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Winemaker's Journal — Wine grape harvest in overdrive

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Bulk wineries like J&S Crushing in Mattawa crush tons of grapes at a time.

Good luck trying to catch a Washington winemaker right now. Owners of most small, privately-owned wineries are on the road transporting tons of grapes from state vineyards back to their wineries.

 Once the grapes arrive, work begins to crush, destem and get the slurry into fermenting tanks to begin conversion into wine. Most wineries process five, six or more grape varieties, all which ripen at different times. Few winemakers are fortunate enough to grow all their own grapes near their processing plant. Cave B and White Heron, both near Quincy, are exceptions. Some Lake Chelan wineries, notably Tsillan Cellars and Benson Vineyards, also grow and make all their wine on premise.

Most wineries source at least some if not all of their grapes from large, commercial vineyards in the Columbia Basin, the Yakima Valley or farther south near Walla Walla and the Oregon border. A truck ride to get grapes from premium vineyards can often be a two-day round trip, only to be duplicated with one grape variety after another. Timing is critical to get the grapes picked, delivered and crushed at peak ripeness.

My own amateur winemaking venture is a microcosm of what goes on at commercial wineries. I source grapes from several vineyards, including my own vines. I get 60 or 70 pounds of different varieties, usually about 200 pounds of cabernet sauvignon. It's a few drops in the barrel compared to the many tons even small commercial wineries process.

I was out crushing grapes until 10 p.m. with a light strapped to my head Wednesday night. It wasn't the first time this month I've done that. Most winemakers are putting in long days right now.

Large bulk wineries like those near Mattawa work around the clock, machine harvesting dozens of acres of vineyard at night while the fruit is cold and firm and processing hundreds of tons throughout the day.

Harvest will come to an end in a few weeks once the grapes are picked, or much more abruptly if a hard frost comes first. Fermentation will continue much longer. It will be several months before most white wines will be bottled from this year's grapes. Red wines will often age in the barrel for a couple years.