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Monday, Sep. 13, 2010

Washington grape growers, winemakers anxious to start picking

RICHLAND, Wash. -- Washington winemakers and grape growers are nervously watching the skies and vineyards as an already-late season is growing uncomfortably later.

"I've been out looking at a bunch of vineyards," said Rob Griffin, owner/winemaker for Barnard Griffin in Richland. "But holy smoke, this is going to be an interesting year. We usually expect a nice Indian summer about now, and we're not getting it. It's been cool and wet."

Light rain Wednesday followed by heavy rain Thursday have put early picking on hold after a cool spring and summer. In Washington, wine grape harvest typically begins just before or after Labor Day, but it's about 10 days late this year.

At least one winery has brought in grapes. Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla received Sauvignon Blanc on Thursday from Klipsun Vineyards on Red Mountain near West Richland.

Kendall Mix, winemaker for Goose Ridge Estate Winery near Richland, was scheduled to harvest Pinot Gris Friday, but Thursday's rain will push that to Tuesday. Mix also plans to bring in Chardonnay late next week. At 1,600 acres, Goose Ridge is the state's largest vineyard.

"The acidity and fruit were looking good Thursday," Mix said. "But that's the card Mother Nature deals us."

He said the chilly nights this time of year help the grapes retain natural acidity, so he isn't too concerned about the delay.

"I think we'll be OK. And the crew gets another weekend to rest up."

Mix said Merlot likely will be the first red grapes to be harvested, adding that the flavors were developing nicely and he might begin picking by the end of this week.

"(This) week will be perfect timing for Merlot," he said, adding temperatures are expected to be back in the 80s.

Charlie Hoppes, owner/winemaker for Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain, also expects to bring in Pinot Gris and perhaps Merlot next week, and he is concerned at the compressed harvest season.

"The window is so narrow, we know we're going to get slammed," he said.

Griffin said there is a bright side to this.

"In my experience, the best quality years have been cooler rather than super hot," he said. "The flip side is, we need to get ripe."

Griffin arrived in Washington from California in 1977, making him one of Washington's most-tenured winemakers. He likens this year to 1999, when he started harvest Sept. 22, his latest ever. That year also is hailed as one of Washington's finest.

With production of about 75,000 cases, Griffin brings in a little more than 1,000 tons of grapes, and he would prefer to get started sooner rather than later.

"Yeah, I'm getting nervous."