2010 was quite a cool year compared with what we had.”
The 2011 growing season brought another cold vintage that Sauer likened to Oregon’s cooler Willamette Valley, which is ideal for cool-climate varieties such as pinot noir and chardonnay — but not big reds.
“Man alive, we couldn’t ripen anything!” Sauer recalls.
Then came the 2012 growing season, almost immediately hailed as a classic vintage for Washington winemakers. That began a string of warm seasons that shows no sign of ending. In fact, the 2021 vintage charted right alongside that of 2015, which set records for high temperatures.
The wine world’s leading climate researcher, Greg Jones, who now serves as CEO of his family’s Abacela Winery in Southern Oregon, produced meta-analysis that indicates a warming of 2 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit in West Coast wine regions by the year 2050, with plants showing an earlier shift in their growth cycle. Precipitation is projected to increase during winter — good for the snowpack — and decrease during summer. That’s bad news for help with drought-fueled wildfires.
Growers and vintners in Washington no longer worry about having warm enough temperatures to ripen prized red grapes for their most expensive wines. But they now fear a litany of other problems, such as wildfires, smoke, sunburned grapes and pests. On top of that in 2021 came a “heat dome,” which adversely affected vineyard labor — a critical component of the wine industry.
WILDFIRES HAVE CLAIMED vineyards in California, but smoke from fires up and down the West Coast became a significant problem in Washington wine grapes starting with the 2017 vintage.
In a prescient decision, Washington State University hired assistant professor Tom Collins in 2015 to spearhead smoke-related research for the Washington wine industry. Collins’ research is now also funded by the Oregon and California wine industries.
“Tom Collins has job security,” Yakima Valley grower Dick Boushey says with a chuckle.
Boushey, a Washington State Wine Commission board member, remembers hearing criticism for bringing on Collins, who has created plastic tunnels surrounding rows of vines, and burned varieties of wood and brush as part of his research.
“We kind of were aware of it back in 2016, but people wondered, ‘Why are you guys studying smoke taint?’ ” Boushey recalls. “We recruited Tom because that was his background. We devoted more funding to his research after ’17. Now, we’re spending even more, and we’re learning a lot.”
Smoke-tainted wines can present a range of characteristics reminiscent of an ashtray, creosote, peat, smoked fish or menthol.
“I go through Tom Collins’ smoke-trial wines all the time, and science is what’s going to save us,” Boushey says. “And for those I work with, a lot has been going on in their wineries as far as how to deal with the smoke.”
One of Boushey’s most famous customers, Betz Family Winery in Woodinville, told customers and reporters in June that it would not release any wines from the 2020 vintage because they were affected by smoke. That includes its young SuNu label of pinot noir grown in the Willamette Valley. In most years, Betz bottles about 7,000 cases of wine.
All lots had varying levels of compounds associated with smoke taint, according to Steve and Bridgit Griessel, owners of Betz Family Winery.
That announcement prompted a swift response from Steve Warner, president of the wine commission. Steve Griessel serves on the commission with Boushey.
“At this point, we can confidently state that smoke impact is not widespread in the 2020 wines,” Warner said.
STILL, NEARLY EVERY winemaker in the state fielded questions from customers about smoke taint, and some asked whether every wine bottled from the 2020 vintage would remind them of an ashtray.
Charlie Hoppes, of Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain, says, “Maybe 5% of our harvest was affected, and we’ve worked through the smoke issues on all but two lots [of wine]. We are continually evaluating those lots, but we think it’s a great vintage, actually.”
His winemaker, Mitch Venohr, says, “We saw the smoke mostly in petit verdot and cabernet franc, so, early on, we identified where we’ll have to focus. The goal is always to get rid of it. We are not going to release a wine like that, and we’re not going to try to sneak anything by people.”
Their work in the cellar on those two Bordeaux red varieties included adding wood chips to fermentations, and a new product called ClearUp BIO, which is approved for organic wine production in the United States.
“We’ve seen a huge reduction in the smoke issues in those wines, and we continue to work on the last one or two lots,” Venohr says. “On some of these lots where we can identify it, I don’t know that most people would notice.”
Those 2020 red wines won’t begin to be released until next year, but Boushey already is impressed.
“They’ve let me try ‘the problem children,’ and if they hadn’t told me, I don’t know that I could have been able to tell — other than that petit verdot,” Boushey says. “And that petit verdot I’d probably buy, because it’s so darn interesting.”
While Betz wrote off an entire vintage of grapes from a number of the state’s acclaimed vineyards, some of Washington’s largest producers have found success selling wine to wildfire-plagued California wineries. And one of Washington’s largest family-owned vintners, Maryhill Winery near Goldendale, continues to report success across its four tasting rooms in the state.
“We will bottle around 85,000 cases from the 2020 vintage, if we can get the glass for bottling,” says owner Craig Leuthold, highlighting the global glass shortage that has plagued many wineries, even before the pandemic. “That will be about the most wine we’ve produced since 2011. Overall, I think Washington was not as greatly affected as some areas of the West Coast. Certainly last year, we had to reject a couple of blocks of grapes because fires were close to those vineyards, but just because there’s smoke doesn’t necessarily mean the grapes are affected by smoke. There are a lot of other factors involved.”
Meanwhile, the cyclical nature of the wine industry edged toward Washington’s favor. Between the recent fires in California and Oregon, and the lighter clusters from the 2021 vintage, there’s not the talk about the state’s “wine glut” that made national headlines just as the pandemic began.
MARK TAKAGI IS the longtime wine, beer, spirits and beverage specialist for Metropolitan Market, where he has worked since 1990. He was named 2018 Retail Wine Steward of the Year by Seattle magazine. Before that, he helped Met Market win the Washington State Wine Commission’s Retailer of the Year award. He purchases the wine for all nine stores, including the Gig Harbor location that opened earlier this fall. What’s in the bottle has changed during his days in the trade.
“The wines are getting much riper and with higher alcohol, and it seems wines are getting more manipulated,” Takagi says. “And smoke taint is evident in a lot of wines I’ve tasted from the 2020 vintage. I was in the Willamette Valley about two months ago, and in speaking with a lot of premium wineries, I asked them how they dealt with 2020 vintage and smoke taint. Most were on the same page [to skip the vintage]. They’ve worked hard for so long to build their reputation and didn’t want it ruined in one vintage.”
Much of the history surrounding Red Willow is tied to the late David Lake, a Master of Wine from Canada who elevated Columbia Winery in Woodinville with an Old World approach to making wine in Washington and using Sauer family fruit to achieve renown. Lake rarely picked grapes that reached the traditional ripeness level beyond 24% sugar — or 24 Brix. (The higher the Brix, the more alcohol will be produced as the wine ferments to dryness. The unit of measurement is named after Adolf Brix, a 19th-century German engineer.)
“We are reaching 24 Brix so easily and quickly nowadays,” Sauer says. “I look at a lot of the old David Lake wines we bring out for special events, and they are 12.8% alcohol wines — and once in a while, they were 13% — but they age nicely.”
THE 2021 VINTAGE will be remembered as a notorious growing season for several reasons, led by the unprecedented, and deadly, late-June heat.
“It was 123 at the winery one day,” Leuthold says of the temperature. “Interestingly enough, it got all the way down to the high 60s the next morning — the benefit of the diurnal shift we have in Washington that many other regions don’t.”
And when there is oppressive heat or wildfire smoke, vineyard workers aren’t able to spend as much time grooming the vines.
“Whenever it gets up to 95 degrees, we’ll send the crew home,” Sauer says. “And you bring in your crew earlier; they come in at 5 in the morning and go home at 11 a.m.”
Depending on the grape variety, when the temperature hits 95, the vines also will “shut down” to focus on protecting themselves. They no longer put energy into maturing the grapes.
Boushey is quick to point out the additional effects of recent high humidity. “You don’t last very long in it. You couldn’t accomplish the same amount of tasks in the vineyard with the same amount of people. We got way behind because of it.
“We’ve all become used to these dry, arid conditions in Eastern Washington, where it’s 15% humidity,” Boushey says. “Well, we had 50% some days, and it’s all associated with that smoke because it held the moisture in. But I actually think that was beneficial to the plants, because it was less stressful than a 100-degree day with no humidity. However, it also creates potential problems with botrytis, bunch rot and mildew.”
And were it not for smoke from the wildfires, the 2021 harvest likely would have begun sooner.
“What’s happened the last two years is that the smoke settles in and actually blocks the sun, so there’s less photosynthesis, and it slows down maturity,” Boushey says. “It’s very measurable. We were recording 19 Brix at the beginning of the week, and we were getting 19 Brix at the end of the week. There was no advancement in maturity. The problem with that is it can delay harvest and leave you more vulnerable to cold weather that comes during October.”
Out at Red Willow, there’s a new expense to help the grapes avoid sunburn — shade cloth at $500 per acre.
“We’re one of the early adopters,” says Sauer’s son, Jonathan. “We’ll do it only on certain blocks that are angled to the southwest and get really hot. We will apply it on the west side of the vine, and you can get different percentages — 50% to 90% shading. It works pretty well because steep sites with a lot of sun exposure can be quite prone to sunburn.”
MARIE-EVE GILLA grew up in Paris and studied winemaking at the University of Dijon before arriving in Washington in 1991. Her background in Burgundy — world-famous for chardonnay and pinot noir — helped her to quickly gain a reputation as one of Washington’s top talents with chardonnay as she moved from Covey Run to Gordon Brothers to Forgeron and now Valdemar Estates in the Walla Walla Valley.
This year, while the clusters came in lighter, Gilla appreciated having the last of her fruit come into the winery during the final week of September. In 2019, a hard freeze on Oct. 10-11 ended ripening and led to frost-tainted wines that produced aromas of rose petals at lower levels, and vinyl in extreme cases.
“In the Pacific Northwest, we never had to worry about fires until the last few years,” she says. “We always had freezes at Halloween, but I don’t remember them being an issue in early October.”
This year, the annual Auction of Washington Wines — which helps fund the smoke research by WSU — named Gilla as its honorary vintner. When the auction’s centerpiece gala began 34 years ago, winemakers wouldn’t think of missing it because the traditional harvest start date typically would kick off after Labor Day. That’s no longer the case in Washington or Burgundy. Treveri Cellars in the Yakima Valley began the 2021 harvest on Aug. 11 by picking chardonnay for its sparkling wine program. The next day, Precept Wine brought in sauvignon blanc from the venerable Willow Crest Vineyard near Prosser. That beat the record of Aug. 31 for Willow Crest, set during the 2015 vintage.
Before Gilla moved to the Northwest, she worked in Burgundy, where organizations — rather than individual wineries — would decide when harvest began. The string of warm vintages ended that practice in some regions of France.
“Harvest is now happening two weeks earlier than 20 years ago,” Gilla says.
In the Northwest, the compressed warmer vintages bring myriad forces into play, Boushey points out.
“It’s also changing disease and pest conditions,” Boushey says. “Many of these pests are having another hatch because it’s so warm. And mites love the heat. They thrive in the smoke, and they thrive in dust, too.”
IN 2005, THE Seattle-based wine commission launched a marketing campaign using the slogan “Washington State — The Perfect Climate for Wine.”
That was a year after a January event sent temperatures in the prestigious Walla Walla Valley plummeting from 18 degrees to minus-17 in just two hours. It resulted in vine damage and a loss of 80% of the crop for the 2004 vintage.
At the University of Minnesota, researchers developed Marquette to survive lows of minus-40 Fahrenheit, but it wasn’t winter that led the Sauer family to plant the new grape variety at its Red Willow Vineyard. It was the back-to-back cool growing seasons of 2010 and 2011, when Sauer struggled to ripen heat-seeking cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
And theirs wasn’t the only exalted site in Washington where Marquette was found. Paul Champoux and his eponymous vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills — which grew the cabernet sauvignon that Quilceda Creek Vintners used to create Washington state’s first 100-point wine — asked Hoppes to make red wine from Champoux Vineyard Marquette he planted in 2011. There was a bit of tongue-in-cheek behind Champoux’s vines, though. He attended St. Joseph Marquette Catholic School in Yakima, and the winter-hardy variety was only a few years old.
“But I honestly thought that if we were headed in a different direction as far as weather, that would be a good variety to look at,” Sauer says. “We eventually ripped them out, and it’s malbec now. I did keep one vine of Marquette for the heck of it. Once a year, I will text Paul a picture of it — around the 10th of August — which was about when we would harvest it.”
Those experiments, which ended several years ago, seem a bit laughable in this era of the heat dome. Yet, these trials were staged within two of the state’s most hallowed vineyards. Now, Washington wine lovers can enjoy hedonistically ripe efforts from a sultry vintage such as 2015 while patiently waiting to see how the 2020 and 2021 reds will score with critics and consumers.
“I would describe climate change as permanent and variable, but we’re making far better wines now than we did back in the cold-climate days,” Sauer says.