Around the middle of summer, I made a promise to myself that I would work harder to get my hands a little dirtier this year during harvest.
As a wine journalist living in the middle of Washington wine country, I'm always around the periphery of harvest, finding out what is happening in the vineyards via phone or e-mail. But to really understand a vintage, you need to get some dust on your shoes, dirt under the fingernails and ripening grapes in your mouth.
So from the first week of August to the end of October, Managing Editor Eric Degerman and I spent at least a day or two per week in the vineyards. We put a lot of miles on the car with winemaker Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas, who helped us understand everything from veraison - a French word for "change" that signals when grapes turn from green to red (or in the case of white wine grapes, green to, well, green) - to malolactic fermentation.
This was a good harvest to focus on. As you will read in our harvest report beginning on Page 26, Washington winemakers are ecstatic about this year's quality.
The highlight for me came in early October, when Eric and I traveled to Oregon wine country for two days of work. Our hosts were Ron and Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash Cellars near Newberg, Ore. Their new winery atop a hill is a model of efficiency in design, built for making world-class Pinot Noir and Syrah.
It was a rainy vintage for Oregon, something winemakers haven't experienced much for the past half-decade. Lynn has been making wine in Oregon for a long time, so she knows exactly when to bring grapes in and how to handle them once they arrive.
That's where we came in.
We were there to work the sorting line, among other tasks. This meant that we stood with four new friends alongside a slow-moving conveyor belt, picking through each cluster. We pulled out leaves, sticks and evil earwigs. We learned to look for rot, underripe berries and anything else that would take away from the quality of Penner-Ash Pinot Noir.
Hand sorting grapes was not something I witness much in Washington wine country. It certainly goes on, especially at smaller operations or for reserve-style wines at larger wineries. But in the Willamette Valley, hand sorting is much more prevalent because Pinot Noir is a finicky grape and needs all the love and care it can get to become truly great.
The work was painstaking, and we were sticky all over with grape juice, but the rewards were many. Foremost was the fact that the experience made me even more glad I am a wine writer and don't need to rely on such intensive work to make a living.
But the true rewards came at lunchtime. For an hour, all work stops and the harvest crew at Penner-Ash gathers for a family-style meal. I am reasonably certain the food prepared by Natalie Sigafoos, the winery's events and direct sales manager, would have tasted delicious under any circumstances, but it was especially marvelous when you have been slaving over several tons of Pinot Noir all morning.
But the highlight came around midafternoon the first day. All of us on the sorting line were craving caffeine, so Natalie came around and took our orders. Mine was simple enough: two shots of espresso. A bit later she came back with our coffees, we slowed down the conveyor belt and sipped with one hand and sorted clusters with the other.
I had to chuckle as I surveyed the scene: Perhaps only in the Pacific Northwest would it take good espresso to help make great wine.
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In our last issue, we announced an expansion to six issues in 2006. Since then, however, we have re-evaluated our strategic plans for the next year, and for now, we're sticking with four issues in 2006: Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. We guarantee that each Wine Press Northwest magazine will continue to be full of wine news, features, advice, humor, recipes and wine reviews. Our mission remains to focus on the talented winemakers of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia and the restaurants and merchants that showcase Northwest wines.
One of the primary reasons to consider expanding to bimonthly from quarterly is the Northwest's growing wine industry. When we started Wine Press Northwest in 1998, there were fewer than 250 wineries. Today, there are more than 700.
An important part of Wine Press Northwest is our wine reviews. In this issue alone, about 300 Northwest wines are reviewed. Tasting and getting our reviews to you in a timely manner is extremely important. To compensate for remaining at four issues, we are expanding the number of pages in each issue dedicated our Recent Releases section.
And if you want more Wine Press, we invite you to sign up for the Pacific Northwest Wine of the Week e-mail newsletter. The newsletter comes out each Tuesday. To sign up, register at www.winepressnw.com.
We also will expand our offerings online in other ways, which I will announce in this space as we move forward.