Willamette Valley winemakers gear up for early harvest

By on August 10, 2016
Alex Sokol Blosser

Alex Sokol Blosser has been the winemaker for his namesake winery in the Dundee Hills since 2012. (Photo courtesy of Sokol Blosser Winery)

DUNDEE, Ore. – Winemakers in the heart of Oregon wine country are gearing up for another early harvest.

Alex Sokol Blosser, second-generation Dundee Hills winemaker, said he could be picking Pinot Noir before his calendar flips to September. Last year, his Pinot Noir harvest started Sept. 5.

“In 1987, my parents started picking Pinot Noir in August,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “That’s the only other time we’ve picked in August.”

Sokol Blosser was concerned the past couple of vintages because they’ve been so warm, but he likes the resulting wines, and he’s less concerned about this year.

“I looked at the wines, and I saw they were compelling,” he said. “This year, everything looks good. We started off in March and April with our earliest bud breaks ever. The train started out fast. It’s slowing down now, but it’s still plugging along.”

Sokol Blosser believes he will begin picking some grapes as early as next week for his sparkling wine program. Last year, he picked for sparkling wine on Aug. 19.

Around the corner at Stoller Family Estate, longtime winemaker Melissa Burr is hoping to get in a last-minute family vacation before harvest begins.

“I’m trying not to think about harvest, but I have to,” she said with a laugh. “We could possibly start picking for sparkling wine in the fourth week of August, then for rosé, then early Chardonnay.”

In recent years, Stoller has ramped up production from about 10,000 cases to 37,000. This has meant keeping more of its estate grapes and building a bigger winemaking facility. Burr and her team will handle about 600 tons of grapes this fall.

“Last year was bountiful,” she said of the 2015 harvest. “This year looks more normal.”

Warm days in the Willamette Valley

Melissa Burr has been the head winemaker for Stoller Family Estate since 2003.

Melissa Burr has been the head winemaker for Stoller Family Estate since 2003. (Photo by Andréa Johnson/Courtesy of Stoller Family Estate)

Starting in 2013, every year has been warm in Oregon. In 2014, ROCO’s Rollin Soles described it as a “Sonoma County harvest” and said his biggest concern was supplying enough sun block for his workers.

This is a bit unusual in the Willamette Valley, where winemakers battle for every extra day of ripeness they can get before harvest rains arrive.

But not these days. Though it rained earlier this week in the northern Willamette Valley, it has been a generally pleasant summer.

“This year has been more of a typical Oregon summer,” Sokol Blosser said. “We’ve had cooler evenings with better acid retention. We’re cropping the vines down to 2 to 3 tons per acre, which is more normal for us.”

Sokol Blosser prefers these conditions much more than last year’s.

“We had to get up early so we could get our work done and get out of the heat by 10 a.m.,” he said. “Our crews couldn’t work past 11 a.m. because it got too hot outside.”

That’s not what his Pinot Noir was used to.

“It is worrisome, but at the same time, it’s been good based on the wines I’ve been tasting,” he said. “We could have ripened Syrah in our vineyard last year.”

Burr said this year’s crop looks normal, particularly compared with last year’s large harvest.

Last year, we had abnormally large clusters,” she said. “This year, they seem to be about 60 percent of what they were last year, which is more normal.

If the weather remains warm, Sokol Blosser said harvest might become compressed. That would strain his team. He produces more than 15,000 cases for his Sokol Blosser brand and upwards of 70,000 cases for his negoçiant-style Evolution label.

“Our max is 40 tons per day,” he said. “We’ve had that happen a lot in the past three years.”

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About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

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