Winemaking 101: Sparkling wines could bring fizz to county economy

Don't pursue vintner dreams half-corked




Should you hire someone to plant your vineyard?

Professionals with knowledge and expertise who can save a landowner from costly mistakes.

Helpful hints about grapes

Growing degree days, or GDD, is a formula for the number of days above 50 degrees during a region's growing season. Clark County is about 1,800 GDD.

Wine grape varieties:

• 1,650 GDD: Siegerrebe, Madeleine Angevine, Burmunk

Iskorka, Muscat of Norway, Rondo

• 1,651 to 1,900 GDD

Chardonnay, Auxerrois, Kerner,

Sylvaner, Pinot noir

Regent, Garanoir

Agria, Leon Millot

Cocktail napkin numbers:

• 8 to 12 pounds: amount of fruit that a mature grapevine can yield, depending on the variety and year

• 12,000 to 18,000 pounds: amount of grapes an acre could produce with 1,500 vines planted

• 11 to 12 pounds: amount of grapes needed to produce a gallon of wine

• 1,000 to 1,500 gallons: amount of wine that an acre could produce

• 43,849: acres of vineyards in production in Washington

• $2.6 billion: retail value of Washington wine

Sources: Information compiled from Michelle Moyer, assistant professor, Washington State University Prosser; Charles Brun, horticulture adviser, Washington State University extension; and Washington State Wine Commission

Clark County is on the margins. And that might be a good thing when it comes to vineyards and local wine.

That's what experts had to say during a recent wine grape workshop hosted by Washington State University Extension, where about 30 people gathered to consider planting hobby and commercial vineyards or becoming winemakers.

Clark County's marginal position has to do with our heat — or our lack of it. (Heat is dubbed "growing degree days," or GDD, in winespeak, and it's measured with a formula that calculates a cumulative sum of how far above 50 degrees a region gets during a growing season each year.) We don't get much, logging in at around 1,800 growing degree days, according to Michelle Moyer, an assistant professor in viticulture and enology for Washington State University, Prosser. By comparison, Napa Valley, Calif. ranks in the 2,501 to 3,000 range, Sonoma, Calif. is 3,001 to 3,500 and much of Italy is 3,501 to 4,000.

But view those GDD numbers another way and our marginal 1,800 climate is comparable to the Champagne region of France (1,756) and Zurich, Switzerland (1,874). From the Champagne region comes the bubbling wine, Champagne, known the world over.

Although only wine from the Champagne region can carry that name, some believe our region stands to cash in on a similar potential for sparkling wines. "In these fringe climates come some phenomenal wines," said John Choquer, who recently planted a vineyard in Battle Ground and consults with area growers to plant vineyards. Moyer believes that with sparkling wines fetching between $20 and $70 a bottle, wine sales and agritourism could bolster the local economy.

Our close proximity to the ocean and fresh seafood, a natural pairing for sparkling wine, and our position as an easy trek to Portland means Clark County could benefit from more vineyard cultivation and tourism, Moyer said. "Sparkling is one of those, it's all in how you market it," she said.

Getting started

Planting a new vineyard runs about $12,000 to $15,000 per acre with about 1,500 grape vines per acre, said Charles Brun, horticulture adviser for Washington State University Extension in Vancouver. And it will take a new planting three to five years to produce a useful harvest. But it's not as simple as digging holes and planting vines. Soil should be tested, possibly amended and, if necessary, rid of nematodes that could wipe out a new vineyard — and an investment.

"It takes two to three years of preparation before you stick a vine in the ground," Moyer said.

If, for instance, the land was previously an orchard, the soil may contain arsenic or copper. If these compounds don't kill the vines — and wipe out the time and money investment — they have the potential to make the fruit unsalable.

Water and irrigation

lines should be planned and installed, too, so vines can survive the parched days of summer. And a weather station, to monitor a vineyard's microclimate, is another worthwhile investment, Moyer said. A decent set-up costs around $7,000 and will run about $1,000 a year in maintenance, with WSU monitoring and collecting data.

Birds and deer can wipe out fruit production, too. So a grower may want to install a deer fence and bird netting to protect vines and fruit.

Grapevine quarantine

Buying the grapevines sounds simple enough: Go to a plant nursery and purchase. As long as the nursery is in Washington, it is that simple. But before a grapevine obtained from another state can be planted legally, it must go through a quarantine under supervision of state agricultural officials to be treated for disease and pathogens. Once vines have been "cleaned," they're certified and cultivated for sale or planting. Then cuttings can be taken from the vine and given away or sold.

The process is designed to protect Washington's wine industry, especially since some disease spreads easily and could wipe out vineyards in entire regions. It helps with environmental management of vineyards, too.

"If you can reduce pathogens and invasive pests (before they gain a foothold in a vineyard), you can manage organically," Moyer said.

Skipping or bypassing the state quarantine comes with stiff penalties and fines. A grower could face a $5,000 fine per violation, be forced to remove the vines and, if disease is spread as a result of the planting, could be held financially responsible for the eradication and management of the disease or pests, said Tom Wessels, plant services program manager for Washington State Department of Agriculture. Federal fines apply, too, if vines come from abroad.

Wine pubs

You don't necessarily need a vineyard to make wine. Some enterprising winemakers source grapes for a crush, make barrels of wine and pour their wares in tasting rooms for samples and sales.

Gary Gouger, owner of Gouger Cellars in downtown Vancouver, buys his grapes directly from vineyards and trucks them in for wine crushes. He then ferments his wine in food-grade plastic containers until it's ready for bottling. By purchasing, rather than growing, his grapes, Gouger said he's able to expand his wine offerings to varieties not typically grown in and around the county.

But when it comes to sparkling, the potential darling of Clark County, Gouger had a demonstration for the recent WSU class. He poured a sparkling wine in two glasses. One fizzed with a stream of tiny bubbles while another resembled a still pond.

"If you're going to serve (sparkling wine), make sure it's fizz-edged," Gouger said. A smooth surface won't allow the sparkling wine to make the iconic bubbles, Gouger explained. And sparkling wine should bubble in its glass while sipped.

Likewise, he believes, Clark County could sparkle in the wine business. "I truly feel that Clark County is going to be a huge destination for wine," Gouger said at the workshop. "You're in the beginning of this."