Spring Frost Deals a Waiting Game Card to Willamette Valley Winegrowers

Spring Frost. For the past few years, vineyard Spring frost and other grape damaging weather has been a recurrent topic in the wine world as well as in the wine industry news. Although Spring frosts have always existed, climate change and an increase in earlier vine development has many winemakers experiencing a raised level of worry as Spring arrives in the vineyard.

Again this year, wine industry news platforms in regions around the world and here in the United States have been filled with headlines like these:

In Chablis vineyards, fear grows that destructive frosts may become the norm, from Reuters.

“Apocalyptic” hail storms in French wine regions”, that decimated whole chunks of French vineyards at Whitsun have dashed the hopes of winegrowers who had aimed to fully replenish stocks of grapes and wine after last year’s void. From Vitisphere  

California North Coast wine grape season off to wild-weather start amid frost, water concerns, from North Bay Business Journal.

Late-Spring Frost Imperils Oregon and California Vineyards, from Wine Spectator.

In the Willamette Valley, severe frost hit on April 14th and 15th as temperatures plunged into the 20s throughout the valley. This was yet another setback for growers in the Willamette Valley, which experienced smoke taint in 2020 from extensive wildfires in the region.

Of all of the devastating headlines in April, it was this headline Willamette Valley could lose half its grape crop after frost hits Oregon vineyards, from the Oregonian that caused a lot of stir in the Oregon wine community.

On a trip to the Willamette Valley earlier this month, I spoke with a few winegrowers to get a better perspective of the severity of the damage and hear how they felt the frost would affect this year’s crop. As a wine writer and enthusiast, I find that the vast affects weather and environmental factors have on viticulture and the creativity winegrowers implement to mitigate many of these conditions an interesting topic. I hope you’ll find the perspectives of the winegrowers that I talked with just as interesting.

What I heard a lot about was the grape bud contains three potential growing points, known as primary, secondary and tertiary buds, each of which is progressively less fruitful, the Willamette Valley wine world has been waiting and watching to see what grows. Many of the growers I spoke with didn’t see any destruction in their vineyards, but most of them have friends and colleagues that suffered devastating losses.

Photo: Lenné Estate Vineyard

Here are some of comments about the effect that this year’s Spring frost had on their Willamette Valley vineyards from the growers and winemakers themselves.

News from Lenné Estate….

When I asked about this year’s weather compared to previous years, Steve Lutz, owner and winemaker at Lenné Estate in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA told me, “Right now, we have about the same amount of growth that we had in 2011, which was the coldest vintage ever here. So this year in comparison is going to be interesting.” Steve did add that “The wines in 2011 were so acidic and they are taking a long time to come around but it is an interesting and long-lived vintage.”

Aside from the frost the regions cooler than average temperature has slowed things down in the vineyards this Spring. Steve shared, “This was a really bizarre year, we should have 2 to 2 ½ feet of growth right now but it is very stunted, but we’ll see what we get. It should be interesting and if we get a warm summer, we should be fine, so we’re going to keep our fingers crossed.”

While touring his vineyard Steve pointed out examples of the primary and secondary shoots saying, “Things are really different this year, you can see that what we’re doing is we’re leaving some of these shoots coming out of the top of the trunk here, which normally we just leave the fruiting cane and the shoots that come out of the shooting cane. This year we’re really hedging our bets because we still have a lot of what looks like primary shoots coming out, we have some secondary shoots too, so we’ve got fruit and we’ll see what we set.”


I asked Steve about multiple picking passes in the vineyard collecting the grapes from both primary and secondary clusters and he replies, “I don’t know how that would work. For the fruit you would have to have a really discerning eye, to have a crew go through and pick primary fruit versus secondary fruit will just not work. Unless, it was a crew of winemakers going through to make it work.”

News from Youngberg Hill Winery….

While taking a morning drive through the Youngberg Hill’s Vineyards in the McMinnville AVA, owner and winemaker Wayne Bailey spoke about how they fortunately were not affected by the frost this year.

Wayne Bailey inspecting the vineyard.

“We have all primary shots, we did not get affected by the frost. We’re high enough and close enough to the ocean that we didn’t have any freeze issues at all. We had just on the very last day about 2 hours that got below 32 degrees but it wasn’t impactful at all. Because of our altitude what you found was the cold pockets were in the swales and things like that, my understanding is it got up to about 400 feet and we don’t have anything below 500 feet. We were very fortunate in that regard, and everything looks great.”

Wayne went on to express that “unfortunately a lot of our neighbors didn’t fare as well. In fact, Robert Brittan (of Brittan Vineyards) who is five miles down lost all of his chardonnay as a result, because the chardonnay was farther along. I don’t know if he has secondaries coming up yet or not.”

Wayne also added that the cooler weather for him is actually a good thing, “I like the cool wet springs and I like the timing that we are getting into because it means we will be ripening in October instead of in September.”

News from Bells Up Winery….

A stop at Bells Up Winery to spend some time with owners Dave and Sara Specter was another opportunity to talk about the April frost this year and how it affected their vineyard just outside of the town of Newberg in the Chehalem Mountains AVA .

As we walked through the vineyard, I asked Dave if at this point he could tell if he was going to have more primary or secondary buds? Here’s what he told me;
I can’t tell right now but I think it is going to be mostly primary, because we weren’t pushing that much when we had the frost.” He went on to add, “we have seen some pictures however, that our friends whose site is just a couple of mile away, sent us pictures of his place, he got hit hard. There was primary bud death where it was just crispy, what had pushed just turned browned and it had snapped. We did not see any of that here, so I am reasonably optimistic that were going to be okay.”

“What we’re hearing is that there is a lot of resilience out there.”

Dave went on to say, “Some around the valley have experienced much worse. Chardonnay has been hard hit, as well as pinot. But what we’re hearing is that there is a lot of resilience out there. Also, if you got secondaries the fruitfulness of those is going to be much much less but they will at least give you something. The last couple of years they have just been crazy weather wise.”

More information about Bells Up Winery can be found on my post THE BELLS ARE IN THE AIR AT BELLS UP WINERY.

News from Elk Cove Vineyards….

The sun made a welcome appearance for the first time during my trip when I arrived at Elk Cove Vineyards to chat with Anna Campbell, daughter of Pat and Joe Campbell, the founders of Elk Cove. As we toured the grounds and vineyard, I could see that their vines although somewhat short looked extremely healthy and unaffected by the frost. When I asked Anna about this she shared, “This location here we are high enough up that we didn’t have any frost. We are just a little behind because of the cooler weather. Once we get heat the vines and grapes will catch up but probably not to what has become the normal in looking at the last few years of harvest in early September.”

The article in Oregonian that stated “the Willamette Valley could lose half its grape crop after frost hits Oregon vineyards” came up during our time in the vineyard. I asked Anna what she thought of such a drastic headline and she said, “There are just some people that when anything goes wrong in a season they just say, ‘it’s a disaster’.” She went on to say that her brother, Adam, head winemaker for Elk Cove, “is definitely more chill, he is just like you know there’s nothing we haven’t seen before, Mother Nature always throws something at us.”

Case in point, Anna added was that her parents “made wine when Mount St Helens erupted and we had a half inch of ash in 1980, that slowed down ripening. So, we don’t like to judge a season until the vintage is made.”

News from Potter’s Vineyard….

A first time stop to taste some wines and talk with Bill and Sandy Sanchez owners of Potter’s Vineyard and Vino Vasai Wines near Newberg, was yet another chance to hear how their vineyards were doing this year. Bill briefed me on the favorable state of the vineyard, which is located in the Laurelwood District AVA, noting that they had been affected by the spring frost and that different harvesting procedures may have to occur this year. Bill stated, “We want to get some fruit from the secondary buds this year, but if you have delayed ripening then are we going to have two picks. Normally that is hard to do so this year we will most likely pick more as a family because we tend to pick the fruit for the family and rosé wine club first.” This type of forethought is what will help many of the small wineries bring in a crop this year instead of writing the year off as a complete loss.

Going through hard times is one of the things that can create even stronger bonds between people in such a tight knit community like the Willamette Valley. Especially when something like this brutal frost hasn’t happened in a long time in the valley.

Bill went on to say, “This is the first time that I have seen this and many of my colleagues in thirty years have ever seen it. They said 1985, so thirty some years ago was the last time many of them had seen a spring frost like this that damaged the crops so extensively.”

News from Ayres Vineyard….

Areas of the Willamette Valley can sometimes be deceiving when it comes to determining elevation by sight alone and higher elevations don’t always mean you are safe from frost. Before stopping in on a cold rainy day to reconnect with Brad McLeroy, owner and winemaker of Ayres Vineyard, I had thought that being “up high” in the Ribbon Ridge AVA they would have escaped the frost this April. Sadly, that was not the case. Since rain prevented a walk in the vineyard we talked about the effects of the frost while sampling some of Ayres’ exceptional Pinot Noir.

As he poured his Pinot Brad told me, “The frost got us even at 500-foot elevation, to what extent, it is still to early too know exactly. There is definitely damage so we’ll be down in production. But, one of the vineyards I lease are in the foothills at 600-foot elevation and they had nothing, they were fine.”

Ayres vineyard was the first one that I had heard about that sat at 500 feet elevation and had still suffered losses from the frost this year. Brad expressed some optimism by stating, “Regardless we will be making wine much later this year, with the cooler weather the vineyards are about a month behind. Hopefully we have some ‘second summer’ days that help along the ripening.”

To achieve this Brad added, “We might need to keep the secondary shoot this year, if we do, we’ll have to go plant to plant and make those decisions. What that could mean because doing multiple pass throughs is labor intensive is doing less tastings and closing the doors a little more to spend more time in the vineyard myself. For example, three days a week we might need to get out there more and pay a little more attention to a particular block to see what’s really going on.”

If you are interested in learning more about Ayres Vineyard you can read my post A VISIT TO AYRES VINEYARD & WINERY

How the grapevines will fare following this historic frost in April is still to be determined. One thing that was reinforced in my conversations with each of these individuals is that Oregon winegrowers are incredibly resilient. It is in their nature to change and adapt to this season’s challenges, like they have others in the past.

If you enjoyed this update of Willamette Valley vineyards, I’d like to hear your thoughts on it, or if you have news to share from another winery affected by the frost this year.

I will be sharing more about my trip to the Willamette Valley in a series of articles over the next few weeks, starting with my tour and tasting with Steve Lutz at Lenné Estate coming later this week. Until then Cheers and thanks for reading.

Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

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