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Wineman’s Toast: For winemakers, it’s crush time

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

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You’d need very good luck to catch a Washington winemaker in mid-October. Owners of most small, privately owned wineries were on the road transporting tons of grapes from state vineyards back to their wineries.

Once the grapes arrived, work began to crush, de-stem 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.

One night last month, I was out crushing grapes until 10 p.m. with a light strapped to my head. It wasn’t the first time I’d done that, either. Most winemakers put in long days through October.

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

Harvest will come to an end soon after the 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.

A little help from their friends

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

Students in a sommelier class taught last month 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 the Tri-Cities because of Washington’s booming wine industry. He continues to teach classes in wine knowledge and service and recently directed a month-long class at 37 Cellars Winery in Leavenworth.

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 Tavernaro, 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 grapes 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.

Ah! Grapes become wine

Cooler, wetter weather in early October slowed ripening of grapes in my little Cashmere vineyard.

Some varieties were fully ripe, others were in a race with vine-killing frost that was sure to come by month’s end.

A little wind and few hours of sunshine offered a brief window of opportunity last Sunday, allowing me to pick my two short rows of ripe chardonnay and pinot gris grapes. With hungry birds and deer nibbling away through the nets, the harvest was less than I had anticipated. Grapes hanging on the vine always look like more than what ends up being in the lug. But the approximately 25 pounds of each should combine nicely to make about three gallons of white, or slightly pink, wine. I blended the two varieties last year and the results were quite good.

It only took about an hour to pick the grapes. I ran them separately — the rich yellow chardonnay first, then the tight bunches of pink and purple pinot gris — through my apple crusher, then pulled out the stems and squeezed the grapes further with my hands.

I poured the resulting crushes into five gallon buckets, added a little sulfite and pectin and let them sit overnight.Letting the juice sit on the skins for 24 hours will give the resulting wine more body, flavor and a little color, from the darker pinot gris.

That’s fine with me. It will take longer to clear, but I’m in no hurry.

I blended the two juices into a five-gallon glass carboy and added yeast soon after. I stoppered the carboy with an airlock and placed it in the cellar where it can ferment slowly at about 55 degrees. The process worked well for all my white wines last year, so I hope it will work again.

Upstairs, the dark purple merlot grapes I purchased and crushed the week before were in the final stages of warmer fermentation. I used a heating pad to keep the ferment going more quickly at about 75 degrees. Red grapes remain in their skins through the first week or two of fermentation.

I ran that five gallons of crush through my press and transfered the wine to a carboy for slower secondary fermentation that can take months.

My vineyard site is too cold to successfully grow merlot and cabernet sauvignon, my favorite varieties. So I buy grapes from vineyards in warmer areas. If all goes well, I should have several small batches of different red wines that I can blend to my liking when they’re finished next year.

October is a busy, exciting time of year for all who make wine.

Good wine is a science at Ginkgo Forest Winery

Mike Thiede has been a scientist, a farmer and now an award-winning winemaker, among other endeavors.

His latest job as owner and winemaker of Ginkgo Forest Winery near Mattawa is ambitious and challenging, but one he finds most satisfying — largely because it involves his training and experience as a scientist and farmer.

I enjoy coming up with better and better wines. There’s always so much more to learn,” Thiede said.

Thiede is well prepared to learn the fine points of wine chemistry. He was a research scientist for the Hanford Project for 18 years. His wife, Lois, also worked at Hanford. The two dreamed of one day retiring to a life of farming. They purchased land and grew apples and cherries near Mattawa. Some growers were planting grapes along the Wahluke Slope in the late 1990s, and the Thiedes decided they should too.Grapes haven’t been as profitable as the apples and cherries, but they have been a lot more fun.

Mike consulted with local winemakers and friends and did his own research before bottling his own commercial wines in 2005. Mike grows the vines and makes the wines. Lois does the bookwork and oversees two tasting rooms.

Their wines have brought more and more acclaim every year, including one of only two Double Gold medals — for Ginkgo’s 2008 Cabernet Franc — awarded at this year’s North Central Washington Wine Awards. The winery also won a Gold Medal for its 2010 Barbera and Silver Medals for its 2009 Mourvedre, 2019 Pinot Noir, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Riesling. The wines have done very well in state, national and international competitions, too.

Ginkgo Forest makes a wide variety of wines, nearly all from its own grapes grown in the famed Wahluke Slope. Thiede plans to add a line of port and perhaps brandy in the future.

Making wine helps satisfy his need to keep a hand in scientific research, Thiede said. But he also likes the social aspects of dealing with wine customers.

I get a lot of satisfaction in seeing a happy customer and making good wines,” he said.