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Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Washington winemakers pleased with harvest so far

Harvest began slightly early at some Columbia Valley vineyards after the hot summer months rapidly ripened grapes, but several growers said they're pleased with what they're seeing.

The first grapes are often plucked from the vine in early September, give or take a few days, but Jeff Gordon, owner of Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards in Pasco, said his white wine grapes were already harvested around the time he'd normally begin picking.

"You know, it's going pretty fast," he said. "It started out so cold we thought it would be a late year, but we had the warm summer and we caught up."

Gordon Brothers started picking its first varieties of white wine grapes Sept. 10 and finished in a week. "That's a little early for us," he said.

Scott Williams, general manager and winemaker at Kiona Vineyard and Winery on Red Mountain near Benton City, had a similar experience. Kiona Vineyard began this year's harvest Sept. 9, picking Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer grapes, and saw the fruit rapidly mature at the same time instead of in the usually staggered fashion.

"There are a lot of things ripe at the same time," he said. "We're picking every day."

Williams said the uniform ripening isn't negatively affecting crop quality. The grapes are absent of mold, rot and disease and have ideal sugar and acidity levels, he said, and the bunches have a consistent color. "Things look great," he said.

Dick Olsen, a partner with Olsen Estates Winery in Prosser, said his harvest began Sept. 9, but he doesn't necessarily consider that early.

"Every year is different," he said. "We've been this early before. From our perspective, it's pretty normal."

Olsen Estates is harvesting Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and "is nibbling away" at Viognier grapes, Olsen said.

This year's grape harvest is predicted to be a record in Washington. The Washington Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted last month that the state's wine grape crop would be around 155,000 tons, or 7 percent more than 2008.

Williams attributed the predicted crop size to an increase in growers, not overly abundant vines. Williams and Gordon said weather was favorable during the growing season. The chilly early spring was balanced with hot temperatures during the summer. "That hot July really brought things along," Gordon said, adding he wouldn't mind slightly cooler autumn weather to slow the harvest.

Although the early harvest is producing favorable grapes, all three wine growers emphasized that it's too early to tell how good the wine may be. Signs point to a quality product, they say, but they can't be sure for several months.

"You won't know until you get (the grapes) in," Olsen said. "From what I've seen -- the color, the translucence and the taste -- I think it's going to be a fabulous year. ... But you can't tell until the grapes are in."

Gordon said, "It's really too early to tell. Do we like what we see out there? Yeah, we do, but you have to put them through fermentation and see how they do in fermentation."

"I'm a winemaker, so I'm going to tell you they are going to be great," Williams said with a laugh.