Growing Pinot Noir on the edge of climatic viability has always been a proud part of Oregon’s wine identity, connecting the industry’s key product to Burgundy, the historic benchmark for Pinot quality.
But climate change might be throwing a wrench into that picture, leaving one winemaker wondering what the future could hold.
Harvests that used to end in mid-October are now regularly wrapping up in September. And this year brought a new extreme, going down as the earliest harvest ever for many wineries, including Pinot producer Sokol Blosser.
“It was crazy — we were done picking on Sept. 19,” said winemaker and co-president Alex Sokol Blosser, whose parents helped pioneer the Oregon industry when they established their Dundee Hills vineyard in the early 1970s.
This vintage didn’t feature the unremitting heat of 2015, the warmest on record, but it got off to a fast start and didn’t let up.
It also came after a toasty 2014, giving the industry an unprecedented three consecutive vintages with weather that could almost pass for Californian.
“I don’t know if we’re on the edge anymore,” Sokol Blosser said. “It’s really not that difficult to get Pinot Noir ripe here now.”
As the 2014 and 2015 vintages unfolded, he had worried about the quality of the wines that would be produced, but they ended up winning wide praise.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” Sokol Blosser said. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I really like the wine we made from 2014 and 2015. Climate change worries me, but I also know we’re not operating in a vacuum. Our wines may change, but other regions’ will, too, so I think if we work hard, we’ll do well and be able to maintain our unique identity.”
Sokol Blosser doesn’t believe the nature of the recent harvests can be attributed entirely to climate change: Changes in vineyard practices have likely played a role as well.
Still, he said, there’s little doubt that a new reality is unfolding for the Oregon industry.
In an interview with the Business Journal last year, Sam Bronfman, co-founder and managing partner of Bacchus Capital Management, a wine-focused investment firm, worried that the consistently very warm, very dry growing seasons could eventually drive yields down and prices up.This year’s tonnage was down, but Sokol Blosser said that was just fine after a series of big harvests. “We have a lot of wine to sell from ’13, ’14 and ’15,” he said.Sokol Blosser does wonder if “the new normal” in Oregon, as some are calling it, could encourage investment in the state by big out-of-state wineries, which is already on the upswing. After all, the state might no longer look like the risky venture it used to.”I think (outside investment is) a really good thing, because it raises the profile of Oregon wine,” Sokol Blosser said. “At the same time, for a family-owned business, it means competing against wineries that have a lot more resources than we’re accustomed to. So that means we’re going to have to continue to step up our game.”
Pete Danko covers energy, manufacturing and ports.