Washington grape growers wrap up early harvest

By on October 16, 2015
Red Willow Vineyard is owned by Mike Sauer.

Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard, already has wrapped up harvest and headed to the beach. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Mike Sauer can’t remember ever going to the beach this early for a post-harvest getaway. But, then, he doesn’t recall ever picking his first grapes Aug. 6.

It’s been that kind of harvest for the owner of Red Willow Vineyard in Washington’s western Yakima Valley.

“We’ve been finished for about 10 days,” Sauer said as he was driving back across the Cascade Mountains from Grayland on the central Washington coast. “It seems like an ancient memory already.”

Across Washington’s vast Columbia Valley, harvest is wrapping up, and growers and winemakers would appear to be happy with the results so far.

“For the most part, it’s really quite nice,” said Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards north of Pasco.

Waliser, who farms about 900 acres of wine grapes at his four vineyards, sells fruit to more than 80 wineries – about 10 percent of the state’s producers. He will harvest his final grapes today.

“That’s the earliest we know of,” Waliser said. He’s been managing Sagemoor for more than a dozen years, but the vineyard dates back to the early 1970s.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which uses two out of every three grapes grown in Washington, will finish harvest a week from Saturday.

“Everything’s ripe,” said Kevin Corliss, director of vineyard operations. “We’re thankful that the weather has been staying so good.”

With few exceptions, October in the Columbia Valley has primarily seen blue skies with highs in the 70s and 80s and lows in the 40s.

“It’s been pretty nice,” he said.

Expect record harvest

Early harvest in the Yakima Valley

Workers pick Chardonnay grapes Aug. 7 at a vineyard near Zillah, Wash. This was one of the earliest harvests in the history of Washington’s wine industry. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Corliss said Ste. Michelle still has between 10,000 and 15,000 tons of wine grapes left to harvest. The company owns such wineries as Chateau Ste. Michelle, 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Northstar, Col Solare, Snoqualmie, Spring Valley, Seven Falls and Michelle Sparkling Wines.

He said pre-harvest estimates on white grapes have been about as expected, though he has seen a slight decline in tonnage with red grapes in the past couple of weeks.

“We’ve been a little light on reds, so we don’t know where we’re going to end up,” he said. “It’s still a little too early to tell, but I think we’ll end up a little light on Cab and Merlot.”

But that will be more than made up for with increased vineyard sources, Corliss said. Thanks primarily to new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah in the Horse Heaven Hills, he anticipates overall tonnage to be up about 4 percent.

That would point toward another record harvest for Washington. Last year, growers harvested 226,000 tons of wine grapes. Just with Ste. Michelle’s additional fruit sources, that could put this year’s harvest around 235,000 tons. If this comes to pass, it would be the ninth record in the past decade for the Washington wine industry.

Sauer called this a heavy crop, thanks to some early planning. Because of the warm, early spring, Sauer decided to carry a little more fruit on his vines and leave a bit more canopy with the hope of slowing the ripening process.

“The hot season never let up,” he said. “Almost across the board, this was one of the heavier years we’ve had.”

Despite these efforts, Sauer still picked his first grapes – a rare red variety called Marquette – on Aug. 6, purportedly the earliest in Washington wine history. Sauvignon Blanc grapes were picked on Red Mountain that same day. With his last grapes coming in Oct. 4, it still made for a long harvest season.

“It just seemed like it dragged on forever,” he said.

Wineries run out of space

washington wine

Kent Waliser is general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards and oversees 900 acres of vines north of Pasco and on the Wahluke Slope. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Sauer and Waliser said a few winemakers began to run out of places to put grapes as the season wore on.

“Normally, Merlots and Syrahs are out of the way and they are able to cycle through their fermenters at least two times,” Sauer said. “A few wineries got behind toward the end. There were definitely a few picking decisions based on tank capacity. I haven’t seen that in years.”

Waliser began communicating with his winery clients in May and June to expect an early harvest, but it still seemed to catch a few winemakers off-guard, he said.

“Winemakers were slammed because everything ripened at the same time,” he said.

As a result, wineries that have picked in the past couple of weeks have seen lighter yields primarily from grapes starting to shrivel and lose juice, he said.

Corliss said harvest has been fairly smooth for Ste. Michelle. He said that harvest typically lasts from Labor Day to Halloween, so the multi-week shift at the beginning and end has made it about the same length.

He mentioned that harvest actually stretched into the second week of November the past two years – something that won’t happen this year.

“We started three weeks early, and we’ll end two weeks early,” he said.

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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