Smoke, rain pose grape harvest challenges

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Medford, Ore. — After days of toiling in stifling smoke, grape harvesters at Quail Run Vineyards outside Talent, Ore., were confronted with another complication late Thursday morning.

A brief but torrential rain smacked the south Bear Creek Valley, forcing a crew of 30 laborers to hasten the harvest of pinot noir.

“It’s been a real challenge,” said Michael Moore, who has followed in the footsteps of his parents, Don and Traute Moore. “Even wearing masks, your eyes are burning. It’s not like being in the comfort of an air-conditioned room when you’re out in it all day.”

Quail Run Vineyards is an amalgamation of 14 vineyards encompassing 400 acres. Moore anticipates the harvest, that began Sept. 1 with sauvignon blanc, will produce 1,400 tons that will be delivered to 40 wineries.

Over the years, Moore has taken rain forecasts with a grain of salt. More often than not, in the past, he said, the anticipated rain fell somewhere else.

Nonetheless, rain and grape harvests don’t mix well.

“When there is potential for rain, you can’t play around, got to get the grapes off quick,” Moore said. “And you want to get it off early so the fruit is still cool.”

To keep the fruit cool, it was transported to Naumes Inc.’s cold storage warehouse overnight, before getting trucked north.

“Typically it gets down to 50 degrees at night this time of year, but the smoke has trapped the heat in, accelerating the sugars,” Moore said. “The only silver lining is that the smoke cuts out the (ultraviolet) rays and protects the grapes from burn and shrivel on days like when it hit 108.”

Herb Quady, who manages 200 acres for 15 vineyard owners primarily in the Applegate Valley, said he didn’t mind the rain after choking on smoke for days.

“Normally, I would not be so enthusiastic about rain during harvest, but I’ll take rain over smoke any day,” Quady said. “It’s cleared the air, but the question is, will we get smoke again?”

Quady picked early varieties — pinot meunier, pinot gris, pinot noir and chardonnay — beginning Aug. 24. He expects to pick 400 tons.

“We were picking earlier than average, but not earlier than recent vintages,” Quady said. “We’re trending very close to 2015.”

Vintners closest to the wildfires are testing fruit to determine the impact of smoke, which shifts depending on the intensity.

“The smoke potentially provides a lot of complications,” Quady said. “The effects seem to vary by variety.”

Quady, also one of the region’s veteran winemakers, said the smoke requires more of people in his trade.

“We have to be more active in using all the tools and skills we have,” Quady said. “If we do that we can be successful, even in challenging conditions. But it’s going to be a year where winemakers earn their living.”