Huge, record-setting Washington harvest wrapping up

Chardonnay harvest French Creek Vineyard

Chardonnay grapes destined for Karma Vineyards in Lake Chelan are loaded into a bin in early August on the first morning of harvest at French Creek Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. (Photo by Niranjana Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

What already was anticipated to be the largest harvest in Washington history looks like it will be even larger than thought, according to grape growers and winemakers across the state.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which uses 66 percent of the grapes grown in Washington, reports that tonnage is coming in between 5 and 10 percent over its pre-harvest estimate.

“And we’re not done,” said Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “We’re down to the last 10,000 tons or so. We’ll see where we end up.”

Pre-harvest estimates put Washington’s wine grape harvest at more than a quarter-million tons, and nothing indicates it will be short of that.

Harvest to be biggest ever in Washington

Rob Griffin, Barnard Griffin

Rob Griffin, owner of Barnard Griffin in Richland, is completing his 40th harvest in Washington wine country this week when he brings in his last load of Cabernet Sauvignon. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Mike Sauer, owner of famed Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley, described “much bigger yields” because of heavier clusters.

“We always base our crop estimates on average cluster weights from past years,” he said. “You’d think your average numbers wouldn’t be off by too much in either direction. If it’s over or approaching being over, we do aggressive thinning. We thought we had a lot of blocks that we thought were right in the range, but the clusters were just heavier than we thought. We were 15 to 20 percent higher than average.”

But winemakers seem happy, even with the extra grapes.

“I’m pleased with the winery comments I’ve received so far,” Sauer said.

Rob Griffin, owner and winemaker for Barnard Griffin in Richland, called himself “grudgingly optimistic” about the quality.

“It’s tasting quite good,” he said. “I’m quite pleased.”

He, too, noticed the extra fruit arriving early on.

“People who have been doing this for years were off by 10 percent,” Griffin said. “Every time someone estimated 4 tons, we’d get 5.5.”

Wineries left scrambling for space

Mike Sauer, Red Willow Vineyard

Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley, said this was a larger-than-anticipated harvest this year. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

This has left a lot of wineries scrambling for fermenters and tank space.

“I dusted off some old bins we haven’t looked at in years,” Griffin said. “I have them all set up and ready to use. It’s nice to be ready. If I hadn’t had a little surplus capacity, I would have been in trouble.”

Griffin is wrapping up his 40th harvest in Washington.

Ste. Michelle’s myriad winemakers are so excited about the quality, they aren’t turning anything down, Corliss said.

“We’re shoehorning it in here and there,” he said. “Good fruit, good wine, trying to take advantage of it as much as we can. If they’re not completely full, they’re going to be.”

A lot of the extra fruit going to Ste. Michelle is coming from new Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills that came into production this yea.

“They all did really well,” he said.

Rainiest October in history of Columbia Valley

Rick Small owns Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, Wash.

Rick Small is the owner of Woodward Canyon Winery, which he launched in 1981. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

The biggest battle has been weather, as the normally arid Columbia Valley received 2.58 inches of rain in October, a record according to weather forecasters.

“That’s a lot for October,” Corliss said wearily. “It’s been a challenge. It rains, we wait for the wind to dry it out. We pick a little, then it rains, then we wait for the wind.”

Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in the Walla Walla Valley town of Lowden, finished picking Saturday.

“It was a long harvest,” he said. “We needed the rain. We always want the rain. That’s good for us, recharging the water systems.”

A lot of his wines are still wrapping up fermentation – or starting malolactic fermentation – so he doesn’t yet have a good handle on quality.

“I really like what I taste so far, though,” he said. “It’s just hard to tell yet.”

He described the 2016 harvest as long and relatively uneventful, with no frost events to speak of in October. Like others, he noticed the grapes coming in a little heavier than anticipated, but he is pleased with the balance.

Sauer also mentioned the numbers on the grapes looked good, with sugars, acidity and pHs all being well balanced when they were delivered to his client wineries.

“The reports back from the wineries is they’re liking the quality,” Sauer said.

At this point, he’s putting away and fixing equipment. Harvest at Red Willow wrapped up Oct. 12.

“Things are wet and muddy,” he said. “We still have all the leaves on the vines, though they’re not too green anymore.”

Griffin said he believes the final number for the 2016 harvest could be 10 percent higher than anticipated.

“It got everybody,” he said. “It’s not anything that anyone could have predicted. It has to do with berry size and cluster weight.”

Griffin said he has one last load of Cabernet Sauvignon coming in this week, then he’ll put a bow on the memorable harvest of 2016.

Typically, final harvest numbers are released in mid-February.

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