A mild and dry winter in 2019-20 was followed by a dry growing season, continuing the ongoing drought concerns for Oregon and most of the western US. The spring was relatively cool throughout Oregon with some frost impacts but not severe in most regions. The spring saw wide swings between early season heat then cool, wet conditions leading up to and during flowering. The result was widespread issues with fruit set leading to generally high amounts of shatter, smaller berries and smaller clusters for many in the state. Heat stress during the summer was moderate, leading into what looked like a decent September weather-wise until the Labor Day extreme wind event, which was followed by catastrophic fires and smoke for days.
Average temperatures during April through October in the western US were the third warmest on record (last 126 years), 2.6°F above the long-term average, with California experiencing the warmest overall conditions. Oregon experienced its 4th warmest growing season temperatures on record but saw a wide range from 0.2°F above average in Milton-Freewater, to 1.9°F above average in McMinnville, to 2.7 and 2.9°F above average for Medford and Roseburg, respectively.
Following from the warmer temperatures, heat accumulation (growing degree-days) for over most of California, Oregon, and Washington during the 2020 vintage ended up 5-20% above the 1981-2010 normals. Isolated areas in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and Idaho were closer to normal or as much as 5-10% down from average. Growing degree-day amounts for the four main regions in Oregon reflect the broader PNW regional patterns with higher heat accumulation in the more southerly locations and close to average for northern Oregon and eastern Washington and eastern Oregon. All four locations ended the April through October calendar period above the 1981-2010 normals for 2020 (6 to 25%), with eastern Oregon (Milton-Freewater and the Walla Walla region) continuing to be closer to the long-term average. Compared to the average of the last 15 years for the sites, Medford ended 10% up, Roseburg 11% up, and McMinnville 3% above average, while Milton-Freewater ended 3% down. Compared to 2019, Medford ended 2020 12% higher, Roseburg 9% higher, McMinnville 6% higher, and Milton-Freewater ended right at the 15-year average.
Phenological timing during the vintage was near average up to a week earlier than average for locations in Southern Oregon, while close to average for areas in northern and eastern Oregon. The main harvest picking window ranged across a typically wide number of days from roughly September 10th to October 15th depending on variety, wine style picking decisions, and region.
Growers across the state reported generally low disease pressure, relatively low pest pressure, variable bird pressure with greatest impact at higher elevation and for late picked varieties, and a harvest that presented very good quality fruit at moderate to substantially lower yields due to bloom to fruit set weather conditions.
The major influence on the 2020 vintage centered on the September fires and smoke. Near Labor Day, the forecast called for an extreme heat event. However, as the very large high-pressure area responsible for the heat event grew, stretching from the desert SW to Alaska, the forecast also started calling for an extreme east wind event. This was largely due to the size of the high-pressure area and that was pushing the jet stream into northern Canada and forcing the cold air southward into the Rockies and the central US. By September 7th strong winds (30-60 mph) from the east moved over numerous mountainous areas, warming, drying, and increasing in wind speed. The result was a dramatic drop in dew points (as much as 30 degrees in an hour) and lowering relative humidity (to 8-15%) to desert-like conditions even to the coast. This same event brought cold air to the Rockies with temperatures dropping 60 degrees or more in one day and significant snow to the mountains and the front range. This event was extremely rare, with only a handful of similar events in our data record.
In addition, the Labor Day wind, heat and drop in dew points arrived at the worst possible time for fires; woody material west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountains served as fuels and burned quickly. Up and down the western US fires that had been smoldering from a lightening event in mid-August exploded while new fires erupted around them from numerous trees and power lines being toppled. The smoke hung around for weeks, until rain fell across the state. The rain impact varied depending on location, the status of the grapes, and how much fell. It helped to mix and clear the air, which helped in so many ways including psychologically.
While the 2020 vintage will long be remembered for the Labor Day wind event, fires, and smoke, Oregon winemakers have dealt successfully with mitigating wildfire smoke damage for many years and are optimistic this vintage will produce beautiful wines. True to Oregon’s collaborative nature, winemakers communicate, rely on each other for information, tools and support, and follow techniques from wine regions around the globe such as those in Australia, who have battled fires near vineyards and smoke affected grapes in wines since the 1980s, along with New Zealand, California and Washington.
Fewer tons will be crushed in 2020, including Pinot noir and most other varieties. From May and June’s weather contributing to a light fruit set, we knew there would be fewer wine grape tons harvested this vintage. September wildfires compounded that situation in many viticultural areas up and down the west coast. While fires were widespread, smoke characteristics in wine this year are highly variable and site-specific. While the quantity of grapes harvested were lower, reports of the quality of the fruit has been outstanding. Many have reported the smaller clusters and berries gave great color, concentrated flavors, at desired sugar levels with good acidity. While smoke impacts are likely for some, winemakers are quietly putting their collective energies into producing stellar whites, including white Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Sparkling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Rosés, which through the winemaking process have less exposure to smoke-affected grape skins. It is still too early to predict the overall impact that smoke and wildfires will have on the 2020 vintage, yet we know there are beautiful wines that will earn the excellent reputation and critical acclaim Oregon wines are known for.
The vintage would not be complete without mention of the heroes of the 2020 vintage, the vineyard professionals from Oregon’s Hispanic community who both support and enrich Oregon’s wine industry. This year the work had added challenges as the fruit set was low in June and clusters were smaller, meaning more time was spent filling buckets. Some growers increased the price per bucket to attract and retain seasonal workers, but as the smoke settled into the wine regions many were challenged with the logistics of the working conditions while others were summoned to help with fighting fires. Then due to COVID, two-parent homes suddenly had online schooling which suggested one parent to remain at home to help kids who suddenly had no school to go to.
This year was the first time we have had fire or smoke drift pressure covering nearly every wine producing region in Oregon. However, the overall occurrence and impacts were less problematic in in the Gorge, the Columbia Valley, and The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. However, eastern Oregon winemakers did need to contend with leaf hoppers, cut worm, and bird pressure all being up in many locations. And yields were reported to be slightly down, but not as much in other regions of the state.
In Eastern Oregon, Sadie Drury of Seven Hills commented that “Bud break was slightly earlier than average, bloom was slightly later, and véraison was right on time. Sites that bloomed early had good set, on par with an average year, but our higher elevation sites bloomed later and therefore were exposed to more wind and rain and had poor set compared to other years.”
Sadie Drury, who also manages numerous properties in eastern Oregon, furthered that “Fruit quality was excellent. The grapes really held nice acidity and were able to get full phenological ripeness before dehydration. There was a general unevenness across bloom and véraison caused by the cooler-than-normal June that carried through to harvest. I think this will add to the complexity of the wines and may have helped with the clusters holding on to acidity. I don’t think it was a bad thing and it didn’t seem to create green flavors.”
Warmer than eastern and northern Oregon, growing areas in Southern Oregon indicated that heat spikes were a problem near flowering, otherwise growers from the region say it was a very good vintage. “There was little frost pressure this year and a spectacular September outside of the fires and smoke, however the smoke held temperatures down and did slow ripening”, commented Bill Wendover of Stonefield Vineyard in the Illinois Valley.
2Hawk Co-Owner and Vineyard Manager Ross Allen shares: “A wet start in the spring and rains at bloom didn’t set the stage for the rest of summer, thank goodness. Mother Nature brought plenty of warm days and cool nights as we moved into summer, and that pattern continued through the season. The vines really did well, and while we had a number of days peaking over 100 degrees, the technology I have in the vineyard allowed daily tweaks to our irrigation schedule, keeping the vines right where they needed to be.”
Elsewhere in the Rogue Valley, overall comments from growers on fruit quality were for excellent to outstanding. “Good balance of sugar, acid, pH, great flavors and very good color,” said Vince Vidrine of Irvine and Roberts: “Smoke aromas were very low to non-perceptible, despite intense smoke in the region. The smoke occurred directly at or just prior to ideal ripeness for our reds and lasted one week.” He continued to say the fruit was “Excellent. Great flavor and good chemistry in red and white varieties. High concentration of color in red wines.”
Smaller cluster and berry size, while still evident, were less of a problem for many in Southern Oregon compared to the Willamette Valley where winemakers such as Nate Wall of Troon in the Applegate said, “We farm several varieties, but on average probably slightly smaller cluster sizes across the board, with berry sizes average and yield average to slightly down.”
Similarly, in the Umpqua Valley, Gavin Joll at Abacela reported, “Fruit quality was very good across all varieties with ripe flavors, mature tannins, and moderate acidity. Fermentations went smoothly resulting in balanced wines.” Gavin also noted that “cluster sizes were down, significantly in certain varieties or clonal selections, while the number of clusters per vine was near historical averages. Overall, the yield total for all varieties was down just over 20% from the historical average dating back to 2011.” In terms of quality, Joll stated that “Tannat, Grenache, and Tempranillo this vintage are especially promising at this stage.”
Terry Brandborg, from the Elkton region in the Umpqua Valley, had this to offer: “Elkton area fruit quality was pretty good, although with some challenges during fermentation. There were lots of hens and chicks, smaller clusters, and smaller berries resulting in lower yields. Perhaps with the challenges out in the market, a lower yield might not be the worst thing, except of course for those who are growers without wineries.”
In the Willamette Valley, the wide swings between early season heat then cool, wet conditions leading up to and during flowering resulted in widespread issues with fruit set leading to generally high amounts of shatter, smaller berries and clusters for many in the region. Regional differences were also evident, with reports from growers that the smoky east side of the Eola-Amity Hills exhibited dramatically different conditions from mostly clear skies on the west. David Beck, from Crawford-Beck Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills, noted that “All in all, without smoke effects, this could have been a spectacular vintage.”
Many noted that it was the worst possible weather during bloom, resulting smaller and lose clusters that ultimately helped with late season rains. Many reported that yields were down 10-50% on most varieties, especially Pinot Noir. Ted Casteel for Bethel Heights in the Eola-Amity Hills likened the vintage to the 1980s. “Berries were small, lots of hens and chicks. Clusters were small. Yield down 50%, he said. “A very short vintage, like 83, 88, 89. Generally these vintages lead to high quality wines. The wines taste and smell great coming out of the fermenter,” noted Casteel.
Doug Tunnell at Brick House in Ribbon Ridge said the general quality of the fruit he saw this harvest was “outstanding,” and “without the smoke, this would have been a truly memorable vintage; yielding small volumes of highly concentrated, extracted wines with superior depth and balanced acidity.” His neighbor Bruno Corneaux at Domaine Divio echoed the sentiments with “excellent fruit quality” and “fruit set was down 30% for the year.”
The Columbia Gorge
More info forthcoming.
Compiled by Gregory V. Jones, Ph.D. Director, Evenstad Center for Wine Education Linfield University in 2020
Adapted by Sally Murdoch, Oregon Wine Board Communications Manager January 8, 2021. firstname.lastname@example.org