Prosser grape grower takes chance on winemaking

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldNovember 26, 2012 

— Zirkle Wine Co.'s new, state-of-the-art production facility was ready just in time for crush this year.

The $4.5 million expansion on Zirkle Fruit Company's property in the Prosser Wine & Food Park represents the company's first foray into winemaking.

Mountain States Construction of Sunnyside finished building the 55,000-square-foot facility in the third week of September, which meant it could crush its first load of Pinot Gris, said Dave Copeland, Zirkle Fruit Co. operations manager.

The facility was built to handle red and white wine grapes, Copeland said. The result is a component that wineries use to make the finished wine.

Zirkle already grows about 2,500 acres of wine grapes for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, a major customer for the crush facility, Copeland said. Now, it is one of a handful of wine grape growers with a custom-crush facility.

It was even able to crush some of the grapes from its own farms, he said.

Copeland said Zirkle crushed about 5,000 tons of grapes this year. Of that, 1,000 tons were pressed, chilled and delivered to Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville.

The rest was fermented at the new facility, and some still is in that process, he said.

The crush facility added six full-time positions and about nine seasonal jobs, Copeland said.

Part of what makes the crush facility unique is how the area where trucks bring the grapes is raised 18 feet from the cellar floor, Copeland said.

That means the grapes don't have to be elevated, helping improve the quality, he said.

"We are generating more higher-end, useable juice right off the bat," Copeland said.

Red grapes are removed from the stems before going into the "must" pump, where the juice that was squeezed out is reintroduced, Copeland said.

But white grapes go directly to the press, stems and all, he said. Each of the two presses can hold about 50 tons.

It takes about three hours to get the white grapes through that process, he said. The stems and leaves aid in the crushing, and are left behind along with the shells of the grapes while the juice continues to the metal fermentation tanks.

Copeland said the tanks range in size from 8,600 to 32,000 gallons. There is room for more to be added if needed.

Once the white juice is cooled to 60 to 64 degrees, yeast is added and the fermentation takes off in the tanks, he said.

With the reds, the grape skin is left in the juice for a while to add to the color and flavor, Copeland said. The juice that accumulates toward the bottom of the tank is then piped up to the top and sprinkled back inside.

The red juice is pressed to remove the solids, and then fermentation continues, he said.

In a lab near the fermentation tanks, Becca Bailey, Zirkle's enologist, takes daily tests of the juice in the tanks to check on fermentation. That helps determine if any changes need to be made.

Bailey said she is able to check on the progression of primary fermentation, when the sugars transform into alcohol, and secondary fermentation, when malic acid changes to lactic acid.

The change to lactic acid gives the wine a softer, rounder mouth feel and changes the taste, she said.

Winemaker David Forsyth said their first year has been helped by a good vintage. Weather was good for grapes this season and growers didn't face frost.

Right now, Zirkle is finishing up the fermentation of some of its wine, he said.

Wineries such as Ste. Michelle will take the wine produced by Zirkle and blend it with wine produced at other crush facilities, Forsyth said. Sometimes, the wine will come from grapes from the same vineyard, but the grapes will be crushed in different locations.

"We are making wine," Copeland said. "We are just not taking a finished product to market."

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