With the 1999 vintage still Topic A in Washington state's Columbia Valley, viticulturists and winemakers already like what they see about the 2000 vintage, which at this stage is just a gleam in the winemaker's eye.

This is the time of "budbreak," which in the vineyards means "spring has sprung." Winter dormancy is over as tiny shoots emerge from the buds. By June, blooms will appear, and the coveted merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and other berries won't be far behind.

"We had a very mild winter in the Columbia Valley, and the vines are in good shape," said Dr. Russell Smithyman, research viticulturist for Stimson Lane Vineyards & Estates, owners of the Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and Snoqualmie wineries in Washington state.

But Smithyman and grape growers all over the region are taking no chances with a surprise spring frost. Every morning they have huge fans going all over the valley. The circulating air would help prevent freezing damage to the buds.

"Chardonnay is typically the first varietal out of the gate at budbreak," said Smithyman. "But this year we even had some cabernet franc budding early, and that surprised me. I think that is an indication of the relatively easy winter we had."

Smithyman said that while it is very early in the 2000 cycle, "so far, so good. We could have another great year, coming on top of the excellent 1999 vintage."

He acknowledged that there was a period in 1999 when the prospects for a great vintage in the Columbia Valley were a bit dire.

"We had a cool spring and summer, and frankly, as we headed into September, there was talk of dropping a lot of grapes to the ground so that we could do the best we could with the rest, heading into harvest."

But in one of those wonderful surprises that Mother Nature bestows from time to time, September 1999 suddenly turned very warm. The long days of sunshine in Washington state led to a perfect ripening of the grapes, and ultimately to an outstanding harvest. Some say 1999 has the potential to be one of the legendary vintages in Washington.

It is too early to make that prediction for the 2000 harvest, although early signs are good.

Right now, Smithyman said, the focus is on the moisture status of the soil in the vineyards. That varies from vineyard to vineyard, depending on soil type and location, among other factors.

"The mastery of irrigation is one of the huge advantages we have in Washington," said Smithyman, who noted that typically, less than 10 inches of rain falls annually east of the Cascades. The key to premium wine grapes, then, lies in the use of water pumped from rivers.

"All of the vineyard managers are urged to monitor the moisture content of their soils right now," Smithyman said. "The irrigation water was turned on in mid-March. We will watch it closely. The trick is to be in a water deficit around the first of July so that shoot growth stops and we then maintain the vine by adding the amount of water we calculate the vine is using. When you do this right, you get premium grapes."

Spirits are high in the Columbia Valley as grape growers head into the warmer months. Could 2000 be another legendary vintage? Don't be surprised, if you happen upon a winemaker in what is now one of the world's premier winegrowing regions, to see some fingers crossed and more than a few eyes twinkling.