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Latest News, Vines and Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA, Walla Walla Winery

by Jay DeWitt, Managing Partner and Vigneron

My 86 year old father likes to say, “farming is a series of compromises.”  It is one of those nuggets of wisdom that takes years to understand. Each vintage begins with the promise of perfection. We are ready. The vineyard has been pruned precisely. We have the knowledge, the machines, a dedicated crew, and positive energy. Inevitably, perfection is lost, replaced by compromise. 

In some years a harsh winter ruins the vintage before the grapes have a chance to grow. 2022 was close. The temperature at Birch Creek vineyard bottomed out at 0°F on new years eve. Dirk and I brought in the new year struggling to get our 3 wind machines started. We finally succeeded shortly after midnight. The wind machines kept the coldest air from setting around the buds, and in this case it was just enough to get us through without much damage. Three  miles north of us the low temperature was -12°F and the more sensitive varieties were lost for the year. 

Spring was unusually cold and wet. NOAA tracks heat unit accumulation at various sites. Thru July 1, 2022 at the Walla Walla airport, the heat unit accumulation for 2022 was the lowest on record, tying 1955. What a contrast to last year, which was one of the hottest on record.  Accumulated rainfall was nearly a record, and a whopping 9.5 inches above the same date for 2021 which was the driest on record. One might make the sardonic observation that the weather over the last two years has been average, if combined. Farming is so much fun!

Ours is an arid climate, so too much rain early in the year is not a problem for us, it just means delaying our irrigation. Lack of heat is another matter. Fortunately, July was warm and we have largely caught up on heat units. One of the advantages of being small is that we can monitor the grapes closely for the peak of quality; the point where flavor development, acid balance, and tannin resolution are optimum. In a cold year the grapes don’t always ripen fully, so that particular advantage is lost. In those years (2011 is the perfect example), we rely on our winemaking skills to differentiate our wines. 

So, you might ask if perfection is unattainable for 2022. Absolutely not! This year’s problems are all solvable, and we are 70% of the way there. Stay tuned!

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Latest News, Vines and Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA, Walla Walla Winery

by Jay DeWitt, Managing Partner and Vigneron

Birch Creek Vineyard - Blanket of Snow

Birch Creek Vineyard looking eastward with a deep blanket of snow

It is Saturday, April 16. I am looking out the window at a snowy blizzard, wondering if the grape buds can withstand these cold temperatures. The grapes at Birch Creek are at the end of dormancy, on the verge of “bud break.” The vulnerability of the tissues changes rapidly during this time. Two weeks ago the tight buds could have withstood a low temperature of 20° for several hours, two weeks from now 32° for a few minutes will kill the green tissues and leave us without a crop. There is not a lot we can do to protect the grapes in these conditions. We have wind machines that are helpful if there is a temperature inversion, but that is not the case during a snowstorm.

The grapes do not all break their buds at the same time, there are varietal differences and differences due to microclimates within the vineyard. The timing of bud break is mostly due to air temperature. If the daily air temperature average is above 50° physiological processes move forward. The first visible evidence that bud burst will happen soon is plants “weeping” from the pruning cuts as the sap moves up from the roots. The buds swell in response, eventually the first leaf will unfold, or “burst” from the bud. The amount of time necessary to move from weeping to bud burst depends on air temperature.

The varietal differences governing the timing of bud break are important. At this time, a few of the buds on the earlier emerging varieties (Syrah, Grenache) have burst, they will be damaged to some degree since there were nighttime temperatures below freezing earlier in the week. The buds on later emerging varieties (Cab Sauv, Merlot) are still tight and should be fine.

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Latest News, Vines and Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA, Walla Walla Winery

by Jay DeWitt, Managing Partner and Vigneron

Birch Creek Vineyard - Winter

Birch Creek Vineyard with dusting of snow on the ground and mostly blue skies in the late afternoon.

I sometimes chuckle to myself at the personification of “Mother Nature,” as the benevolent, nurturing life force. Farmers know that “Mother” can also be an ill-tempered, whimsical disciplinarian. I’ve made my living farming and winemaking for nearly 4 decades, and can remember a number of hard spankings administered by “Mother Nature.”

The singular winter time worry for Walla Walla Valley grape farmers is that low temperatures will damage the fruit buds that formed in the prior growing season. If the temperatures get low enough, the buds die and there won’t be a crop that year. In very extreme circumstances, there is even the possibility of having to replace the vineyard.

This winter has been kind to the vineyard thus far, at the time of this writing, there has only been one such night. Dirk spent that very cold January night babysitting our wind generating machines that moderate air temperatures. It worked, a recent evaluation revealed less than 10% of the primary buds are damaged. That small amount of damage is not enough to affect the yield or quality of the 2022 vintage.

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Latest News, Vines and Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA, Walla Walla Winery

by Jay DeWitt, Managing Partner and Vigneron

The 2021 vintage will produce excellent wines from Walla Walla valley vineyards, but there won’t be much.

The extreme and persistent heat during June was something we have not dealt with in previous vintages. The heat arrived near the end of our bloom period, just as the delicate berries were forming and beginning to expand. Any of the grapes that were not protected by the shade from a leaf simply burned up in the afternoon sun, as if they had been hit by a blow torch. The berries that were left did not expand to their full potential. If the heat had come later in the year, we would have been able to manage our way through it with minimal damage. But the end result was a 35% yield reduction. Each variety fared a little different, dependent upon which growth stage the plants were in when the heat hit. Cabernet Sauvignon, which blooms later than the other varieties, was impacted the most, the Birck Creek Cab Sauv was reduced by half.

Heat and drought often come together, as they did in June 2021. Our grapes were not affected by lack of water, in fact we used our irrigation system to help reduce the damage caused by the heat. Even though they had plenty of soil moisture, the plants couldn’t take up enough water to keep the developing fruit fully hydrated in the afternoon sun.

The good news for our wine drinking friends is the remaining berries were outstanding. These battle tested survivors were small, thick-skinned, and fully ripe with concentrated flavors. We are nearly finished with pressing the wines, which are packed with aromatics, color, and flavor.

Anytime a crop is damaged by an extreme weather condition farmers ask themselves if there is anything that can be done to reduce the impact if the same situation is encountered in the future. In this case the answer is yes. Pruning practices could be adjusted to provide more clusters and more shade for the clusters as the grapes are developing. Early leaf expansion and thus more shade could be encouraged by adding a little fertilizer. Overhead misting systems that provide evaporative cooling during extreme heat could be installed. These preventative steps would add cost and contemplicate quality management. Over the winter we will consider this and weigh the cost of any adjustments against what we judge is the future risk. Farmers jokingly refer to this process as “managing the year that’s gone.” 🙂

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Latest News, Vines and Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA, Walla Walla Winery

by Jay DeWitt, Managing Winemaker and Vigneron

Birch Creek Vineyard House

The start of the DeWitt block in Birch Creek vineyard with the vineyard rental house in the background.

We will remember the summer of 2021 for quite some time; it was a scorcher! I don’t go a day without hearing the question, “How are the grapes handling the heat?” It is a good news/bad news situation.

The bad news is the yield will be reduced. The good news is the wine could be amazing!

Grape plants generally handle heat without much trouble but the grapes were in a vulnerable condition when the heat hit in early June. Bloom had just ended, and many of the young berries that weren’t shaded by a leaf simply burned up in the hot afternoon sun. The remaining berries did not enlarge normally, so the clusters have fewer, smaller berries. I am expecting yields to be reduced by 30%. If the heat had come two weeks later, the berries would have been acclimated and much of the damage would have been avoided. In our family we have a saying for this type of bad luck, “that’s life on the farm. ;)”

We will harvest some of the varieties earlier than normal due to heat and small berries; but not all, in fact some of the varieties will likely be harvested later than normal. This is because grape plants have the ability to halt their metabolic processes and conserve water when the temperatures get too hot, depending on the variety.

The good news is that what happens early in the year doesn’t have much impact on flavor. Let’s hope that is the case in 2021! I believe the most important contribution to the terroir of the Walla Walla Appellation has to do with the sun filled days and moderate temperatures that are normal for the end of summer and beginning of fall, following veraison. Daytime highs in the 80’s and nighttime lows in the 50’s helps us craft the balanced wines we seek. Delicate flavors have time to evolve and the tannins soften without losing all of the acid. This is know as “Hang Time.”

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Latest News, Vines and Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA, Walla Walla Winery

Contact: Pete Thorson, Marketing & Sales Manager (pete@dumasstation.com)

Dumas Station Wines is excited to announce the addition of Dirk Brink as the winery’s winemaker. Brink joined the team at Dumas Station in April of this year. He brings with him 20 years of wine making and vineyard experience, and has served as the winemaker at two other wineries.

“I am very happy to have found a home with Dumas Station,” Brink said. “Their vineyard-focused approach to winemaking aligns with my own. My winemaking philosophy has always been to let the grapes speak for themselves; and my goal is to allow the natural fruit, terroir, and our winemaking techniques to produce wines that are varietally distinctive, with character and substance.”

“This is a perfect fit,” said Jay DeWitt, managing partner and vigneron for Dumas Station. “Farming and wine making are in Dirk’s DNA. He is a self described “old soul” who loves having his hands in the dirt. He has a passion for the intimate winemaking approach that is the cornerstone of Dumas Station’s success. He understands the pure joy of combining dirt with sunshine and water to optimize vineyard results; his wines show the delicate touch of a committed craftsman.

Brink, a native of South Africa, grew up just outside of Cape Town surrounded by world-renowned vineyards and wineries. At an early age, he was introduced to viticulture by his father, who was passionate about farming. Brink remembers being intrigued by the process of nurturing grapes. This curiosity and interest, coupled with a patience and attention to detail he learned from his mother, led him to study enology and viticulture.

After attending Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch, Brink began his career working at world-renowned wine estates in Stellenbosch and Somerset West. His curiosity about winemaking turned toward how things were done in the United States. Securing an internship with Chateau Ste. Michelle, Brink made his way to the States in 2004. Brink learned the many facets of the wine industry at both Kestrel Vintners and J. Bookwalter, and worked his way up to assistant winemaker. Brink met his future wife, Esther, while they were both working at Kestrel; which is what kept him in the U.S.

In January of 2013 Brink became the winemaker for Coeur d’Alene Cellars. During his tenure, Brink expanded their Bordeaux varietal and blends program. He also began producing Chein Blanc, which became one of their most popular wines. In August 2015 Brink was recruited away to become the lead winemaker at Basel Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash.

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Latest News, Vines and Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA, Walla Walla Winery

Authored by: Jay DeWitt, Vigneron/Managing Winemaker

It’s great to connect with friends in person again. Conversation topics formerly considered mundane are now quite interesting when talking with a maskless human. So, let’s talk about the weather!

It’s dry. Year to date, 2021 is one of the driest years on record. The beautiful hills covered by dryland grain crops are already drying up, a month before they should. It is going to be a difficult year for our wheat farming neighbors and friends.

The drought will not have a negative impact on our business. Reduced soil moisture means less vegetative growth so clusters get more direct sunlight. Also, moderate drought stress triggers the physiological changes that lead to superior quality.

Grapes don’t require much water. In a typical year we apply 2 to 4 acre inches of water. An alfalfa field needs 10 times that amount. The soil moisture is monitored in real time, accessible with a cell phone, so there is no wasteful irrigation. The vineyards are irrigated with efficient drip systems that apply 0.5 inches in 12 hours, 3 full days of irrigation is all that is needed for an average season. This year will require twice that amount.

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2019 Vintage, Cab Sauv, Latest News, Merlot, Vines and Vineyards, Walla Walla AVA

Authored by: Jay DeWitt, Vigneron/Managing Winemaker

We are frequently asked, “how was the vintage?” A simple answer just scratches the surface. Many factors contribute to the overall quality of a particular vintage, but most important is how warm it was. Micro climates vary widely in the Walla Walla AVA. We keep track of “heat units” to compare one vintage to another. (If the average temperature on a given day is above a chosen base (for us 50° F), one heat unit is recorded for each degree above the base. For example, an average temperature of 75° earns 25 heat units.) From one year to the next, heat unit accumulation can vary by as much as 20%.

When planting, the farmer chooses varieties that will do well in average heat for the site. In addition, farmers choose multiple varieties or clones that will do well in both hotter or cooler years. The result is that there will always be something really good grown in the vineyard, despite micro climate variation. For instance, a great vintage for Merlot probably won’t be a perfect vintage for Cab Sauv, which needs a few more heat units to reach full maturity.

Winemakers are reluctant to talk about this openly, because they may wake up to a headline “Winemaker says 2013 no good for Cab Sauv!” The other truths are that growers can hasten or delay maturity by managing water deficits and canopy management; and  good winemakers can make great wine even in imperfect years.

So, what about the 2019 vintage????? I think we will make the best Merlot we’ve ever had from the 2019 grapes. And we’re going to have some excellent Cab Sauv as well!

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