Washington’s extreme, 2021 summer heat packed a flavorful punch into grapes

BENTON CITY, Wash. — In 2021, 179,600 tons of grapes were harvested throughout Washington State. The Washington State Wine Commission said it was a smaller than normal yield, but still more than 2020, and the grapes overcame record-breaking heat.

“Well, last year was panic, yes, because I’d never experienced that type of heat,” Vineyard Owner Dick Boushey said.

Dick Boushey, of Boushey Vineyards in Grandview, also manages different vineyards, some on Red Mountain like Avennia Winery in Benton City. While he grew up on orchards, Boushey found a love for vino.

“Love the challenge of growing grapes,” he said.

Boushey said in 2020, growers and winemakers across the Pacific Northwest dealt with smoke.

Then summer of 2021 brought on heat like never before.

“We thought we were prepared, we’d watered beforehand, we were even watering when it happened but still, for certain varieties, it was impactful. They kind of shut down and the leaves were singed the next morning when we came here,” Boushey said reds like cabernet and pinot noir faired better than others.

“Heat is a double edged sword, obviously we need heat in order to ripen fruit and it’s very important, but too much heat-” Steve Warner with the Washington State Wine Commission said.

“It sort of stunted it and kept them to these small little berries and small clusters,” Boushey explained.

But it all was not lost to the historic heat, Boushey said it made for a memorable vintage.

“It impacted the quality positively. Smaller berries, more skin contact, more intensity,” he said.

Boushey described the warm 2021 vintage as approachable and robust. Most bottles haven’t been released yet.

“But, it might be a harbinger of the future,” he warned.

Warner, with the Washington State Wine Commission said resilience and preparation is vital for grape growers and wine producers statewide.

“You get one chance, each year to make wine. Adaptability, flexibility are key I think mother nature has a funny way of throwing curve balls at you,” Warner said.

There are other aspects of the heat that affects production: workers’ safety.

“We hand prune, and we hand thin, and we hand leaf-strip and we pick by hand. We’d get up at daybreak and we’d have to quit by 11 almost; you just couldn’t be in these vineyards,” Boushey said.

He said grape growers are working to prepare for another hot summer, but hope temperatures won’t get as high.

“One is monitoring our water, but changing how we train the canopy and we need to hide the fruit,” he said.

As for 2022, Boushey said they’re running behind; the vines should already be in bloom, but aren’t.

“We’re behind in our development, things are healthy but what’s important to us is when this bloom date happens and normally we’d be blooming and we’re not. Pick your poison, do you want to be a heat stroke? Or, do you want to freeze? A little heat would be nice,” Boushey laughed.

But, like most growers, Boushey has faith that everything will work itself out, and the end result, will be worth the work.

“Every year is different and you have to kind of, out smart mother nature.”

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