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Thursday, Sep. 23, 2010

Washington wine grape harvest still slow

For many Washington winemakers, the 2010 vintage is beginning to look like the worst of times.

For veterans like Gary Figgins, it might just end up being the best of times.

Figgins, who founded Leonetti Cellar in 1978 in the Walla Walla Valley, is not afraid of harvesting grapes more than two weeks later than normal. In fact, he seems to relish it.

"I've been waiting for a year like this," he said. "I've been longing for a year like this. It smacks of the old days."

Figgins, whose son Chris is CEO and winemaker for Leonetti, said the winery harvested 8 tons of Merlot from Seven Hills, a vineyard he co-owns on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. The Merlot came in at an optimal 24.5 brix (a measurement of sugar content), and Figgins was pleased with the quality.

"This will make classically proportioned wines," he said. "In other words, they will have lower tannins and lower sugars. These will be good wines without the glare of higher alcohol. I'm actually pretty tickled -- as long as we can get the lion's share of it in before frost."

On Wednesday, Wade Wolfe, owner and winemaker for Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, was walking through Zephyr Ridge. It's one of his favorite vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, and he liked what he was seeing, even if it was late.

He will bring in his first grapes -- Grenache -- early next week, followed by Pinot Gris, Viognier, Malbec and Tempranillo.

He noted that the vintage was about 10 days late heading into Labor Day weekend, but cooler than normal temperatures this month have pushed that out to 17 or 18 days late.

Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, spends most days this time of the year on the east side of the Cascades. On Wednesday, he was looking at Sauvignon Blanc in the Basin and was nervously excited about the quality.

"If our weather holds up with no hard freeze through the first week of November, we'll be in good shape," he said.

Bertheau oversees the second-largest winery in Washington (after Columbia Crest in Paterson). He normally harvests 30,000 tons of wine grapes each year. So far in 2010, he's brought in 150 tons. In a normal year, he figures he would already have brought in 6,000 tons of white wine grapes and would have just started on reds.

"If I didn't look at my calendar, I'd think it should be Sept. 10," he said.

Todd Newhouse, who runs Upland Vineyards on Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside, picked Sauvignon Blanc Wednesday and plans to begin bringing in Tempranillo Friday and Merlot by the end of next week.

"Our grapes are looking good," he said. "Obviously, we're late, but we'll make it."

Dan Caraway, assistant manager for Kirsten Rose Vineyard, mostly is concerned about the cedar waxwings, a kind of bird that has decided to stop in south Kennewick on its migration south to feast on his Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

To fend off the birds, he has set up three air dancers, which are tall, puppetlike devices often used by auto dealers to attract attention.

"They're working pretty well," he said. "Any movement keeps the birds from congregating in one spot."

He figures he has lost about a ton of grapes to the birds so far. He will begin harvesting Malbec next week and ultimately will supply 30 tons of grapes to Le Chateau in Walla Walla from the 18-acre vineyard.

Several winemakers are seeing botrytis cinerea, a fungus that can gather on wine grapes. This is occurring because of the wet September, Wolfe said, and he's noticing it the most in the cooler Yakima Valley.

Botrytis is prized for adding complexity to late-harvest wines, but it can be a concern otherwise.

"It's going to be an issue," Wolfe said. "Winemakers might have to make picking decisions based on it. But it might make a great year for dessert wines."