Washington wine harvest a 60-day sprint to Halloween

By on September 3, 2013
Washington wine harvest runs for about 60 days each year.

Washington wine grapes will be harvested for the next 60 days across the Columbia Valley. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

For some, Washington’s wine harvest already has begun, with a few tons of grapes having been picked and delivered here and there.

But for most of the industry, harvest begins in earnest the day after Labor Day.

Starting now, it’s a 60-day dash to the end of October, when nearly all of the 210,000 tons of Washington wine grapes will be picked, crushed, pressed and fermented.

Kent Waliser is the general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards in Washington state. Washington wine harvest will run through October.

Kent Waliser is the general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards in the Columbia Valley. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

“Everybody schedules 60 days,” said Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards.

Waliser was harvesting Gala apples from Sagemoor on Labor Day – a holiday he’s had off just once in his adult life. Today, he will be bringing in some Chardonnay to go along with the Sauvignon Blanc he’s already supplied to DeLille Cellars, Hedges Family Estate, Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, Januik Winery and Barnard Griffin.

The early start doesn’t mean an early finish, Waliser said.

“It doesn’t matter when we start,” he said. “We will be done around Nov. 1.”

Waliser said that when winemakers have more time, they take it.

“They’ll take advantage of hangtime if they can,” he said.

Today, Waliser will even be bringing in Chardonnay from Weinbau Vineyard on the eastern edge of the Wahluke Slope – a historically early date.

“We’ve never started Weinbau this early,” he said.

Waliser said that as long as Mother Nature continues to cooperate, the 2013 harvest should be less chaotic than usual.

“Starting this early makes for a more orderly harvest,” he said. “You don’t have the big rushes. You don’t have to overwork people in a short period of time.”

In fact, 2013 will likely be one of the longest harvests in Washington’s wine grape history – just the opposite of the 2009-2011 seasons. In 2009, the growing season ended abruptly Oct. 10 when a frost swept through the Columbia Valley and turned green leaves brown when only half the grapes were in. In 2010 and 2011, harvest started weeks late because of cool growing seasons.

Rob Griffin begins 37th Washington wine harvest

Washington wine harvest begins at Barnard Griffin winery in Richland with Sauvignon Blanc.

Enologist Megan Hughes, left, and associate winemaker Mickey French process Sauvignon Blanc grapes at Barnard Griffin in Richland. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Rob Griffin, owner of Barnard Griffin, has seen it all in his 36 harvests in Washington wine country. This year, he brought in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris on Aug. 27 – his 60th birthday. Today, Semillon will arrive at his Richland winery.

“The game is afoot!” he said as he walked through a vineyard near Maryhill in the eastern Columbia Gorge.

Typically, Griffin will see a flurry of activity, then a lull of a week to 10 days.

“Then all hell might break loose,” he said.

In a typical year, Griffin will bring in about 1,200 tons of wine grapes. Scheduling them at a pace that allows his crew to turn them into wine is the tricky part of the business.

“We could take in 60 tons per day,” he said. “But pretty soon, we would get constipated dealing with it inside the winery.”

Griffin describes the next 60 days as “a controlled panic,” and he tries to schedule everyone at least one day off per week, preferably by not having grapes arrive on the weekends.

“It totally depends on the flow of grapes,” he said. “But you can’t work too many days in a row.”

Harvest is like juggling, he said. One ball is easy, and two or three are manageable. But when you add a watermelon, a flaming torch and a chainsaw to the mix, it can get complicated in a hurry.

“The first couple of weeks are a cakewalk,” he said. “Then you have to take care of what you made.”

Coastal winery makes long drives to bring home grapes


Washington wine harvest is a long haul for Westport Winery near Aberdeen. The owners will add several thousand miles to their truck's odometer during harvest.

Westport Winery is near the Washington coast, several hours’ drive from the vineyards of the Columbia Valley. (Photo by Niranjana Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Westport Winery, which is just eight miles from the Washington coast, has one of the longest drives from vineyard to crush pad in the state. On Monday, winemaker Dana Roberts was processing Gewürztraminer that arrived Friday from Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

“We work holidays,” he said with a grin.

His parents, Blain and Kim Roberts, will add thousands of miles to their truck’s odometer in the next 60 days. When their grapes are ready, they will leave their winery near Aberdeen before sunrise and arrive at the vineyard around noon, when anywhere from 2 to 4.5 tons of grapes will await them. They’ll return to the winery by about 7 p.m., when Dana starts his shift. He will process the grapes for the next several hours.

Westport has some additional equipment this year, including a new hopper and shaker table. That extended his day when those first grapes arrived Friday evening.

“This first time, it took a little time to iron out the kinks,” he said. “I didn’t get out of here until 11 a.m. the next day.”

His folks will make at least 15 trips across the Cascades to bring all 60 tons of their grapes back from the Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope.

He’s not counting on too many days off in the next 60 days.

“It just depends,” he said. “If the grapes are here and ready, I work. If nothing is going on, I try to get some rest.”

But he has no regrets – in fact, quite the opposite.

“This time of year means long days,” he said. “But it’s my favorite time of the year. This is the fun part.”

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is founding partner of Great Northwest Wine LLC and a longtime wine columnist. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books.

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