This year's wine grape harvest is producing some of the best fruit Ashland-area vintners have seen, but yields are falling short at some vineyards.
Weisinger's of Ashland Winery is in the thick of its harvest this week, and its vines are "on par or slightly under" their average yield, said winemaker Eric Weisinger.
"Overall, it is looking like it will be one of the best vintages that I've seen in a very, very long time," Weisinger said.
Weisinger's pulls grapes from its family-owned, four-acre vineyard and a handful of others within five miles of its winery to account for its 30-ton annual harvest, he said.
Although Weisinger's hasn't seen much drop-off, some Southern Oregon vines are bearing up to 20 percent fewer grapes than average, said Weisinger, who manages other vineyards in the area.
Yields were down a little bit because of last year's over-sized harvest, said Chris Hubert, who manages four Southern Oregon vineyards for McMinnville-based vineyard supplier OVS and Results Partners, a vineyard development and management firm.
Hubert managed Quail Run Vineyard near Talent for nine seasons before joining OVS in 2011.
"We are seeing lower yields, smaller cluster size, fewer berries per cluster," Hubert said. "The heavy crop loads that many of us were carrying last year is a contributing factor to the lighter loads we carried this season."
It's the result of alternate bearing, he said. The grape vines spent too much energy on last year's crop to produce a comparable amount of fruit this season.
Vine maintenance and independent farming practices also have a big effect on yields, Hubert said.
In 2010, already weather-beaten fruit ripened late in the Rogue Valley and much of it was eaten by birds, costing some growers up to a third of their yields. In 2011, most vineyards were about three weeks behind schedule with harvest, but a warm and unusually dry October allowed vintners to hold their grapes on the vine long enough to fully ripen.
Lee Mankin, owner of Carpenter Hill Vineyard near Phoenix, didn't see his yield jump last year like most vineyards did, but he harvested an above average amount of grapes this year, he said.
His 25-acre vineyard pumped out about 75 tons of pinot noir grapes.
"From the growers' point of view, this was probably the best season we've had in 10 years," Mankin said. "There was a lot more heat this year, so the fruit was super ripe. "… We had to let it hang on the vine for a while for the flavor to catch up to the sugar level."
Driven by a hot, rainless summer, sugar levels in the grapes climbed early this season, Mankin said, which took a lot of pressure off vintners, who bit their nails through a drawn-out growing season last year.
Roller-coaster weather patterns from the last two seasons have left Ashland Vineyards and Winery owner Phil Kodak with damaged vines, and yields from his 30-acre vineyard fell off by about 90 percent this season as a result, he said.
Doug Irvine, who owns 30-acre Irvine Family Vineyards outside Ashland, said his five harvestable acres knocked out about 15 tons of grapes, which is right on average.
"We had a fantastic year. The yields were fantastic and the quality of the grapes was amazing, the best that we've seen yet, since we started this back in 2006," Irvine said. "There was no bird pressure, and everything ripened before the rain and cold weather hit."
Mankin said the sugar and flavor levels in this year's harvest are so balanced that vintners will be "making wine in their sleep this year."
It's true, said Weisinger, who crushes about 60 tons of grapes each year for other vineyards in the area.
"The whole point is to have fruit that is so high quality you don't have to do anything at all," he said. "There is always something, but I would say these grapes are very close to that."
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email email@example.com.