Off the Vine

As you read these words, the first fruits of Washington's 2002 wine grape harvest are being clipped delicately bunch by bunch from their parent vines—or, in the case of berries destined for less-exalted use, being violently shaken off onto conveyor belts of roaring, diesel-belching harvesting machines. Actually, harvest was already under way last week for the still-slightly-green chardonnays and pinot noirs used in crafting sparkling wine. But from now on, variety by variety they fall, whites first—pinot gris, followed by gewrztraminer and riesling, then chardonnay overlapping with the early reds: syrah and merlot. Harvest spreads across Eastern Washington from (literal) hot spots: Mattawa to the north, where summer heat is greatest; Paterson and Alderdale to the south, where the the broad, warm Columbia gives the grapes a head start in spring; on the angled wedge of Red Mountain in between. As September turns to October, picking spreads irregularly westward up the Yakima and across the Walla Walla flats. A long, cool spring had growers a little anxious, but scorching midsummer let the grapes catch up, then abated just in time to allow nights to cool them down to preserve body-building acids even as warm days kept sugars on the climb. It's beginning to look like another great year for the state as a whole, the fourth or fifth in a row: smaller yields perhaps than in bumper years, but properly tended, a smaller yield can mean more concentrated wine. Some growers and winemakers are starting to hope for another '99—perhaps the best year Washington wine has ever seen. Growers aren't the only ones walking the rows, chewing grapes and spitting seeds; the winemakers who buy the grapes are out in the fields, too. In Washington state more than anywhere else, winemaking is a collaboration between grower and vintner, and every year more of the latter are willing to admit that only great fruit can produce a great wine—and to insist on being consulted while their raw material's still ripening. Everybody's waiting on the same e-mail from the lab showing rising sweetness and dwindling acidity converging into exquisite balance, ready to make the call: It's not going to get any better than this; rev up the tractors—let's roll. GET THIS Dave Minick's dad put in the first wine grapes on the family farm when Dave was 15; about 15 years after that, Dave decided he'd learned enough about growing to make a little wine of his own. And are we glad he did: His '00 syrah ($18) and cabernet franc ($11) are dandy, but his 2001 Willow Crest pinot gris is a standout: chewy, ripe, and robust, and just $7 a bottle. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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