Focus on plant health
Growers are changing vineyard spacings, trellis systems, and varieties.
Both the Olsen Brothers and the Andrews family are among Washington State's wine industry pioneers, planting their first wine grape vineyards in 1980. In addition to physical changes made to their newer vineyards, they now pay close attention to the health status of plant material.
"I'm more worried and concerned about where we get our wood from now than in the past," said Rob Andrews, who grows grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills. "Now that we know we have grapevine leafroll virus in the state, there's more focus on getting clean plant material and testing better. Thirty years ago, we just didn't know, and we couldn't test like we do now."
Leif Olsen of Olsen Brothers in Prosser adds that they, too, are paying more attention to the source and cleanliness of planting material. The cooler temperatures experienced in eastern Washington last fall seemed to bring out symptoms of the leafroll virus, which has been found in nearly all growing regions of the state, he said.
Olsen believes that the wine grape industry has taken a major step in improving the availability of clean plant material in the Pacific Northwest by establishing a foundation block at Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center located in Prosser.
Tedd Wildman, owner of Stone Tree Vineyard, agrees that growers are more aware of the widespread leafroll virus that can negatively impact fruit quality. Wildman recently finished planting his Mattawa vineyard, a process that began in 2000. Finding adequate quantities of clean planting material has been a limiting factor and continues to challenge growers, he said. A shortage of plant material has led to people taking short cuts, using plant material with questionable history.
"We're finding more leafroll virus in the state," Wildman said, adding that he can think of examples of his neighbors using cuttings from their own blocks. "Some growers are testing for virus, but some may not be."
Olsen said they have tightened up vine spacing through the years to "squeeze in more tonnage." Most of their winery contracts today are still based on production. By narrowing the old row widths from ten feet to eight, they have added nearly 200 vines to the acre.
Andrews said that they initially spaced rows ten feet apart and six feet between vines because that's how grapes were planted in California. They, too, have narrowed their spacing to maximize yield, now planting rows nine feet apart with five or six feet between vines.
Another change at the newer Andrews vineyards is in the trellis material used. Gone are the wood posts, replaced now by steel. Steel posts and movable wires are adaptable to mechanical harvest. About 90 percent of their acreage is harvested mechanically, Andrews said, noting that they are well positioned to take advantage of further mechanization in the future.
"In the old days, we used fixed wires on our trellis systems," said Olsen. "But the movable ones we now use give you more options. You can trap up the canopy, and you are able to adapt to mechanized pruning. Vertical trellis systems allow you to mechanize just about everything in wine grapes."
A modified vertical shoot position trellis system that allows for some canopy sprawl has been popular in Washington State vineyards in recent years. The upright system works well with mechanization, and the relaxed sprawl can provide sunburn protection.
Andrews has changed the row orientation in many of their newer vineyards from a true north-south to a more northwest-southeast line. Most winds come out of the southwest in the Horse Heaven Hills, he explained, adding that by planting into the wind, it helps avoid vine rollover in the early spring and prevents sunburn.
What's hot or not
Both Andrews and Olsen say they have ripped out old varieties to plant cultivars more suited to the site. "Years ago, we only planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the 'Washington' varieties," said Andrews. Now, they are planting lesser known varieties and clones.
"Back then, we didn't do a very good job matching site and variety," said Olsen. "But as the industry has evolved, we've figured out where the best grape-growing areas are, and growers have been replanting and retooling."
Having their own winery (Olsen Estates opened in 2007) has allowed them to plant a smorgasbord of varieties, like Grenache, Cinsault, and Petit Verdot, in small, one-acre blocks, he added. "With the winery, we have a place to take the grapes."
Anticipating the next "hot" variety or clone can be risky for growers if they plant without a winery contract, Wildman said, noting that growers must be sensitive to the needs of wineries because they are the primary customer. A few years ago, he wanted to plant a small block of Tempranillo, but couldn't find any wineries interested in the red variety and willing to create a new label. "So I ended up planting less than I originally wanted," he said. "Now that the variety is sought after, I've planted more. But I would have been better off financially if I'd planted more to start with and had been ahead of the curve."
When it comes to choosing which clones to plant, Washington growers must do their homework, learning about clonal experience from other growers in like regions because no formal research on the subject has been conducted in the state. Clonal research takes years of data, is expensive, and can be site specific.
Olsen believes that Washington growers are behind other regions with regard to clonal selection. "We're scrambling to find the right clones," he said, adding that Olsen Brothers is now experimenting with different clones, including three of Syrah.