Gone are the fruitflies and open vats of crushed grapes. Gone is the stress of foreign yeasts invading a year's work of raising grapes only to produce gallons of vinegar.
Primary fermentation is done at most Washington wineries. Red wines soaking in a slurry of crushed grape skins and bubbling with yeasty aromas have been sequentially pressed, strained and poured into barrels or other sealed containers where they can undergo a much slower process of final fermentation into finished wine.
It's a big relief for smaller winemakers who don't have the luxury of closed, temperature and oxygen-controlled stainless steel tanks. The majority winemakers have been worrying over their elixirs through the initial stages of sugar to alcohol conversion, punching down the floating grape skins to keep them moist, keeping the vats covered so the crush gets just the right amount of air to keep fermentation going, but not so much that it invites contamination.
There's much romance to winemaking, or so it's said, and also a lot of work. For the past six weeks, it's been a scramble to harvest or source one grape variety after another, crush them and run tests on the juice to determine appropriate process and then babysit through open vat fermentation while starting the process over on later ripening grape varieties. Mostly, it's a lot of heavy lifting, endless cleanup and worried attempts at sanitation.
I make about 30 gallons of wine a year, using as many grape varieties as I can grow or buy. It's a tiny amount and totally amateur. It's a hobby I can drink and share. And it's not too hard to keep up with the work with that small amount. But big or small, commercial or amateur, the day when the final wines are pressed and poured into glass carboys with an airlock is joyous relief. The purple stream of new wine flowing with each crank of the press is a beautiful sight. The taste and aroma of the still yeasty, slightly sweet unfinished wine is exciting, full of potential and promise. The aroma alone makes me drunk and giddy.
You have to be patient if you want to be a winemaker. There's still a year or two to go before the wine is ready to drink, particularly for reds. The final stages of fermentation until the wine goes dry, acids soften and sediments settle, takes months. Oak barrels or chips mellow and add flavor as the wine sleeps at cooler temperatures through the winter. The wines have to be racked from one barrel or container to another several times to remove the dead yeast. Other wines might be blended to develop character and balance before bottling.
There's dozens of things that can still go wrong, but now the most dangerous part, the hardest work, the most exciting time, is over. Now we wait.