Grape growers expect great harvest

Wine grapes
The wine grape harvest has begun in Washington, and growers are optimistic that this year’s harvest will be of both great quantity and quality. Photo: Bernt Rostad.

Washington’s wine harvest is well underway, and representatives from the wine industry are expecting a large harvest with low disease risk. Grape growers say they are thankful that the fall’s dry conditions have set the stage for a successful yield.

Washington state’s wine industry has grown rapidly over the past several years, with just 19 wineries in 1981 to over 950 today. In King County alone, wineries produced over 2.2 million cases of wine and $357.6 million in revenue in 2013, mostly from Woodinville. Just outside of Seattle, Woodinville has become a hub for wine-related tourism, with 795,000 wine visitors each year.

Washington Wine Growers predict that this year’s harvest will be an estimated 17 percent larger than last year’s, with an estimated 268,255 ton yield.

Brenton Roy is a wine grape grower for Benton County-based Oasis Farms. He told Lens that grape growers and winemakers typically will pull representative fruit samples from the vineyard a few weeks in advance of the harvest to get laboratory analytics done to determine the grape’s “brix,” the sugar level of the fruit used to measure the potential alcohol content, as well as the potential hydrogen (Ph) and acidity. Those statistics are then used to track the ripeness of the grapes, so that winemakers can determine when the harvest should begin.

“It’s a very unique type of wine they are trying to make, and there are many nuances to wine style,” said Roy. “They use the numbers to get close and make the final call with palate determination.”

Growers oversee the operational logistics of the grapes which includes deciding how the crew moves around the farm to harvest correctly while also taking steps to combat weather concerns such as rain which can increase the risk of disease.

Luckily, the dry fall has kept disease pressure low for the current harvest, according to Roy. Preliminary testing indicates that the harvest will result in a fair yield with a good, clean crop.

When it is time for harvest the grower will use both machinery and workers who handpick the grapes. Timing is important for certain varietals­—growers try to harvest whites at night when they are cool and reds in the daytime when they are warm. After picking, growers aim to deliver grapes to destination wineries within a few hours.

The winery then processes the grapes. For reds, the skin is typically left on to help with the coloring, and whites have their skins taken off. The grapes are then fermented for between a few months to years.

Washington state is unique from other competitive winemaking regions in the world, Roy added.

“We are growing in an irrigated desert with very dry, cool nights and warm days with many hours of sunshine,” said Roy. “From vintage to vintage, Washington is really consistent, and we can always produce the same variants from season to season.”

Also, Washington’s winemaking regions experience drier falls than many other popular wine grape-growing locations, he continued.

Rob Mercer is also a grower and owns the Mercer Winery located in Prosser and within the Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA).

“It seems to be another stellar year from what we’ve seen so far,” he told Lens. “The fruit is coming in, and we’ve seen some nice acidity and great flavors and aromas. The summer was warm and dry, and it should call for another consistent and high-quality vintage.”

Wine growers hire workers from the local community to help during harvest. However, winemakers are preferring mechanical harvesting rather than handpicking. The machines can eliminate stems and debris, so the fruit is ready once it reaches the winery.

“It really helps inside the wineries to keep the products going into the winemaking process as pure as we can,” he said.

Mercer said at this point in the harvest his farm is beginning to pick the Cabernet.

“We’ve got some clear skies in front of us, and it looks like it will be a great harvest,” he added.

 

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