First published in the Columbia River Reader March 2017.
I’m looking forward to 2017, but I will never forget the 2016 harvest. This was the year we crushed 20 tons of grapes in a very short window of time, breaking our earlier record of 8 tons. Harvest started out normally, meaning the new normal, with early bud break and a fairly normal growing season. Not too hot but plenty of sun in wine country. In Longview, it was a pleasant summer. Not as hot as 2015. The grape yields were near record numbers in Washington and we got our fair share of those grapes. 2016 proved to be a challenge for most producers. With the opportunity to get amazing grapes, the temptation was too much to resist and wineries were hard pressed to find room in the cellar for the bounty. According to wine writer, Sean Sullivan, “the most shocking growth was in Cabernet Sauvignon, which increased from 47,400 tons in 2015 to a whopping 71,100 tons in 2016. Overall, Cabernet Sauvignon accounted for 26% of the state’s production, an indication that the variety is increasingly seen as a calling card for the state”.
No sooner were the grapes picked and at the winery, that the rains came, and came, and never let up. So began an epic winter here in Longview. We were lucky in that we had room outside under a tent and later under the eve of the winery, to stack bins, 4 high, of fermenting juice. This year we were forced to ferment the juice at a much lower temperature than ever before. I like to get the must (crushed grapes) up to 80 degrees at the peak of fermentation in order to extract plenty of color and phenolic flavors from the grape skins. We did manage to move the bins inside for a few days to warm things up, but we had to move them back out so we could keep the tasting room open to satisfy the thirst of our customers.
The good news about the cooler fermentation is we were able to extend the time that the juice was on the skins which I believe will give us softer tannins and fuller bodied wines. The joy of being a small producer of wine is that our wines showcase the variations of Mother Nature’s work because we don’t have the equipment or technology to manipulate the wine like bigger producers. This is a blessing or curse, depending on how you like your wine. If you like it the same and predictable, it is a curse. But it’s a blessing for those who find it interesting to discover the differences in the vintage.
As Spring approaches, it will be interesting to see how much damage this harsh Winter has had on the grape vines. There are reports of severe damage in some Washington AVA’s (American Viniculture Areas). I believe that we can expect lower yields in the 2017 vintage. Not a bad thing, except there will be more competition for available grapes. However, the fruit we do harvest will have greater potential, smaller more concentrated flavors, a result of the struggle to survive.
Speaking of survival, like nature, it is in the struggle that new life springs forth and with it, new possibilities. Have hope my friends. Without the struggle we become weak and complacent; the full flavor of life is locked in the skin, so the crushing is nature’s way of releasing the best in everything. Longview is a beautiful place to live. We are so lucky to have such distinct seasons because they teach us about the cycle of life, birth, growth, struggle, death, and rebirth—all contributing something valuable to our quality of life, not to mention the grapes.