Rob Andrews, holding what was once a Merlot vine, said they wasted no time reworking their Merlot blocks, which were hit hardest by the November 2010 freeze. By October, suckers had already been retrained up to the wire.
In a normal year, trying to catch Rob Andrews in the thick of grape harvest would be near impossible. With more than 2,000 acres of grapes to pick at the diversified family farm, harvest is a whirl of activity. But there was an eerie quiet last fall at the Andrews family vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills.
Andrews had no Merlot to pick, only a third of a crop of white grape varieties, and 70 out of 900 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon to harvest when the Good Fruit Grower interviewed him in October. “We got hurt pretty bad by the November freeze of 2010,” he said. Vineyard damage was spotty in the Horse Heaven Hills, dependent on variety and location, but temperatures in his vineyards had dropped as low as minus 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
“We’re such a warm region, with a long growing season, that we just weren’t dormant enough,” Andrews said. “The temperatures dropped too fast before the vines could winterize.”
The last time that Andrews had winter damage in the vineyard was 20 years ago following cold temperatures of the 1990-91 winter. Since then, he’s always picked a crop, though not always a full one, and has never lost any crop to spring or fall frosts.
Last spring was an anxious time as he watched for signs of life in the vineyards. The vines finally showed green tissue in July. “We waited, and we waited, and we waited to see green. It was so stressful, but there was nothing we could do. We’ve been in survival mode all year.”
Their grape contracts with wineries are by acreage and block, so wineries either had some fruit, no fruit, or had to decide if the scant amount was worth picking. He estimated that about half of their grape acreage will need work in the next two years to bring canopies back to normal.
But despite 2011’s meager crop, he remains optimistic for the coming year. For one, the cool spring and summer helped the vines heal and recover. His expenses in growing the crop were less because he applied fewer cover sprays for powdery mildew and pests, and fortunately, he had crop insurance for some blocks that will provide some income to pay the bills.
Before World War II, the Horse Heaven Hills region, just south of Mabton, was largely uninhabited and used for bombing and aircraft target practice. The high plateau has an endless horizon and sloping benches that are well suited to vineyards. Today, Horse Heaven Hills has been transformed to some of the most sought after wine grape real estate in Washington—several 100-point wines have come from grapes grown there. With nearly 10,600 acres of planted grapes, it’s the state’s second largest American Viticultural Area in terms of wine grape acreage, behind Yakima Valley AVA that has about 13,500 acres planted. The Horse Heaven Hills AVA was approved in 2005.
Andrews’s grandfather George Washington Smith began farming in Horse Heaven Hills after WWII in the 1940s, breaking land out of sagebrush to grow dryland wheat. Andrews’s father, Bob, joined Smith, his father-in-law, and began making a major farm improvement by drilling wells for ground water in the 1960s and 70s. Today, the entire farm is irrigated with well water, a move that allowed the family to diversify beyond dryland farming into row and forage crops, tree fruit, and grapes.
After graduating from Prosser High School in 1977, Andrews attended Washington State University and was able to take only agriculture classes that he was interested in—soils, horticulture, pest management, agriculture electricity, and such. He returned to the farm one year later and spent the next 15 years in charge of the family farm’s irrigation, which included center pivots used on vegetable and forage crops.
Today, Andrews spends all of his time on the viticulture side of the family farm, which is divided into three vineyard entities, with various family members as partners. His brother Scott manages the family’s row crops; sister Sandy and her husband, Doug Rowell, are involved in the winery and vineyards; and fourth-generation family members (including Rob’s son Justin and son-in-law Daryl) are getting involved. Another brother Mike has his own nearby vineyard and winery called Coyote Canyon. Two sisters are not involved in the family farm.
Andrews planted the family’s first grapes in 1979. With few wine grapes planted then in the state, he first planted Concord juice grapes. “Concords do really well here because of the high heat units,” Andrews said. Berry sugars are usually up around 18 to 19 percent and their Concords receive a premium for the high Brix. About 75 acres of Concords are now grown, mostly planted in the lowlands.
In 1980, they planted their first wine grapes. Ste. Chapelle Winery was looking for more wine grapes from the area, Andrews said, noting that neighbor Don Mercer was selling wine grapes to the Idaho winery. The family planted 17 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon that year, and another 15 acres of Chenin Blanc in 1981, contracting the grapes to Ste. Chapelle. But just as the vineyard began to produce a crop, Ste. Chapelle cancelled their contracts.
“Fortunately for us, Columbia Crest Winery was just starting up and picked up all but five acres of our Cabernet, which went to Staton Hills Winery (now Sagelands) in Yakima Valley,” he said. Today, their grapes are contracted with 25 wineries.
By 1996, the Andrews family had 75 acres of wine grapes and continued adding grape acreage during the next ten years. But their major vineyard expansion began in 2006 when some 1,000 acres were added to the family vineyard entities, bringing the total to about 2,050 acres of wine grapes. Expansion was due to new winery contracts and a desire to involve fourth-generation family members.
When Andrews began planting in the 1980s, certified grape stock was scarce in the Pacific Northwest, so he used cuttings from the nearby Mercer vineyard for his first Cabernet Sauvignon block. “In fact, 90 percent of all our Cabernet was propagated from the old Mercer vineyard.”
But don’t think that he cut corners by not buying certified nursery material. He has tested every vineyard block for disease and checks vines for symptoms during the year to ensure they stay disease free. “When we were expanding, I tested all of our blocks so I would know if I could use cuttings in our expansion. I’ve been really picky about knowing the source of our wood.”
All of the tests have come back negative for grapevine leafroll virus, except for a four-acre block of Chardonnay that came from a nursery. They take steps to keep the isolated block from contaminating other blocks and will eventually replant it.