After three difficult years, Washington winemakers figure Mother Nature owes them a good vintage. So far, she has provided a near-perfect growing season, just as harvest is beginning.
"The weather is perfect," said Co Dinn, director of winemaking for Hogue Cellars in Prosser. "We're heading to a really nice harvest."
All estimates point to a record wine grape harvest this fall, with some believing the state will top 200,000 tons. Dinn, who oversees one of the largest wineries in the state, is preparing by bringing in new stainless steel tanks from California to increase capacity. Hogue also is building a new crush pad, which will be ready Sept. 10, the day Dinn hopes to begin bringing in grapes.
If that doesn't keep him busy, one of his winemakers is expecting the arrival of his first baby Thursday.
"This is as busy as I can recall being since I got here in 1996," he said.
In Richland, Barnard Griffin owner/winemaker Rob Griffin plans to bring in Sauvignon Blanc grapes this morning. They will come from Sagemoor Vineyards, north of Pasco. By comparison, last year was so cool, that same block of grapes arrived Sept. 16 -- and Griffin admits he probably should have waited longer.
Despite the expected record harvest, Griffin plans to scale back his operation this year. He will crush 650 tons of grapes instead of the 1,200 tons he did just two years ago. Griffin calls this "a balancing move" in the wake of the privatization of state liquor stores this summer. About 8 percent of his wine was sold through the state liquor stores, and he still is trying to sort out new ways of getting wine into customers' hands.
"They were a substantial customer," he said.
One change is a major remodel he just finished at his south Richland facility. He added several thousand square feet to his operation and converted warehouse space into a wine lounge. He hopes to draw more customers to the winery and sell more wine directly to the public.
Meanwhile, all of his focus is on harvest and the weather.
"My perfect scenario is a gentle calming of all this heat," he said. "Staying dry is really important. Days that peak in the mid-70s and nights in the 40s and 50s would be ideal. That's not impossible, and there's not a lot of reasons to think we're going to get rain."
At Washington's oldest winery, winemakers are preparing for the eight-week onslaught of grapes.
"Almost all the tanks in Woodinville are empty," said Bob Bertheau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle. "We're preparing for a lot more grapes to come through the door."
Bertheau expects to start harvesting Friday, bringing in Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from warmer sites in the 11 million-acre Columbia Valley. Ste. Michelle's white wines are made at its headquarters in Woodinville, northeast of Seattle. Its red wine facility is on Canoe Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills, west of Paterson.
He said that while the harvest will be much bigger, it should not be as difficult as the last two because it will be more spread out, thanks to optimal weather from Mother Nature.
"She owes us a little bit," Bertheau said with a grin.
On Red Mountain near West Richland, Charlie Hoppes said the grapes look perfect, and he's excited to get started on his 25th harvest in Washington wine country. Hoppes, who owns Fidelitas Wines, will be harvesting his first estate grapes, all Cabernet Sauvignon from 3 acres at his winery on Sunset Road.
"Everything looks good," he said. "We're getting back to a normal year."
Hoppes recently purchased 10 acres next to his winery. He is looking forward to the Kennewick Irrigation District project that will bring water to Red Mountain and hopes to plant grapes there in 2014.
The former red winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle brings in grapes from all over the Columbia Valley, but he has begun to focus more of his attention on Red Mountain, especially with new plantings in recent years meaning more grapes are available.
He will begin bringing in red grapes in about two weeks to his production facility off Wellsian Way in Richland. He will crush about 160 tons of grapes for Fidelitas and another 240 for other clients.
And he is excited to get started.
"We've had perfect temperatures," he said. "How great is that?"