Local

A day in the life in Washington wine country (w/galleries)

Ah, the idyllic and romantic life of the Washington winemaker during harvest. Leisurely days are spent strolling vineyards, occasionally checking on the progress of ripening clusters by plucking a plump grape and popping it in your mouth before heading to a fabulous autumn feast.

OK, not quite. In fact, not even close.

"It's not romance as much as it's an adrenaline rush," said Greg Osenbach, owner of Whidbey Island Winery in Langley, who uses grapes from both sides of the Cascades. "It's exciting, but it's exhausting."

A typical day during harvest begins in the chilly pre-dawn hours and often will stretch late into the night, with winemakers' days dependent on the whimsy of grapes - to which they are both servant and master.

Mike Sauer has spent nearly 40 years growing wine grapes. The owner of Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley planted his first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1973, and even though the business gets more technical and more chaotic each season, he cannot imagine doing anything else.

"You have moments at the end of the day after the picking crew is done and the trucks are gone when the vineyard is incredibly beautiful," he said. "You have 15 to 20 minutes to catch your breath, and you feel stimulated and fully alive."

Getting to those moments is hard work, however. Sauer is at his 150-acre vineyard before the sun arrives so he can prepare for the harvest crew.

Throughout the day, he will coordinate which blocks of grapes will be picked and when they will get trucked out.

Gone are the days when Sauer can find solitude amid his vines, as his cell phone rings incessantly, as worried winemakers wonder about the ripeness of their grapes.

"The logistics are the real challenge," he said.

Coordinating a household can be just as difficult, especially if both spouses are winemakers. Just ask Kate and Justin Michaud of Richland. She is the head winemaker for Covey Run Winery in Sunnyside, while he makes the StoneCap wines at Goose Ridge Estate Winery near Richland.

During harvest, they don't see much of each other or their children, but they can count on their mothers to fly in from Wisconsin and Virginia to help with the kids.

"We know, in general, that October is when we need coverage," Kate said. "Having our mothers here gives us the ability to be more dedicated (at the winery) and takes an incredible pressure off us. At this time of year, I don't have time to do any laundry."

The luxuries she affords herself during crush are small, infrequent and simple.

"Sometimes you just have to reward yourself, so at this time of year I will indulge in that expensive Greek yogurt," she said. "By the time you get home, your kids are asleep and all you can do is shower, eat and get some sleep. I'm out the door at 7:30 a.m. for another 12-hour day."

She said all winemakers go through the same mix of emotions.

"It's a hard time for everybody, and it can be a bit of a soap opera as you are waiting for a fermenter to open up or a (grape) delivery to show up," she said. "And nobody can tell you what day of the week it is. All the days seem the same."

She added, "Taking a day off - even if you are dog tired - is not helpful because you need to stay on top of your fermentations. It's just easier to stay in the game and do what you need to do to get through it. There's no light at the end of the tunnel. You've just got to keep your head down and not drop the ball."

For Walla Walla winemaker Spencer Sievers, harvest is the top of the first inning and the bottom of the ninth at the same time.

"It's semi-frantic and an adrenaline rush," said Sievers, 34, head winemaker for Ash Hollow Vineyards and Winery and his own El Corazon. "I get really excited for harvest because you get to do so many different things, like be in the vineyard, drive the truck back to the winery, there's the fermentation science .... This is the one time of year when you get to do all of that, and it's the time of the year when the winemaker has the most impact because there are so many decisions to make."

Western Washington winemakers face different challenges than those east of the mountains. Such as traffic.

Osenbach of Whidbey Island Winery must coordinate grapes from both sides of the Cascades, with almost two-thirds of his fruit coming from the arid Columbia Valley.

"I spend a lot of time on the road," he said.

Osenbach drives 4,000 miles each harvest to bring his grapes home. To beat rush hour on Interstate 405, he leaves Whidbey Island long before the sun rises. But there's just no way to avoid traffic on the way home.

"That gets old," he said.

Perhaps nobody in the Washington wine industry drives farther for grapes than the Roberts family, which owns Westport Winery in the coastal town of Aberdeen. Blain and Kim Roberts and their children Dana and Carrie run the entire operation.

Two times a week, Blain and Kim Roberts will get in their truck and drive east to retrieve grapes. Every trip takes 14 to 16 hours.

"It's a long, grueling haul," said Dana Roberts, who earned his winemaking degree at Washington State University.

In the evening, they arrive at their winery with four tons of grapes, and Dana's shift begins. For the next 12 hours, he will process the grapes and make the wine.

The Roberts family planted a vineyard just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, but Dana Roberts has yet to harvest grapes from the young vines.

He does, however, make wine from other local products, including the namesake fruit of the Cranberry Coast. The full lineup of 30-plus wines is sold almost entirely at the winery to visitors and locals, who are delighted to find a winery in a decidedly untraditional location.

"We've definitely extended Washington wine country," he said with a chuckle.

-- Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman are the editors of Wine Press Northwest magazine.

  Comments