Mid-Columbia winemaker copes with challenges of vintage (w/ video)

SUNNYSIDE -- An outstanding wine is all about balance.

To achieve that, winemakers such as Covey Run's Kate Michaud must do a lot of juggling at this time of year. But Mother Nature keeps tossing some curve balls into this harvest.

"It's an exciting vintage," Michaud said with a smile. "Besides being super, super late, it's just confounding. At this time last year, we were about 85 percent through, but that was an early year. This year, we're about 40 to 45 percent."

The 37-year-old University of Oregon graduate is in the middle of her fourth harvest as Covey Run's head winemaker. With an annual production of 150,000 cases, only one woman in the Northwest is in charge of more wine than Michaud -- Chateau Ste. Michelle's white winemaker Wendy Stuckey.

"This vintage hasn't seemed to affect some varietals very much -- like geuwrztraminer, merlot and syrah," Michaud said. "They are all middle-ripening varietals. In general, sauvignon blanc ripens first, then chardonnay from hotter sites. Then comes the merlot, gewurztraminer and syrah. But it seems like the sauv blanc and chardonnay are significantly late, while the gewurz, merlot and syrah are picking out generally when we do pick them out."

Cabernet sauvignon and riesling form much of the backbone in the Columbia Valley, and there is concern within the industry that the cooler temperatures will not provide enough ripeness for both varieties in some Eastern Washington vineyards.

"Cab and riesling are going to be really late," she said.

Normally, the crush pad at Covey Run's production facility in Sunnyside would be a beehive of activity seven days a week. That wasn't exactly the case last week.

"It's kind of a ghost town because we're not accepting any grapes today," Michaud said. "It's very, very unusual."

Michaud didn't let that time go to waste.

Each harvest, winemakers drive their high-mileage pickups over miles of gravel and dirt roads throughout the Columbia Valley to taste through vineyards. They debate what their senses tell them vs. the hard numbers coming from the laboratories that analyze the samples of those same grapes.

On this brisk October morning, Michaud began her day by stopping at Sagemoor Farms, a renowned vineyard across the Columbia River from the Columbia Generating Station on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It's a 25-minute drive from her home in Richland, where she and her husband Justin, a winemaker at Goose Ridge, raise their two daughters.

"This is one of my favorite vineyards, and I come at least once a week, sometimes twice a week, during the growing season," Michaud said. "It's one of the oldest vineyards in Washington state, and Covey's contracts here go back to the 1980s."

In 2009, during the second week of October, Michaud had only her Sagemoor cab and the bulk of her riesling left to crush.

Now, she's waiting and watching the sugars -- measured in brix -- and acid levels.

"Some may remember there was a big frost on Oct. 10 (last year), and a lot of vineyard blocks got torched and the (leaf) canopy just fell apart," Michaud said. "This year, it's not the same ball game at all. No cab and no riesling has come through my door.

"There's super-high acid, but there are really great flavors," she added. "We thought we were going to see lower brix because of how late the season was, but what we're seeing now -- because we had a warm two-week spell that got interrupted by three days of rain -- is this hike in brix."

Much of Michaud's riesling comes from Phil Church Vineyard, which surrounds the winemaking facility that Covey Run shares with its big brother, Columbia Winery. They harvest about 600 tons of riesling from the venerable vineyard, a late-ripening site at 1,250 feet elevation in the Yakima Valley.

"We walk these blocks a lot because we are 100 yards away from them," Michaud said. "We really like the qualities of the white grapes we get from this site -- a lot of acidity and nice aromatics. The aromatics might have to do with how quickly we go from pick to press, and acidity is because of how high of elevation we are."

The results are white wines that feature a profile of orchard fruit tones such as apricots, pear and apple with notes of minerality and delicate white flowers, Michaud said.

"Generally, I like to pick riesling between 22 and 23 brix, with a lot of acid, but not obnoxious, tooth-melting acid," she said with a chuckle. "I'm seeing high brix and high acidity. I was prepared for the high acidity, but not the high brix. That seems strange in this cool year."

When it comes to merlot and cabernet sauvignon, Michaud is dealing with grapes at sugar levels of 25 to 26 brix. Fermentation turns sugar into alcohol, so the higher the sugar level in the grape, the more alcohol will be in the wine after fermentation is halted.

"What we thought was going to be a low-alcohol year is becoming more typical," she said.

Michaud and other Washington winemakers have their fingers crossed that freezing temperatures will hold off long enough to allow some of the acidity to "fall out" as the grapes ripen. Those factors are measured in titratable acidity (TA) and pH.

"We're getting numbers from merlot and cab that I would expect from California with pH around 3.5 and TA of 6.2," she said. "Typically, when we pick in Washington, we're edging more on the 3.8 and 3.9 pH and TAs of 4 to 4.5. It's a little strange."

After the grapes are crushed, some of Michaud's white wines and all of her red wines will be transported to Covey Run's new barrel room in West Richland. As an outdoors enthusiast and vegetarian who practices yoga, Michaud entertains thoughts of cycling to her barrel room next spring.

But this fall, when she decides the time is right, Michaud will instruct Sagemoor to pick 40 tons of cabernet sauvignon grapes, and they will get delivered to Sunnyside. She will craft those 80,000 pounds into 3,500 cases of wine.

"If a boutique winery could get 40 tons from here to make their 3,500 cases, they'd be stoked," Michaud said. "It's good stuff. Our 2007 cab is just hitting the market, and my first handling of these grapes is what our consumers are getting right now. I'm really excited about that."

* Eric Degerman is managing editor of Wine Press Northwest, a quarterly magazine owned by the Herald.