Wineries celebrate record-breaking harvest

Nicole Likarish

Walla Walla wineries are savoring a grape harvest that, according to the Washington Wine Commission, is among the highest in quality and quantity on record. Thanks to a long summer and gradual cooling, area vineyards contributed amply to this year’s national harvest estimate of 131,000 tons, a full nine percent increase from last year. Wineries celebrate record-breaking harvest | Photo by Eduardo Duquez

Winemakers like Martin Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41 are working happily both receiving and harvesting fruit with ideal acidity and sugar levels, preparing to macerate and ferment the grapes that will yield his annual production of some 30,000 cases. Tom Waliser, manager for several area vineyards, is enthusiastic about this season’s harvest. Waliser told Andy Porter of the Union-Bulletin last week, “It would be hard to find a year better than we had this year for growing grapes.” Often called the “realization” of the winemaker’s year, this well-timed September harvest is what viticulturists prepare for all summer and winemakers rely upon for their success.

Clubb’s son Riley, a junior at Whitman, has worked summers in the L’Ecole winery since he was 16 and, seeking a perspective change, spent last summer as the assistant to the viticulturist at Seven Hills Vineyard. He is well acquainted with the necessity of the ideal conditions of growth and a perfectly timed harvest. Among his duties at Seven Hills, Clubb monitored the budding fruit, analyzing the pH, E/C and Brix contents of the plants to ensure their healthy development.

Of his work this summer Clubb said, “My job was great, and I learned a lot of new things about the industry.” He further encourages fellow Whitman students to stick around in the summer to experience Walla Walla from the perspective of the industry that contributes so much to the region’s economy and culture. Clubb promised “an extremely rewarding educational experience,” something worth enduring the valley’s oppressive summer heat for.

The grateful home to over 60 vineyards and wineries, the Walla Walla Valley is blessed with the ideal conditions for growing premium grapes and has gradually won national and international acclaim for its fine wines, most notably the elegant, full bodied Syrah, or Shiraz. Indigenous to the Rhone Valley of Southern France, this wine grape has adapted well in Eastern Washington, unexpectedly resilient in the hard winter freezes and hot summers.

Columbia Winery’s David Lake told Saveur Magazine that the Syrah makes “the most exciting red we do.” The magazine’s critic, John Winthrop Haegar, is also excited, writing: “At its best, Washington Syrah displays the deep color, violet-laced perfume and peppery palate of hermitage and cote-rotie, but with less tannin.”

Unaware, perhaps, of the meaning or significance of the accolades offered by such sophisticated critics, the valley’s frequent wine tasters seem to be more or less in accordance. Spokane resident and wine taster Patti Landreth also favors the Syrah and vows to return, saying, “What a wealth of culture! I had such a great time in the tasting rooms and ended up keeping three bottles of Three Rivers’ Shiraz that I had intended as gifts.”

Also encouraging is Food & Wine magazine’s recent announcement of Walla Walla’s own Long Shadows as Winery of the Year in their 10th annual American Wine Awards. Long Shadows, just four years old, is a group of seven premium wineries seeking to promote the preeminent viticulture of Eastern Washington.

Spokesperson Katie Sims declares this a triumph not only for the wineries involved but also the vineyards, saying, “It’s a terrific honor for Long Shadows, but it’s also an honor for Washington State because it just reinforces what a terrific growing region we have here.” In the context of record yields, Sims’ words ring true to Washington winemakers optimistically processing this year’s harvest.