Grape growers winding down long, late harvest

A wine grape harvest that won't easily be forgotten is beginning to wind down.

Debbie Hansen, co-owner and winemaker at Cougar Crest Estate Winery in Walla Walla, said she and husband Dave received a premonition that helped keep them on course through a season like none they'd ever seen.

"Three weeks ago, Dave got a fortune cookie that said, 'Don't panic.' We've been trying not to panic."

The Hansens have eight more tons of red wine grapes still hanging on the vines at their estate Cougar Hills Vineyard, which they hope to finish picking by Wednesday. Their vineyard is 50 acres, with another 10 acres coming into production next year.

"We have perfect juice coming in when you look at the numbers," Hansen said. "We're really hopeful. For as uncooperative as the weather was early, we have had some decent fall weather."

Crop size is down significantly, however. In a typical year, the Hansens will bring in 150 tons of grapes from Cougar Hills. This year they might get half that much.

"We thinned a lot to get it right, so we're down. But it's better to have a small crop than no crop at all," she said.

On Red Mountain, Hedges Family Estate actually has a bigger crop, especially of cabernet sauvignon.

"Cabernet was really short last year," said owner Tom Hedges, noting his estate cabernet sauvignon yielded 1.8 tons per acre in 2009. This year, it will be closer to 3 tons per acre.

"We'll actually make more wine this year," he said.

That's good news for what's one of Washington's largest family-owned wineries, which produced 103,000 cases of wine last year.

Hedges said the last of his Red Mountain grapes came in Thursday, and he still has about 60 tons of grapes from the Wahluke Slope and Horse Heaven Hills.

He has few worries about quality, noting the wine made this year will hearken back to what was made in Washington 10 to 15 years ago, when grapes were picked less ripe, resulting in lower alcohol.

"These will be a more austere style. I think we're going to make great wine this year," he said.

His biggest concern is for his brother, Pete, who also is his head winemaker. He was injured Oct. 18 when he fell while trying to repair the grape press. He had surgery Oct. 19 to repair a fractured vertebrae and came home from the hospital this week. He has eight broken ribs and a plate in his lower back with 12 pins.

"He'll make a full recovery," Hedges said. "There's no nerve damage, but it will be a long, slow process."

In the western Yakima Valley, longtime grape grower Mike Sauer harvested his last load Friday at Red Willow Vineyard, bringing in sangiovese, petit verdot and barbera, all red grapes.

Sauer planted Concord grapes at Red Willow in 1971, followed by cabernet sauvignon in 1973. He sells to about 30 wineries, with the largest amount going to Columbia Winery in Woodinville.

"I never worried about getting the grapes in," Sauer said as he waited for the final grapes to be driven away. "I would not consider any of the grapes a salvage operation. The winemakers got pretty much what they wanted."

Sauer began harvesting Sept. 24, the latest he can remember in nearly 40 years of growing wine grapes. That caused harvest to be concentrated, he said, noting he's brought in grapes 36 out of the last 37 days.

He said one of the challenges was with wineries running out of space in their fermentation tanks, forcing them to keep grapes on the vines a bit longer. He also saw more damage from birds feasting on grapes than ever before.

Sauer noted that sugar levels, measured in brix, were not far off from usual, though acidity is much higher, which should help the resulting wines age longer.

"This will likely be a long-lived vintage," he said. "We've had quite a few warm vintages in a row, so this will stand out. This year is probably going to test some winemakers. I think there are going to be some tremendous wines made, and the better winemakers are going to shine this year."