QUINCY — Ryan Flanagan drives his blue Chevy pickup along the dusty roads of one vineyard after another, stopping at each one to check the grapes for sweetness, flavor and balance.
The Columbia Basin winegrape harvest is going full tilt now. Part of Flanagan’s job is to determine when to start picking various grape varieties grown on about 1,000 acres between Quincy and George he manages for Milbrandt Vineyards. He also owns vineyards and manages others for the Flanagan family near Quincy.
Washington vineyards will produce their largest crop ever this year. With new plantings and a warm summer, industry officials estimate it could be more than 185,000 tons — some say as much as 200,000 tons — easily eclipsing the previous record of 160,000 tons in 2010. Last year’s crop was only 142,000 tons. Quality is also expected to be the best in several years.
“It’s shaping up to be a classic Washington vintage,” said Flanagan as he checked a Riesling vineyard overlooking Ancient Lakes south of Quincy. Riesling is the last white wine grape harvested. It needs longer growing time to develop its unique balance of sugars and acid than other grapes like Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Riesling is also Washington’s premier grape and no place — some say no place in the world — grows a fresh, crisp Riesling better than Quincy. The grape-growing area between Quincy and George is on the verge of becoming the state’s newest American Viticultural Area. The area has about 1,500 acres of wine grapes, mostly owned by Milbrandt, Jones of Washington and Cave B Vineyards, but Flanagan said it’s not out of the question that the number could double within the next several years.
“Riesling will be the big driver,” said Flanagan, whose grandfather, state Rep. Sid Flanagan, was a Quincy farmer and a major political driver to bring irrigation water to the Columbia Basin in the 1960s. The Quincy area is also ideal for growing Chardonnay for the leaner, unoaked version of that wine style that is in favor now, he said.
Flanagan has been busy this year guiding sales representatives, store owners and wine industry representatives on tours of the local vineyards. He recently met with representatives of the E & J Gallo Winery, the world’s largest winery. Gallo has purchased two large Washington wineries, Columbia Winery and Covey Run, and is looking to expand in the state.
“It will be interesting to watch this area grow,” he said.
While the Ancient Lakes area is best known for its white grapes, the Wahluke Slope, 30 miles to the south, is best known for its intensely flavored red wine grapes like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Each have their own soils and climate uniquely suited to specific varieties, said Butch Milbrandt, co-owner of Milbrandt Vineyards and Wahluke Wine Co. Milbrandt Vineyards operates about 2,300 acres of vineyard in the two areas. Both are in Grant County.
“We can grow lush, fruity reds and crisp whites within 30 minutes of each other,” said Milbrandt, who expects the region’s wine industry to expand greatly.
“There’s really no limit,” he said. “The land produces very good wine, but part of it is that the land is cheaper here. We can produce a 90-point wine here a lot cheaper than California can produce a 90-point wine.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151