Cold Facts

The winter just ending has been comparatively mild on both sides of the mountains, but one good freeze the night of Jan. 4 sent shivers down the spines of grape growers and winemakers. Even a short cold snap can weaken vines, and this one was preceded by a stretch of chilly weather around Halloween, when vines weren't fully dormant yet. But even experts can't evaluate their vines' prospects until buds form in February. Severe frost damage is obvious when new buds are cut open, but more subtle impairments don't appear until the buds actually "break," so assiduous growers looking for an early warning take portable greenhouses into the vineyards where they can force buds into early, diagnostic opening. This isn't just out of a masochistic desire to know the worst; if the bud on a strong primary shoot is dead or lacks vigor, there are still secondary and even tertiary shoots that can be cosseted into yielding decent vines by dexterous alternative pruning. Over most of Washington's wine country, the early word is good. There are reports of isolated damage to new growth in the Yakima Valley, on the Wahluke Slope, and among the Horse Heaven Hills. But in the core Columbia Valley and in Walla Walla, the news is less positive. As usual, high-elevation and steeply sloping vineyards have largely been spared, because chilly air drains downslope to pool in depressions and on valley floors. Conversely, lowland areas appear to have taken a more severe hit. The damage varies with grape variety—cold-resistant merlot vines so far appear to have sustained little injury, while cabernet sauvignon—pound for pound the most valuable grapes grown here—have been more badly nipped, suggesting their output may be cut by as much as a quarter to a third. While this is bad news, it's far from the worst that can befall a grape grower: Sufficiently extended freezing weather can kill the most cold-sensitive varieties of vines outright. In much of Eastern Washington, lower harvests may actually be welcome for many growers—last year, a fair percentage of the bumper crop went for bargain prices or was left to rot on the vine. But in Walla Walla, home of the state's most prestigious and pricey wineries, any drop in output means either lost profits or—more likely—higher prices to the discriminating consumer. In a word: Ouch. Get this! Since 2003 red wines won't be on the market until about this time in 2006, the freeze-pinch, if any, won't be felt for a while. But serious wine drinkers can hedge against the future by stocking up on the stellar 2001 vintage. And stellar is the only word to describe the '01 Père de Famille from Betz Family Winery. A red blend (80/15/5 cab/merlot/cab franc) mostly from Red Mountain, it's already utterly balanced, a noble, supple wine, but there's enough steel beneath the velvet to suggest it's only going to improve for the foreseeable future. It's about $45 at the winery and in fine wine shops.

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