The first leaves are unfurling from buds sheltering the beginnings of wine grape clusters that will become Washington's 2014 vintage.
Across the state's diverse growing regions, the fuzzy dime-sized buds are swelling and breaking open, marking "bud break," or the start of the season for vineyards.
At Wallula Gap Vineyards in the southeastern part of the Horse Heaven Hills, Cabernet Sauvignon, typically a slower variety, has already started to awaken.
That's because the vines are planted near the Columbia River in shallow soil, and the warmth from proximity to the river speeds growth along, said Dan Nickolaus of Wallula Management, the company that runs the vineyard.
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Bud break gives an indication on how this year compares to the average, said Kevin Corliss, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates vice president of vineyards. For now, it looks like the year will be normal.
"This year is absolutely right down the fairway," Corliss said.
Earlier this week, Ste. Michelle's viticultural staff swapped photos showing off unfurling buds.
Buds are in good shape, and vines overall fared the winter well, Corliss said. But crop expectations can change depending on weather and conditions going forward.
Recent warm weather will help move grapevine development along. Heat can really get things started and lead to rapid shoot growth, Corliss said.
Washington's "normal" has become a record harvest. About 210,000 tons of wine grapes were harvested last year, up 12 percent from the previous year's record harvest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The first crop projections won't come out until later this summer. But overall, the industry has been in a strong growth mode, adding new vineyards.
Ste. Michelle has been doing a lot of contracting and expansion in the past years, Corliss said. Those new vines are coming online, and the company, which produces the bulk of Washington's wine, is actively seeking more acreage.
Red Willow Vineyard west of Wapato, started in the 1970s, also is adding new acreage by replacing old vines or those varieties that have fallen out of favor, said owner Mike Sauer. This week, workers were planting a few acres of Syrah.
Sauer was still waiting for the first buds on his established vines to open earlier this week, because he's in a cooler growing area than the Horse Heaven Hills. The buds on Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese were swelling.
Tax day, April 15, tends to be when bud break begins, Sauer said. But he tends to start picking his 150 acres earlier, even though Horse Heaven Hills vineyards beat his vineyards to bud break and bloom.
Sauer did see some injury to new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec this winter after two cold spells in the Yakima Valley, including one week where temperatures hovered below freezing.
He expects a modest crop from those vines, which are in their third leaf, meaning he planted them three years ago. A good spring could help them heal, he said.
Workers at Wallula Gap Vineyards also were planting new acres of grapevines this week. The baby vines look like nothing more than a tall twig.
Wallula Gap Vineyards has added acres the past three years, with plans to continue adding for at least the next three, Nickolaus said.
The 900-acre vineyard is split between red and white varieties. They have about 500 acres left to plant, which would take at least five years.
Land prep occurs in the winter, and includes global positioning system, or GPS, marking so that the hand-planted rows of vines will be completely straight, Nickolaus said.
The grapevines look like small trees covered in thick bark, with two large branches running along a wire connected to the trellis. The vines are trained into a bilateral cordon, which refers to the two arms that look like branches.
The buds grow on spurs of wood that was pruned back after last year's harvest.
"Each berry gets an equal amount of sunlight on them," Nickolaus said. That's why the spurs are spaced about a fist apart with two buds to each.
Nickolaus said they want to get grapes about the size of two BBs, with a lot of skin so the colors are vivid.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com