Wine season almost perfect

Washington vintners likely to harvest record crop

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KENNEWICK — After three difficult years, Washington winemakers figure Mother Nature owes them a good vintage. So far, she has provided a near-perfect growing season, just as harvest is beginning.

"The weather is perfect," said Co Dinn, director of winemaking for Hogue Cellars in Prosser. "We're heading to a really nice harvest."

All estimates point to a record wine grape harvest this fall, with some believing the state will top 200,000 tons. Dinn, who oversees one of the largest wineries in the state, is preparing by bringing in new stainless steel tanks from California to increase capacity. Hogue also is building a new crush pad, which will be ready Monday, the day Dinn hopes to begin bringing in grapes.

If that doesn't keep him busy, one of his winemakers is expecting the arrival of his first baby Thursday.

"This is as busy as I can recall being since I got here in 1996," he said.

In Richland, Barnard Griffin owner/winemaker Rob Griffin plans to bring in Sauvignon Blanc grapes this morning. They will come from Sagemoor Vineyards, north of Pasco. By comparison, last year was so cool, that same block of grapes arrived Sept. 16 — and Griffin admits he probably should have waited longer.

Despite the expected record harvest, Griffin plans to scale back his operation this year. He will crush 650 tons of grapes instead of the 1,200 tons he did just two years ago. Griffin calls this "a balancing move" in the wake of the privatization of state liquor stores this summer. About 8 percent of his wine was sold through the state liquor stores, and he still is trying to sort out new ways of getting wine into customers' hands.

Meanwhile, all of his focus is on harvest and the weather.

"My perfect scenario is a gentle calming of all this heat," he said. "Staying dry is really important. Days that peak in the mid-70s and nights in the 40s and 50s would be ideal. That's not impossible, and there's not a lot of reasons to think we're going to get rain."

At Washington's oldest winery, winemakers are preparing for the eight-week onslaught of grapes."Almost all the tanks in Woodinville are empty," said Bob Bertheau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle. "We're preparing for a lot more grapes to come through the door."

Bertheau expects to start harvesting Friday, bringing in Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from warmer sites in the 11 million-acre Columbia Valley. Ste. Michelle's white wines are made at its headquarters in Woodinville, northeast of Seattle. Its red wine facility is on Canoe Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills, west of Paterson.