Vintners began trooping north from California to Oregon nearly 50 years ago, enticed by the prospect of making wine right along the climactic edge of where grapes can consistently ripen.
Now, with the 2011 harvest poised to get underway, the risks and rewards that make up both sides of that edge are starker than ever in the state's 850 commercial vineyards.
The risks? Putting a year's worth of work and money into a crop that could still be washed out by relentless fall rains.
The rewards? Overcoming the elements to produce wines that, in their best years, are hailed as world-class. "This year is certainly a nail-biter," said Stirling Fox, who oversees management of 30 different Willamette Valley vineyards. "But that's what makes growing wine grapes in Oregon exciting."
A cool growing season has shoved harvest back two weeks or more, exposing vines to potentially ruinous October rains and voracious flocks of grape-stealing migratory birds.
Grape development has been so slow at some vineyards, especially high-elevation sites in the northern Willamette Valley, that a few owners have already thrown up their hands and walked away.
Across the $2.4 billion industry, nerves are so frayed that a brief "Ask an Expert" memo written by an Oregon State University horticulturist and seemingly aimed at home grape-growers, angered scores of winemakers by suggesting that grapes won't "survive" without two to three weeks of sunshine and high temperatures.
A subsequent extension report, released earlier this week, backtracked completely, observing that "Often the most challenging weather conditions produce some of the finest wines."
Even industry veterans, used to the white-knuckled experience of growing wine grapes in Oregon, say this year ranks with the most challenging they have seen.
"The way everything has come together is a very rare occurrence," said Willamette Valley Vineyards' Jim Bernau, who has farmed grapes at his property near Salem since 1983. "I don't expect we will see another one of these falls for many years to come."
That said, Bernau and many other winemakers around the state insist that this year's imperfect storm embodies just the type of challenge that lured Oregon wine pioneers such as Richard Sommer and David Lett north in the first place.
Doug Tunnell and a small crew at his Brick House Vineyards winery near Newberg launched their 2011 harvest Thursday morning by cutting and then pressing chardonnay grapes. He expects to start picking pinot noir sometime next week.
The war-room nature of the harvest is evident in his barn-turned-winery, where dueling long-term weather forecasts issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Weather Channel are displayed on separate clipboards.
"Doom and gloom on one and bright-eyed optimism on the other," Tunnell said. "The Weather Channel always has more sunshine."
With both sites predicting only sporadic bursts of rain over the next few weeks, Tunnell remains optimistic that something special could still be brewing in his vineyards.
"When I say we are really on the verge of a terrific year, I'm not blowing smoke," he said. "I seriously believe this is a year Oregon can deliver the kind of wines that are absolutely unique in the world."
A lack of sunshine throughout cool spring and summer growing seasons means sugar levels in grapes throughout the Willamette Valley will be down from prior years, said Matt Compton, owner of Westvine Farms, a Philomath-based vineyard management company. Lower sugar levels translate directly to lower alcohol levels in finished wines.
"But those are the kinds of wine that we are known for," he said. "We could still be looking at a classic Oregon vintage."Vineyard managers, knowing all summer that a problem-plagued harvest was on the way, directed field crews to remove one-third or even more of the fruit from the vine. The idea is to direct the plant's available energy so that what remains has a better chance of ripening.
Other tricks, learned from vintages past, include extensive pre-harvest removal of leaves from vine canopies. The practice ensures better circulation of air, which in turn helps thwart grape-killing diseases such as botrytis.
With virtually every other autumnal fruit crop also late this year, one final problem facing winemakers may be availability of labor, said Sam Tannahill, a principal at A to Z Wineworks in Dundee and chairman of the Oregon Wine Board.
"We sometimes end up competing with the Christmas tree producers for labor," he said, "but this year it looks like we'll be competing with the pear guys in Hood River and Southern Oregon, as well."
Tannahill doubtless echoed the sentiments of many in the industry by adding, "When Thanksgiving rolls around, I'm going to take a long vacation."