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Thursday, Oct. 09, 2008

Washington winemakers optimistic as grape harvest looking good

A cool spring worried Columbia Valley winemakers and vineyard managers, but grapes are ripe for the picking and the state's wine industry is looking at another record harvest.

The challenges of a cool vintage can be mitigated with a few viticultural adaptations, said Dan Nickolaus, operations manager for Vigneron Management.

"If you can get everything ripe, cool years aren't bad," he said.

As Nickolaus walked among the vines Wednesday at Wallula Vineyard above the Columbia River south of Wallula Gap, he explained that periodically thinning out clusters allows more sunlight to get to the grapes.

"We don't want two clusters to touch," he said. "We had to thin down to lighter tonnages this year, but that's the sacrifice you have to make for quality."

Vigneron, which also manages vineyards in Grandview, expects to harvest about 6,000 tons of grapes this year, Nickolaus said.

Statewide, the National Agricultural Statistics Service projects a harvest of about 135,000 tons of wine grapes. That's up more than 6 percent from the 127,000 tons harvested in 2007.

"I think it's shaping up to be a tremendous year," said Marty Clubb, owner and managing winemaker at L'Ecole No. 41 in Walla Walla.

Better acidity and a strong red color are a byproduct of the later harvest, he said.

"If you make (the later harvest), your quality jumps up higher, but it's scary because you don't know if you're going to make it," Clubb said. "But in Eastern Washington the weather almost always performs. Even the fruit I have unpicked is all going to make it."

Harvesting just got started for David Minick, president and winemaker at Willow Crest Winery in Prosser.

So far, only white grapes have come off the vines.

"Acid is good; fruit flavors are good," Minick said. "It's a lot like 1999" in terms of weather.

And as turbulence rattles financial markets, Clubb said the wine industry continues to grow. Supply is barely keeping up with demand, he said.

"It's actually a great time for the business, despite the economy," Clubb said. "It is booming."

California continues to be the country's top wine grape-producing state at an anticipated 3.4 million tons this year, according to the national statistics service.

Jim Holmes, owner of famed Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain, said this year's vintage will be different than those in recent years.

His grapes feature more acidity than usual, which he said will make for "crisper, brighter, fresher wines."

The 160 acres in his vineyard likely will be completely harvested by the third week in October, with cabernet sauvingnon grapes being the last to go.

"Winemakers all have different visions, so they'll pick one variety earlier, one later," said Holmes, who sells to 26 wineries.

At Ciel du Cheval, about 30 workers pick all the grapes by hand, Holmes said.

A combination of machine and hand harvesting happens at Wallula Vineyard, Nickolaus said.

On Wednesday, a mechanical harvester drove up and down rows of riesling grapes, shaking them off the vines and running them up a conveyor belt into a steel bin.

Though the harvest is about a week-and-a-half behind schedule, Nickolaus anticipates having most of the grapes off the vines by month's end.

"But it's up to the wineries," he said.