It looks like 2012 is turning out to be a more typical harvest after a couple of cooler harvests. 

First, let’s look at ideal seasonal conditions for the vines, according to the Washington State Wine Commission.


From season to season

The ideal conditions for winter are cold temperatures between 28 and 45 degrees so that there is full dormancy, which allows the vines to store energy to utilize in spring budding and root growth and to kill off any pests. This is the same reason many gardeners recommend planting in the fall.

The challenge is that it can get too cold, thus killing off the vine to the root and possibly having to re-graft or replant. In 2004, the majority of the Walla Walla Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) was destroyed by freeze. 

I always say a bad harvest in Washington is one in which the vines froze the winter before.

The ideal conditions are for gradually rising temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees to promote vine and leaf-bud burst. Rain is good at this time to saturate the ground for resources during the dry summer months. 

As temperatures warm between 58 and 68 degrees, there is flowering and fruit set in the form of tiny seeds, typically by late May. 

Potential issues include late frosts and/or storms that can damage the young buds and flowering vines.

In summer, the vines like a gradual, even rise in temperature from 70 to 90 degrees. This promotes grape development and leads to normal “veraison,” which is color development and phenolic ripening. The increasing sunlight helps with photosynthetic energy. 

Also, the day-temperature variation, which can be up to 40 degrees, helps to maintain high acid levels. If it gets too hot in summer, the grapes shut down. On the other hand, cloudy, cool days can hinder development due to the lack of sunshine.

Gradually cooling temperatures are best — between 70 to 80 degrees during harvest — so that acids can be retained and phenolic maturation can occur without sugar accumulation. 

Also, the lack of rain is a good thing in the fall because that there is no dilution to the grapes when they’re being picked.

So pretty much what makes a great harvest is moderation: not too hot; not too cold. Rain is good at the right time, but not good at other times.

The majority of wine is made in the vineyard, as most winemakers will tell you.


This year’s harvest

So how are 2012’s grapes? Relatively speaking, so far, so good.

In early May, there was a little frost in Yakima Valley, as well as in Walla Walla Valley, but not enough to impact anything major, and it’s typical for this to happen.

In late May and early June, there was above-normal rainfall, which didn’t help with bloom and fruit set; it is important to have nice weather during this time. It wasn’t a major problem — just another issue to deal with. 

July and August were typically warm, unlike the last two years, so there are concerns about dealing with higher levels of alcohol.

There were two hailstorms over the summer that did some localized damage to some vineyards, but the harvest is still on track to be a record harvest. They are expecting 200,000 tons of fruit this year, compared to 160,000 harvested last year.

Harvest has begun, with many wineries bringing in whites that are ready before reds. Harvest is a full two weeks ahead of schedule, compared with last year. 

The picking of the reds should begin around the middle of the month and extend to the end of October and early November. 

Hopefully, the weather holds up this year, and the grapes are able to come in slowly so there is no big rush for the winemakers to get everything in. 

JEFFREY DORGAN, the Washington Wine Commission’s 2009 Sommelier of the Year, is the wine director at Sullivan’s in Downtown Seattle. He previously worked at Willow’s Lodge/Barking Frog in Woodinville and at the Space Needle. He also co-owned Smash Wine Bar & Bistro in Wallingford and is a Capitol Hill resident. To comment on this column, write to