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News / Northwest

Walla Walla Valley vineyards take a hit after January freeze

By Hannah McIntyre, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
Published: March 13, 2024, 7:55pm

WALLA WALLA — Jeremy Petty manages about 100 acres of vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, and he said that as the vines begin to wake back up, it’s clear that they were hit hard by the frigid temperatures in January.

Petty, who owns Walla Walla Vineyard Management, said he has been working in the Valley for five years. He said his business manages vineyards that are at all stages of growth for clients.

This year, he said, most of the vineyards he manages, with the exception of one, had heavy damage to the vines.

“I have one (vineyard) off Powerline Road, which is a Syrah variety, that has about 50% damage, but many are showing 90% to 95% damage,” he said.

So far, it appears that Milton-Freewater’s Rocks District has seen the least of the damage even though temperatures were recorded to dip as low as -8 degrees. At the Walla Walla Airport, temperatures hit a record low of -14 degrees on Saturday, Jan. 13.

Now, Petty is pre-pruning while leaving a few more buds on the vines and he is hoping the plants will focus energy on the lower buds to get new shoots, or new growth, to lay down for next year’s crop. He said, by appearance, there will not be much fruit from this year’s harvest.

“Harvest is going to be quite smaller this year in the Valley,” he said. “Less fruit means less sales, but taking care of the vineyard still takes almost the same amount of care and costs, possibly more if we have to cut down and retrain areas. Insurance doesn’t cover the costs of those two items, which is difficult for the owners to absorb, especially with less or no fruit sales.”

Last year, in the 100 acres of vineyards that Petty manages, he said about 600,000 pounds of fruit was grown with 450,000 pounds hand harvested.

“I don’t expect to hit one-fourth of that this year, but we really don’t know exact numbers until plants start budding out and we look for clusters,” he said. “They could surprise us, but I’m not holding my breath.”

With the possibility of barren vines on the horizon, Petty said the impact of a smaller harvest reaches beyond wineries. It will also reduce the job market for harvest where for the 6 to 8 weeks that harvest lasts, people make good money.

“I’ve had local winemakers calling me already looking for fruit because where they normally source fruit here, they were told they won’t have any,” he said. “So I assume many will source fruit outside Walla Walla to meet their demands for wine sales and spend their money there, which is another loss for the Valley.”

Jean-François Pellet, winemaker for Pepper Bridge Winery, also works as a vineyard manager for the winery as well. He said despite the frigid January temperatures, he is still holding out hope that this year’s crop could be a good one.

“I’ve been here for 25 years, and I have seen this kind of freeze hit the vineyards before,” he said. “In 2022, we had a low of -11 degrees one night and there was a lot of damage to the buds. Surprisingly though, that year ended up being one of our largest crops in the last couple of years in the state of Washington.”

He said that although the buds do not look good this year, it is still too soon to tell what will be in store until the vines begin to wake back up in late April and early May. The Walla Walla Valley AVA elevations range from 400 feet to 2,000 feet above sea level, so areas will be impacted differently.

“Mother Nature is ultimately in charge,” Pellet said. “We know that there is damage, but we also know that there will be some production. It’s not like we are going to have nothing to play with. I think that it is important to remain positive and optimistic, because what else are you going to do?”