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Friday, Sep. 09, 2011

Mid-Columbia wine grape growers optimistic about harvest

Several weeks of optimal weather have buoyed wine grape growers' hopes for a strong finish during a challenging vintage.

"Things are moving along rapidly," said Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Holmes, who began growing grapes on Red Mountain in the mid-'70s, said he measured merlot at 21.6 brix and pinot gris at 21.5 brix this week. Brix are a measurement of sugar in fruit, and 23 to 25 brix are considered ripe, depending on the grape variety and style of wine being made.

Holmes expects to begin picking pinot gris, a white grape, as early as next week.

Patricia Gelles, whose Klipsun Vineyards is not far from Ciel du Cheval, said she usually begins picking sauvignon blanc right around Labor Day, and she's probably a week or more away. Traditionally, her sauvignon blanc is among the first grapes picked each year since Klipsun's first harvest in 1989.

"We've never started picking grapes this late," she said. "Never, never, never."

Paul Champoux, owner of Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills near Alderdale, said his chardonnay grapes are measuring 19.4 brix. It's typically the first grape variety he harvests, and he expects to begin picking in the next eight days or so.

"It might be quicker with this warm weather," he said. "That's good. We need it, for sure."

Champoux said he normally begins harvest the first week of September, so he estimates he is about 10 days behind.

"That's better than it was when we were three weeks behind (at the beginning of the season in April)," he said. "We've caught up pretty well, actually. If we continue with this weather through September and into October, we should be OK."

On the western edge of the Yakima Valley, Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard doesn't expect to begin harvest before Sept. 26. Last year, which was a late harvest as well, he began harvest Sept. 24. In a normal year, he begins harvesting around Sept. 12. With the warm weather forecast for the next several days, he might change that estimate, however.

"This is an incredible weather pattern we're seeing right now," he said.

He said the forecast for high temperatures this week have winemakers making inquiries about harvest.

"We're starting to get lots of calls," he said. "Right now, we're just stacking bins."

Co Dinn, director of winemaking for Hogue Cellars in Prosser, said he received a chardonnay sample from the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa that was 19 brix, and he thinks those grapes could be harvested in as few as 10 days.

Doug Gore, executive vice president of winemaking, vineyards and operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, thinks harvest could begin as early as next week for sparkling wine, which usually is earlier than still wines. Ste. Michelle is by far Washington's largest wine company, harvesting about two-thirds of the state's 40,000 acres of wine grape vineyards.

"Last year was very compressed," he said. "This year will be compressed too, but there are fewer grapes."

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated Washington's wine grape crop would be down 16 percent because of damage to vines caused by three events: A cool June last year hurt bud development for this year's crop, a devastating freeze Nov. 23 damaged vineyards across the Columbia Valley, and this year's late spring, has put the crop as much as three weeks behind normal.

Washington is the No. 2 wine producer in the United States behind California. Last year, the state harvested a record 160,000 tons of wine grapes but is expected to bring in no more than 135,000 tons this fall.