It wasn't the longest harvest in Washington wine history, but it was one of the latest and is finally over for just about all wineries.
Charlie Hoppes, owner of Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain, began picking grapes Sept. 20 -- more than two weeks later than usual -- and his last grapes arrived last weekend.
"I'm on my 53rd day in a row," he said Friday. "It's all kind of a blur now."
It was a difficult growing year long before the first leaves appeared in Washington's 40,000 acres of wine grapes. A freeze last November damaged vineyards throughout the Columbia Valley and hit the Horse Heaven Hills especially hard. Most expected the crop to be down about 20 percent this year, and that number held up for the most part.
"My amount of fruit was down about as much as I thought it would be," Hoppes said.
Cecil Zerba of Zerba Cellars in Milton-Freewater lost 40 percent of his crop to the weather. One entire vineyard was knocked to the ground by last fall's sudden freeze, then mildew in late spring caused additional problems.
As a result, Zerba had to keep most of the grapes he grows for himself. In a normal year, Zerba will sell 75 to 100 tons of grapes to a dozen wineries. This year, he sold just a couple of tons and kept the rest for his winery.
"Let's get this year over!" he said with a laugh.
Despite the weather issues, Zerba was pleased with the overall quality. He said warm temperatures through September and into October helped ripen what grapes were left.
"We were really fortunate, I'll have to say," Zerba said.
Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, agreed.
"The rieslings are the star of the vintage," he said. "Riesling doesn't mind a cooler harvest. It doesn't need the high sugars."
Bertheau began harvest Sept. 19 and received his last grapes Wednesday. And he was thankful the weather held out for as long as it did.
"If we'd gotten a freeze like we did in 2009, that would have been a whole different story," he said.
In 2009, freezing temperatures Oct. 10 put a sudden halt to harvest and caused winemakers and grape growers to scramble.
"This year, it was about as good as we could have hoped for in Washington," Bertheau said. "It didn't rain much the last three weeks. Overall, Mother Nature was extremely kind to us."
Bertheau said this was the latest harvest he has experienced since he arrived from California in 2003.
Rob Griffin, owner of Barnard Griffin in Richland, came from California in 1977, and the grapes he received this year reminded him of vintages from the 1980s, when fruit was a bit less ripe, and likely will make better, more balanced wines.
"Flavors are pretty nice," he said of the early looks he has had of his just-finished wines.
He's especially smitten with merlot, which came in perfectly ripe. "This reminds me of why we like merlot in Washington so much."
He said the resulting wines will be lower in alcohol.
"The wines will be more European in style," Griffin said. "They have crisper, leaner, more food-friendly balance that, frankly, I prefer."
"I like the merlot a lot," the Fidelitas owner said. "Every bit we got was really nice quality."
While Hoppes' estate vineyard on Red Mountain was too damaged to bring in even a modest crop, he was impressed with what he received from nearby vineyards.
"Red Mountain growers did a great job," he said. "In cool vintages like this, the warmer sites are going to show better."
The region now has struggled through three challenging vintages, and winemakers would love to get back to what they enjoyed between 1998 and 2008.
"There were a lot of stressful moments about how deep we went into November," Bertheau said.
Added Zerba: "Let's get this one behind us and see if we can have something normal."