Harvest Time: Washington state

For me, going to grape harvest is like taking a pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s like Lollapalooza or Bonaroo is for music lovers. There’s palpable electricity in the air, as well as the deliciously sweet scent of freshly squeezed grape juice that envelops the nose. A contagious nervousness emanates from the winemakers and people who shiver with excitement during this almost religious time of worshiping Bacchus.

The service normally lasts from mid-August to mid-October, depending on the weather and how fast the grapes ripen. Managers and winemakers comb the vineyards daily, tasting and testing the fruit to ensure the best ingredients for their wine. The care (or lack thereof) taken during this period can make or break an entire year of revenue for a winery, so it’s important to get it right the first time. You can’t exactly start over. You can, of course, make decent wine from shitty grapes, but if you start with perfectly ripe grapes, the wine can be magical.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of winemaking is choosing the right grapes from the right vineyard in the right region. Grapes and Mother Nature, like rich yuppies, are pretty finicky when it comes to where they want to live. In Washington state, winegrowers (California calls them grapegrowers) are, after about 30 years of trial and error, determining the ideal locations for each grape variety. Eastern Washington — across the Cascades from Seattle — is a hot, arid desert and not exactly wallowing in rain. Only about 8 inches fall each year in eastern Washington — compared to between 20 and 30 in other wine regions. This is actually a good thing in terms of control and consistency. If grapes absorb too much water, they produce watery, boring wine. But if they don’t have enough water — and they drink only enough to survive — the grapes’ flavor becomes concentrated (and kinda angry), with a more robust end result.

So with water control and without the pressure of rain during late summer, Washington’s grape harvests are as reliable as Ernest Angley’s fulsome preaching on Sunday morning. The vineyards produce full-bodied syrahs, smoky, complex cabernets and muscular merlots that cannot be ignored. New American Viticultural Areas (AVA) such as Wahluke Slope and Horse Heaven Hills — both part of the larger AVA of Columbia Valley — show tons of tasty promise. And venerable vineyards from around the Columbia Valley, such as Klipsun, Three Rivers and Wallula, produce simply magnificent fruit.

Another advantage eastern Washington claims is its scorching heat during the day, which allows the sugar to bloom in the fruit, and cooler evenings that solidify acidity. Without acidity, wine would taste like spiked cherry Kool-Aid, so brisk nights are welcomed. Their days are also about two hours longer, ripening the fruit earlier. When I was there during the first week of September, the harvest had already begun in earnest; meanwhile, in Napa Valley, only sparkling wine grapes — picked weeks before “still” wine grapes, when the acids are higher and sugar is lower — were coming in for crushing.

All these factors combined make Washington state’s 2006 harvest worth looking forward to — and becoming part of your everyday wine worship.

Recommended Wines

Long Shadows 2004 Sequel Syrah Columbia Valley Soft and silky like that negligee every woman loves. Gorgeous, roasted black cherry and elegant blueberry seduce your palate into submission. Amazing, amazing wine but might be hard to find. Worth every penny. $55. Sw = 1. $55. 5 stars

Powers 2001 Cabernet Reserve Horse Heaven Hills Big, bold yet graceful, with dark chocolate, lively, sweet blackberry and perfumey vanilla. Finish is so long I forgot where I was. Sw = 1. $22. 4.5 stars

Hogue Cellars 2005 Fume Blanc Columbia Valley Refreshingly crisp, with delicious, wet slate flavors; sweet white peach, tangerine and some tart lime on the finish. Sw = 2. $8. 3.5 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.


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