Leading up to summer and bloom, the weather had been hot in late May, and I was able to sort out what trunk disease was what (mostly?) as the canopy grew especially into early June. I kept seeing signs of crown gall, and it’s one of those things that once you spot it, you’ll always see it. Eutypa is very distinctive as well with its runty shoots with leaves that had a chlorotic and singed appearance, but can also look like bot canker. Powdery mildew was around, but I didn’t get any major outbreaks only strikes. In tandem with a pretty tight mildew spray regime, it was also my thought that another reason PM was held at bay was simply that Gorge wind. I witnessed downed shoots from gusts at a time when the shoots were still gangly and weak . . . just snapped and doubled over broken and limp in the soft breeze that only hinted at the prior chaos. This could also be a reason I didn’t witness much stippling or chewing on leaves from bugs, although there was some evidence throughout but not enough to cause a quality/economic concern. It was becoming a sobering experience how different pressures in the Willamette Valley were vs the Gorge.
Bloom period was rather quick as the weather was next to quite warm and dry and I called 50-75% bloom on June 26th and we got an even, heavy fruit set. And even in the low vigor, diseased vines, berries looked healthy and as though they had an above average fertilization rate although the berry set although berries were much smaller. With the canopy absolutely going off, I had to get some help shoot thinning and kept spray intervals tight. This was the first moment of the year where I felt I couldn’t keep up and felt the pressure of falling too far behind. It was this feeling that made me add an extra step to the PM spray program. It was a quite simple approach. I have a friend who was making cheese at the time in town, and I reached out to him about whey as I had heard of it as a good supplemental spray for mildew. He had a seemingly endless supply of fresh whey and I took full advantage. I had spoken with a few growers in the Valley about their experience with whey as an effective control, and while they didn’t recommend it on its own, they either tank mixed it with sulfur or with biological fungicides such as Serenade or Sonata and found it worked pretty well. I chose Serenade as it was what was available to me at the nursery/ garden supply in my neighborhood, and judging how few issues I had throughout berry set and into veraison, I would try this again although I’m not convinced Sonata wouldn’t be better . . . will try it this year and compare or at least alternate the two.
Furrowing through the endless sea of shoot positioning and leaf pulling, it was beginning to be too much for one set of hands and I had to call on reinforcements in both the form of the orchard manger as well as few pals willing to lend a hand. I was already behind, and along with making sure the spray intervals were tight, it was equally important to create an environment in the canopy where the spray could be effective. It made all the difference to have an extra set of hands . . . even with that it was hard to stay on top of the canopy management and I’d pissed and moaned that you could work for eight to ten hours one week and go back the next and it was though nothing had happened. Vigor was the menacing, shapeshifting enemy: it mocked me knowing full well it would destroy my spirit each and every week.
By mid-July I was beginning to see the berry set of the crown galled fruit and it struck me that I might section an area off to make observations and so I did. There were four “perfect” specimens of galled vines in which I taped off and began making observations throughout till end of the season. The canopy as well as the clusters were much smaller and I had a strong reason to believe there might be significant differences in fruit chemistries in comparison to healthy or average fruit. This was the genesis of the idea that a wine could potentially made solely with the crown gall infected fruit.
By the end of July and into August when a massive heat wave singed the west side of the canopy, it was clear to me that not only I had perhaps pulled some leaves a little late, that also I was completely connected to the whims of nature. I hadn’t thinned out anything on the west side of the canopy of course, and only clusters that were exposed naturally got fried, but it’s my thought that had I not fallen behind with shoot thinning and positioning earlier in the season I would have been able to avoided some of the damage to the east side. But maybe not. Between the triple digit temps and higher UV index at 915 feet, some of those clusters simply didn’t stand a chance, and in the end, I needed to drop fruit regardless. I also was able to still clip and “edit” the burned fruit out of individual clusters while some were a complete lost cause . . . shriveled and desiccated as mummies. The first week into August, I took cluster weights of all the test bays and additionally two more five cluster examples of high vigor vines and compared those to five clusters from crown gall infected vines. It was a revelation. Based on the weights, the tons per acre ranged from over 5 tons per acre in the high vigor clusters (at one cluster per shoot yields mind you…) vs less than a ton an acre in the crown gall affected fruit clusters. What would this translate into from a fruit chemistry stand point when I not only measured pH and acid, but what about the tannins and anthocyanins? My feelings began to shift about how I felt about the diseased vines: they could quite simply give me the most interesting fruit in the block and therefore the most complex wine possible from that site. That was my hunch at least. The cluster weight trials also inspired me to buy some pink tape and section off areas of vines where I felt they would be ideal for rosé. At this point it was shaping up that there would be three wines made from a .61 acre block of the same variety: a rosé, a vin de soif red, and the crown galled red (the Asa Nisi Masa . . . I refuse to call it a reserve because, well, it’s just different, and that would be preposterous anyway).
As the drought and heat took its toll on the vineyard, both as evidence from burnt fruit and the dehydrated looking canopy, there were also significant level of purplish-red leaves, and not only in the crown gall infected vines. They were everywhere. I took another petiole sample at veraison and the results suggested I had a Phosphorus deficiency on my hands, which is not uncommon in our low pH soils in Oregon, nor under drought conditions. The fact that the vineyard wasn’t deficient at bloom means that I didn’t see any significant fruit set issues and it was rather the opposite this year. We had a huge, even set. When taken in consideration that the vineyard has such high Potassium levels due partially by the fact that there was still so much in soil after they burned the orchard down, it also made sense that P was a low as it was being out competed by K. This could be likely be remedied in the future with an application of rock phosphate but the significant level of K was more of a concern to me than the lack of P. High K fruit had a direct effect on fruit chemistry in the form of high pH, which I had to be very careful about with Dolcetto, a cultivar whose pH was known to get on the high side. And nobody wants a flabby ass rosé.
And then the fire hit. We were two weeks or so post-veraison when the Eagle Creek fire began to rip through the Gorge. The damage is now done, but in those initial weeks, all work performed in the vineyard over those first few weeks was done with a bandana over your nose and mouth, and, on a certain week, was also done amidst a Stage 2 evacuation. It was a slightly edgier day out there to say the least . . . in my head I was plotting my escape though the orchard as I kept looking up the vines to imagine flames tearing through the rows toward me. Of course this didn’t happen, but the stillness in the vineyard during those fire weeks was surreal and the color of the sky I will never forget. I may never forget the taste of those weeks either, as smoke taint is obviously in play here, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time in the fruit’s phenology cycle. Once veraison sets in and the berries begin to expand, their skins soften so smoke is able to permeate into the berries and into the pulp. I could only imagine the degree the fruit would be infected just based on how my clothes and car smelled after returning home from the vineyard at night: it was as though I had been sitting in front of a camp fire during a weekend in the woods. This was only after a few hours in contact with the smoke, not the weeks the grapes hung stagnantly in the haze. It made me feel absolutely helpless . . . powerless to do anything but accept it. There was nothing to be done. It was still too early to pick, so I had to continue with fruit thinning, running fruit chemistries, and gearing up for the impending harvest which was coming quickly. While evaluating my readiness and mettle for harvest driving back one evening on the Washington side, a little high and listening to “After the Gold Rush”, I watched the fires smolder in the canyons over the river.