YAKIMA — Winemakers in Yakima County are in a race against time to finish picking what many expect to be a historically high-quality grape harvest.
The perfect confluence of weather and ground conditions came together to create an ideal season for winemakers. High levels of moisture in the ground during winter, a cool spring and a hot, sunny, mostly smoke-free summer have led to abundant and flavorful grapes. The focus now is picking the grapes before the season’s first frost comes.
Jonathan Sauer, manager of Red Willow Vineyard in Wapato, said the cool spring forced his vineyard to start picking about a week and a half later than they normally would have.
Sauer said Red Willow starts picking its white wine grapes like pinot and chardonnay around Aug. 20. This year, the harvest began Thursday.
Though these initial picking times were only off by a few days, Sauer said once red wine grapes like syrah start gaining more color and are ready to pick, the harvest will be off by closer to two weeks.
“April through July was pretty cool and fairly wet. Even the winter before there was moisture in the ground. That set up the vines for developing a full canopy,” Sauer said. “After the cooler wet spring and early summer, we had one of the warmer Augusts that we’ve had.”
The rate of growth for grapes this season was so high that vineyards like Red Willow reported a higher-than-expected yield.
Vicky Scharlau, executive director of Washington Wine Growers, said based on a July measurement, the statewide wine grape yield could be as high as 310,000 tons, a record for the state. While it was an early estimate with more information to come, she said it’s a welcome statistic following two years of declining output due to erratic weather during the growing season.
Other vineyards in the county, like Dineen Vineyards in Zillah, did not begin picking until the last week of September.
Patrick Rawn, vineyard manager for Dineen Vineyards, and a crew of harvesters took to the fields for the first time Thursday. Workers there picked away at vines full of small, plump, deep purple syrah grapes.
Compared to last year which saw record-breaking temperatures as early as June 2, Rawn said the picking schedule is behind by weeks in 2022.
“We’re a little bit behind compared to the last couple of years. Everything is a little more condensed so we’re just trying to get everything picked. But fruit quality looks great, so we’re excited,” Rawn said.
One of the only challenges Rawn said he faced this year was organizing larger crews to pick faster. In a year with an earlier-starting picking season, fewer workers have more time to pick.
With about 15 percent of Dineen’s harvest picked so far and 1,300 tons left, Rawn said he expects to be picking up until late October.
At the Cold Creek Vineyard near Sunnyside, harvesters are dealing with an unusually large crop of cabernet grapes. The yield is high enough that combined with the late start to the picking season, manager Joe Cotta said he fears the entire crop may not be picked in time for the first frost of the season.
“The cabernet crop is quite a bit larger this year. Because it’s a late-ripening variety in a later year with a big crop, we’re concerned that we’re going to be right up against the frost window. We’re going to need to get lucky and have a warm fall like last year,” Cotta said.
To avoid losing grapes to the frost, Cotta said Cold Creek is considering picking earlier than they would, given this year’s weather. While this brings up concerns about the quality and flavor of the grapes, Cotta said initial tests showed that picking early would have little effect on the wine being made from the grapes.
“The good news is that on an average year, a lot of times the sugar is high and the acid is low and we’re waiting for the flavors to catch up. This year that’s not the case,” Cotta said. “Actually, the flavor profile we’re getting from the fruit is fantastic. That’s alleviating our concerns about picking early. I think we’re going to get some great flavors in the wine, even if the alcohol content is lower than it would typically be.”
Other winemakers in the area like Paul Beveridge, vintner for Wilridge Vineyard, Winery and Distillery in Yakima and Allison VanArnam, owner of VanArnam Vineyards in Zillah, said their harvest is looking just as good.
Should the warm weather hold, Beveridge expects an “epic vintage” while VanArnam said she is looking forward to an amazing harvest.