In Prosser, Washington, harvesting the vineyards means a time of color, aroma, stunning beauty—and hard work. Winemaking is big business in Prosser and the rest of the Washington’s Yakima Valley. Prosser is the state’s birthplace of wine, the first and oldest growing region. There are more than 80 wineries in the Yakima Valley, which accounts for about 40% of the state’s wine production. More than 30 of these wineries are in the Prosser region.
Winemaking Throughout the Year
Grape growing and winemaking is nearly year-round work in Eastern Oregon. Vine pruning begins in February. Tending the vines and grapes continues from there. Harvest begins in September and is completed by the end of October, with some varieties completed by the very beginning of November.
Picking doesn’t only involve harvesting the vines—whether by hand or by machine—there’s a great deal of coordination that goes on with making sure trailers and trucks are ready to transport the grapes where they need to go for processing. Many of the vineyards rent equipment—and that means a high demand, with vineyards vying for and working together to get the many jobs done.
November is also a month where a lot of nursery work is done. Some of the vineyards plants root stock and some graft, and there’s a give and take of benefits for each—but maintaining healthy vines and planting new blocks of land are part of the business.
And the process begins again. I recently joined a group of journalists on a tour of the Prosser wine region. We toured vineyards and spoke with winemakers about harvest time in the vineyard. Take a look.
14 Hands: When to Pick
14 Hands is part of the Chateau Ste. Michelle umbrella. Winemaker Keith Kenison, in the midst of his 24th crush, says he started with the company “from the bottom up,” and did not come to the company with formal training. He’s been Winemaker for 14 Hands since the label’s inception in 2005 and spoke with us some of the considerations around harvest and the crafting of his wines. Keith led us in a tasting of his Reserve wines, which are made from Prosser’s Horse Heaven Hills grapes. There were some great standouts, including the excellent 2015 Rosé of Grenache grapes and their 2013 Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend.
The decision of when to pick is complex. Just outside the winemaking facility, we watched as interns crushed samples of grapes picked from various vineyard blocks. They assessed the samples both chemically and in appearance.
In the winemaking facilities, amid deep grape aromas, we got a glimpse at the tanks of wine in various stages of fermentation, and wines aging in barrels.
Tim Jones, 14 Hands’ Lab Manager, gave us a look at some of the efforts away from both the vineyard and the tasting room. He led us to the lab, where staff was testing acidity and alcohol levels.
Mercer Estates: Machine Grape Picking
Mercer Estates is a family farm that grows grapes and makes some fine wines in Prosser, including the Horse Heaven Hills appellation, one of the state’s most well-regarded grape growing areas. The family, now in their 5th generation of farming, has worked their land since 1886. Like many producers in the area, they sell grapes (notably, to Washington’s largest wine producer, Chateau Ste. Michelle) and keep some to make wines for their own labels, Mercer Canyons, Mercer Estate, and Mercer Reserve. (The farm also grows vegetables, including carrots and onions.)
Director of Operations John Derrick shared some of the issues around harvesting. At Mercer, there are sometimes two shifts working at harvest time, with many working long 10 to 12 hours days, and yes, some varieties or conditions call for the grapes to be picked grapes picked at night.
Vineyard Manager Nick MacKay drove out with us to one of the vineyards, where picking was in process. MacKay helps oversee some 2800 acres of grapes, and they’re planting an additional 500 acres a year right now. Every year is different. “This year, it got hot early, and the canopy exploded, he told us. “I don’t particularly like that, but I think we were able to keep that under control. It helps the grapes ripen. This year is going to be good.”
Mercer does most of their grape harvesting by machine. They recently made a $2 million dollar investment to purchase 5 harvesters; four for their own use and one to rent out. The machines work by vibration. The operator rides high above in a glass-protected cab, driving the harvester over a row of grapes.
Vibration causes the grapes to fall; a conveyor belt catches the grapes and stores them in containers above.
The vines are stripped bare of grapes, leaving surprisingly intact vines and grape leaves.
After picking, the vines get a good watering to protect the root. The plants will then go dormant until spring.
Domanico Cellars: Vineyard Management
Jason and Jill Domanico purchased their just-under 10 acre vineyard in 2011. They’d been looking for property in the area for a long time and yes, knowing people in the area helped him find just what he was looking for. Today, they grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Clone 1 Tempranillo, Semillon, and other varieties, all in small blocks.
The farm had been owned by George Carter, and the house on the property is the original 1891 homestead. The Carters raised 12 children on the farm, and planted the first grapes in 1980. He has a lot of respect for how George Carter farmed, but says that interestingly, it was George’s son who planted the first grapes; George himself didn’t think wine would do well in the area. Jason says this just illustrates how experimentation and innovation is an important part of farming.
Jason spoke with us about some of the issues of vineyard management, the conversation meandering around the countless aspects that come up, both in the short- and long-term. Throughout the growing season, Jason and his staff will make decisions that affect their crops. When to stop watering (“deficit irrigation.”) When and how much to “leaf strip” for airflow and mildew control. Assessing the fruits seeds as another indicator of when to pick. Ensuring they won’t pick when under ripe, but at the same time being afraid of picking when under ripe. Understanding that the land itself changes: “We’re on an undulating field of basalt underground. In some areas, there are eight inches of soil here, and in others, 20 feet of soil before hitting rock.”
“I’m a vineyard manager part of the day and a winemaker part of the day. And those two parts of me aren’t always in agreement.”
We asked if all of this kept him up at night. With a laugh, he didn’t miss a beat: “No, I’m just too tired!”
Wind machines can be used to spin and blow warm air down into the vines. This can lower the temps 40 degrees, helping to prevent frost that can ruin a crop. “They’re set to come on at 33.4 degrees, and sounds like a gigantic helicopter,” Jason says.
Some of the crop had already been picked.
And many of the vines were still in full splendor.
Daven Lore Winery: The Fermentation Process
Wonderful, yeasty smells emanate from the winemaking room where Gordon Taylor, of Daven Lore Winery, makes his wine. He stands over one of his one ton plastic fermentation bins and siphons a bit of the juice into plastic cups for each of us to taste. The juice is from Grenache grapes picked just the day before, and the crushed grapes and added yeasts are already fermenting. The juice is still light-colored and fresh and jammy—well, like true, fresh pressed grape juice.
Gordon gives us a run-down of the wine-making process, from the picking of grapes through the fermentation. He spoke of handpicking the grapes at just the right time, and picking in the middle of the night so that they “didn’t need to spend money cooling the grapes.”
Gordon spoke of the yeast used and during fermentation, and how the yeast creates ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide (CO2) gas. The CO2 bubbles up and gets trapped in the skins, so that the skins float to the top of the bins, creating a “cap.”
The cap needs to be “punched down” so as to mix the juice and skin. In the fermenting bins Daven Lore uses, this is done with a special wine punch-down tool. The tool helps you push the skins down and the mix the juice and skins. It’s not an easy task when the skins are thick and solid against the top of the bin, but is a beautiful site once that top layer of skins are pushed down.
In addition to flavor, grape skins contribute to the wine’s color. For reds, they may ferment in this way for five days, while rosés may sit for only 18 hours. Fans or other cooling methods may be needed at this time, so as not to “cook” the grapes. Fruit flies are a hazard at this point and it can be a challenge to keep them to a minimum, although cleanliness is key.
They’ll end up with about 108 gallons of wine for every ton of grapes. This translates to 77 cases of wines, but with the “angel share” (the amount of wine that evaporates during it’s time in barrels), that ton of grapes may end up making 65 cases.
Back in the tasting room, the 2012 Aridisol Red, a delightful, heady blend of Syrah, Grenache, Petit Verdot, and Malbec and the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from Snipes Mountain grapes are standout wines.
Small Town Life, Big Business
Throughout our trip, we learned about the cooperative nature of the work. Mercer’s Nick MacKay says, “Washington wineries really do help each other out. There is the sense of competition, but also cooperation. There’s a lot of work, the industry is only growing, and people are making money—so that helps.”
During our tour, we heard a lot about how people came into the wine business. Most of those we met grew up on farms and in the various small towns in the region, and many of their parents were involved in the winery business as well. Without a doubt, everyone knows everyone and they keep track of who works for whom at a given time, who has started their own label, and who has opened up a new block of land. In Prosser, it’s all about small town life and big business, and each person employed in the field never stops learning or growing.
If you enjoy wine, make a trip out to Prosser wine country, located just two and a half hours from Seattle and three from Portland. Winery tasting rooms are a great opportunity to taste a winery’s portfolio and learn more about the winemakers, but a vineyard tour brings winemaking to life. Availability of vineyard tours will vary by winery and time of year. Inquire on the website or directly, but if at all possible, don’t pass over the chance to get out into the vineyard.
- Prosser Vinter’s Village, https://prosservintnersvillage.com/
- Prosser Wine Network, https://www.prosserwinenetwork.com/
- Tour Prosser, https://www.tourprosser.com
- Domanico Cellars, https://www.domanicocellars.com/
- 14 Hands, https://www.14hands.com/
- DavenLore Winery, https://www.davenlore.com/
- Mercer Wines, https://mercerwine.com/
- See our article on unique places to stay in Prosser.
- Let us introduce you to three more Prosser wineries.
– All photos by Nancy Zaffaro.