Hot topics include water management, capitalizing on Oregon Wine Month

Everyone was talking about the rain. That was not unusual in Portland, where rain is a common topic of conversation, but it held a different meaning for attendees of the Oregon Wine Symposium, held Feb. 25-26 at the Oregon Convention Center.

According to Dr. Greg Jones, professor and research climatologist in Southern Oregon University’s environmental studies department, monsoon conditions stemming from a typhoon in the western Pacific Ocean hit the Northwest last September, making it the wettest September on record. Fortunately for winegrowers, October was one of the driest on record.

“September stunk; October saved the day,” was how one grower summed it up for Jones.

Jones started off the second day of the conference with a climatology report, followed later in the afternoon by a practical session on vineyard water management, with Luisa Ponzi, winemaker at Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood, and winemaker John Quinones of RoxyAnn Winery in Medford. With added input from Steve Price of Price Research Services, the two winemakers discussed solutions for too much and too little rain.

Improving Oregon Wine Month

In anticipation of another good year for Oregon wine, a panel comprised of Dewey Weddington of the Oregon Wine Board and wine sales managers from various aspects of the industry – including a distributor, a winery, a restaurant, a grocery store and a wine bar – discussed the upcoming Oregon Wine Month in May. Each offered tips on how wineries can piggyback on the state’s marketing campaign to best promote their wines.

Weddington admitted that last year’s Oregon Wine Month campaign fell flat. It focused on a three-hour public wine tasting in downtown Portland that drew little response and lost money. This year the emphasis is on marketing and on-air advertising. “Everything is geared toward pointing people to wineries or to the Oregon Wine Month page at Oregonwine.org,” he said.

Panelists advised vintners to zero in on the most interesting aspects of the winery, the place, the people or history, and convey that in a brief but engaging story that will compel shops and restaurants to carry their wine and will make consumers want to buy it.

“The wine tastes better if there’s a good story,” said Dan Mages, wine manager of the Urban Farmer restaurant at The Nines Hotel in Portland.

Water into Wine

At the session titled “Water into Wine,” Steve Price noted that until recently, winemakers and growers weren’t giving water enough attention. “Water got left out of the textbooks, although it’s a main component of wine.”

He added, “Water is one of the easiest compounds I work with, but it’s right up there with Brix in importance.”

Quinones worked in Napa Valley for more than 20 years before moving to Southern Oregon where, he said, the humidity is unusually low. He said he is careful to monitor the moisture in the soil of the Rogue Valley, noting, “Dehydration is the bane of quality winemaking.”

Ponzi had the opposite problem, particularly during last year’s soggy September. Still, she said, “I much prefer rain over heat because there’s more you can do.”

One solution she found to deal with too much surface water was to hire a helicopter to fly low over the vineyards and blow off the water. “It’s quick and not too expensive,” she said, quoting the cost at $500 for one hour, covering 20 acres.

However, an audience member said that when he tried that, the helicopter “blew down the whole damn trellis.”

Ponzi also said that in 2013, a high-dilution year, she did up to a 30% saignée. “If you have a rosé program, that’s great,” she said, in reference to the technique that involves removing a percentage of the juice from the must. She said she freezes the juice, concentrates it and adds it back to the fermenter, along with added sugar.

Making wine in a dry year is more difficult, she said. “You run the risk of making wines that are out of balance.” She said she believes in adding water, “the earlier the better. Deal with the chemistry later, if you need to make adjustments.”

But Jones, in his climatology report, predicted that Oregon winemakers will experience a slightly cooler spring with near-normal precipitation, and a dry summer that is warmer than average. “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” for 2014 is in agreement, he said, although it’s calling for another wet September.

“If it rains in September,” said Jones, “it’s their fault, not mine.”