With vintage at risk, winemakers slog through soggy harvest

JUNCTION CITY, Ore. - The southern Willamette Valley got over 6 inches of rain in September, and vineyard owners are worried about how the record-setting rainfall could impact this year's grapes.

The harvest season for wine grapes in Oregon runs from mid-September to mid-October. An unseasonably dry year had put the 2013 harvest ahead of schedule - and the vintage on pace to be unusually rich and flavorful.

Last weekend, however, rain continued to soak the region, forcing many winemakers to harvest their grapes as quickly as possible.

There's a lot at stake: According to a 2010 study by Full Glass Research, the $2.7 billion employs about 13,500 people.
And there's a big problem: The grapes used to make Oregon's most popular wines are particularly sensitive to wet weather. September got more than 5 times the average rain.

Fruits used to produce pinots are more delicate than other varietals and have a thinner skin. This means that they absorb water faster.

When grapes absorb water, they gradually lose their sugars, decreasing their value.

When too much water saturates the fruit, they can split, inviting problems.

"Once they split, then, you can get what's called spoilage, mildews, molds, and there's something called botrytis. Just all sorts of stuff begin to move in," said Ross Penhallegon, a horticulturist at OSU's Extension Service.

Robin Pfeiffer owns Pfeiffer Vineyards in Junction City. His crews have been working frantically to pick their harvest before rains damage the grapes.

"Wet for the most part isn't good for grapes during the harvest period. Anybody out there that cares about fine wines, talk to the lady upstairs and say, 'Back off until we've got them all in, and then go ahead and keep on raining,'" Pfeiffer said.

While he is optimistic about this year's batch, Pfeiffer said that nobody will accurately be able to judge the quality of 2013 grapes until winter when the wines come out.

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