Grapes begin arriving at Washington wineries

By Andy Perdue, Herald staff writer September 16, 2011 

After months of being concerned whether wine grapes in Washington's Columbia Valley would ever ripen, harvest started earlier than last year for one of the state's largest and oldest vineyards.

Kent Waliser, general manager for Sagemoor Vineyards north of Pasco, said they picked sauvignon blanc grapes Wednesday -- three days earlier than 2010.

"I never thought that would happen," he said.

Waliser said two weeks of unseasonably warm weather in the 90s helped the grapes ripen. Sagemoor was founded in 1968 and now has more than 800 acres of wine grapes in production.

"It's great," he said. "We weren't sure what was going to happen."

Today, he will deliver sauvignon blanc to Barnard Griffin in Richland.

"I'm delighted to get going," said Rob Griffin, owner and winemaker. "I wouldn't have believed this two weeks ago."

Griffin expects to bring in pinot gris, sauvignon blanc and possibly chardonnay next week, as well as some merlot from Red Mountain.

Also Wednesday, Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden harvested sauvignon blanc from its estate vineyard in the western Walla Walla Valley.

"The weather has been perfect, with moderate daytime temperatures and cool nights, which have helped maintain acidity," said owner Rick Small. "We are excited to be bringing it in."

Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, expects to begin picking chardonnay from the Wahluke Slope next week, as well as chardonnay and other white varieties from the company's estate Cold Creek Vineyard north of Sunnyside.

"That's about the same start date as last year, so we've at least caught up to that," he said. "With this beautiful weather we've had, we're actually in a little better shape than last year."

Milbrandt Vineyards expected to begin picking merlot early this morning on the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa, said Jim McFerran, vineyard manager. He said the grapes were perfectly ripe and the crop is a robust four tons per acre.

In fact, McFerran said he is beginning harvest five days ahead of last year and expects yields on the 1,000 acres he manages to be about 10 percent higher than he expected.

He will harvest chardonnay and sauvignon blanc next week and sees more merlot, as well as syrah and even late-ripening cabernet sauvignon ripening in the next 14 to 21 days.

This doesn't mean everything is guaranteed to be rosy for the rest of harvest, which is expected to stretch into early November.

A year ago, the first grapes picked in Washington were sauvignon blanc on Sept. 9 from Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain. Owner Patricia Gelles said she thinks her sauvignon blanc will be ready in the next few days.

Todd Newhouse, who manages his family's Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside, expects to pick sauvignon blanc grapes by the middle of next week. He said the recent heat spikes have helped ripen the grapes and provide color to grapes that needed it.

Wade Wolfe, owner/winemaker of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, doesn't expect to get in a single grape until Oct. 1. Last year, he began picking Sept. 27.

"We won't see anything soon," he said.

Bertheau said this vintage will rely on October's weather.

"If Mother Nature lets us pick deep into October, we'll be OK," he said.

Waliser said harvest is still in the early stages, though he is scheduled to pick chardonnay and merlot next week.

"We're rolling along -- or will be," he said. "We're just happy grapes are getting ripe and winemakers are picking."

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