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Winemaker's Journal — A little help from their friends

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Charlie and Mary Ann McKee got some unexpected and greatly appreciated help harvesting their Lemberger wine grapes at Wedge Mountain Winery Thursday.

A sommelier class taught by Master Sommelier Angelo Tavernaro whipped through several rows of the Dryden vineyard to pick a little more than a ton of grapes in less than three hours.

The McKees said they really appreciated the volunteer help. They said it would have taken them an entire day to pick the vines themselves.

An added bonus was getting a chance to talk about wine with Tavernaro, one of only about 200 Master Sommeliers in the world. Originally from Italy, Tavernaro spent much of his wine career as a wine director for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He and his wife retired to Tri-Cities because of Washington's booming wine industry. He continues to teach classes in wine knowledge and service and has been currently directing a month-long class at 37 Cellars Winery in Leavenworth.

About half of the 10-member class showed up to pick at Wedge Mountain Thursday.

"I'd never picked grapes before. It was a lot of fun," said Susan Trimpe, director of Cascade Valley Wine Country. Trimpe took the class and organized side trips to local wineries.

McKee developed his love of wine and early winemaking skills while stationed in Tuscany in the 1950s as a U.S. Marine NATO guard. He got to try out his rusty Italian with Taverno and Tavernaro got to try McKee's wines, which he proclaimed excellent.

The McKees opened several bottles of their wine and baked pizzas in their outdoor wood-fired oven to feed their new picking crew.

"Unbelievable," Tavernaro said about the Wedge Mountain Les Trois Etoiles, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec grapes. He also loved the 2009 Syrah. "Very pleasing and lingering in the mouth," he said. Tavernaro, who has condo in Leavenworth, hopes to offer another class locally next spring.

McKee said he picked his Lemberger a little early because of the availability of help and the 31 degree temperatures the previous night. A hard frost would stop the grapes' sugar development, he said, and it was necessary for him to pick the grapes between the ranch's pear and apple harvests. Most of the grapes he uses for the winery's 1,000-to-1,500-case annual production is purchased from Columbia Basin and Red Mountain vineyards.

"A lot of what we do is logistical," he said.