Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cool Weather + Long Hang-Time + Late Harvest = Awesome WA Trip!

Washington wine growers spent the month of October in the vineyards praying for a growing season long enough to appropriately ripen the fruit, and still get the fruit off the vine and into the winery. I'm sure they felt like the old adage, "A watched pot never boils." 

Bad for them, but great for me since I had scheduled a trip to Washington wine country for the last week in October. Driving along the highway deeper into Yakima with ladies from my wine group, we were surprised and delighted to see fruit still hanging in the vineyards despite the cooler temperatures being experienced in the region. 
Day 1  -  Horse Heaven Hills, the small pumpkin-colored area to the north of Oregon

The first full day of our trip we were greeted at the gates of Canoe Ridge by Minnie Knife, the winery's vineyard manager. She smiled as she told us that their harvest was in full throttle and asked us if we'd like to see it up close... (Was she kidding?! This is the stuff dreams are made of!) We hopped into our SUV and followed her pickup along the winding dirt road to the crest of a hill and jumped out. We stood there, surrounded by the most amazingly beautiful vineyard scene, abuzz with harvest workers, equipment and the smell of freshly picked fruit in the air. The early morning sun was shining upon the perfect rows of vines angling down the hill before us and beside us, as far as the eye could see. 

Here, while talking about the differences in Cabernet and Merlot vines, Minnie is illustrating the
 spooky face that Merlot leaves form when the sections of the leaves are held together.

Minnie led us down a row of vines and encouraged us to pick berries from the clusters of Merlot hanging there. As I bit down tentatively on a grape, I was pleasantly surprised to taste the sweetness of the fruit - I had tasted Cabernet grapes straight from the vine before on a trip to Napa Cab country and they had been extremely bitter and harsh. (Of course, it was August - maybe a month before harvest - so they were definitely not ripe.) I snatched a few more and popped them into my mouth as I commented to Minnie on their sweetness. She said they were ready for harvest, asked us to step out of the row and made a motion to a worker who then swung his harvester around the end of the row of vines we had just vacated.

We watched in awe as the harvester fit narrowly down "our" row, with the huge "V" of machinery fitting down over the row of vines and mechanically removed the fruit from each vine.

We could see the clusters being pulled up to the top of the machine and toppling over the edge and down into a waiting bin on the opposite side of the vineyard row, which was being pushed by more workers and moved parallel down the row in tandem with the harvester. Having never seen this part of the winemaking process before, we were captivated by the picture before us, seemingly choreographed in its simplicity and economy of motion.

On the opposite side of the dirt road stood another portion of the vineyard, with fruit still hanging; these were all labeled Cabernet and Minnie indicated that they still had another few days or so of hang-time before they would be harvested. She asked us to follow her further up the road, commenting positively on our rented SUV. We piled back into our vehicle and trailed the dust from her pickup around several steep bends until reaching the top of the hill and parked behind Minnie. We gasped as we clambered out and onto the top of the hill - as beautiful as the previous scenes were, we were stunned by the view from the pinnacle we now stood upon.

From our viewpoint, we could see the Columbia River, separating us from Oregon, but between it and us was acre after acre of vines, spread like a blanket on the undulating hills, and bordered on the sides by tree-lines, beautiful in themselves with golden and red fall leaves. Breath-taking! Down there in the midst of everthing was a cute little house, also surrounded by fall trees, and looking up the hills at the vines. We asked Minnie who lived in the house.  Of course - it was hers... Now how fantastic is that? Waking up each morning with that amazing view, and surrounded by your passion masquerading as a job. OMGosh ~ JEALOUS!

We stood on the ridge, able to overlook vineyards on both sides of the hill (the north facing vineyards were planted in Chardonnay which requires cooler temperatures, hence, the shady side of the hill) listening to Minnie explain to us about the ancient floods coursing through the area, cutting chasms and valleys into the landscape and dropping different types of rocks, stone and soils along the way.  At her feet was a pile of rocks that had been taken from various areas of the vineyard; she used them to illustrate the different types of rocks and soil found at Canoe Ridge, and told us how far away these rocks had originated, and been carried along with the floods thousands of years ago.

The soils of the Canoe Ridge vineyards were sandy, as are the other vineyards of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, and as Minnie explained, this results in softer tannins than in other AVAs in Washington wine country. (I reflected back on this conversation more than a few times during the trip while tasting copious amounts of HHH AVA wines - all with soft finishes and easy, fine, tannins.)

The sounds of harvest were interrupted by Minnie's cell phone and a short conversation after which she said her time with us was up and that we were to follow her over to the winery to meet Michelle, our guide for the rest of our tour of Canoe Ridge.  I sighed and took one last look around before getting back into the SUV with my wine ladies, thinking that nothing else we would see could compare with this.  Ahhh, what a life Minnie, what a life.

Beautiful, huh?

Salud! KathyD

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