ZILLAH, Wash. - Washington's historically early wine grape harvest kicked off early Friday morning when 18 tons of Chardonnay were harvested in the Rattlesnake Hills American Viticultural Area.
The grapes were harvested at Hilltop, a 31-year-old vineyard north of the Yakima Valley community of Buena. It is managed by Patrick Rawn of Two Mountain Winery in Zillah, who sells the grapes to Treveri Cellars in nearby Wapato.
By all accounts, this is the earliest harvest ever in the history of the Washington wine industry. Last year, harvest began Aug. 18 when Paul Champoux in the Horse Heaven Hills brought in 1.6 tons of Marquette, an unusual red variety that was bred to ripen in the upper Midwest. Champoux plans to harvest this year's Marquette on Monday.
Kevin Corliss, who manages vineyard operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said the earliest he recalls starting harvest was Aug. 15 in 1987.
"That's the earliest in my career," he said. "We're usually around Labor Day."
Corliss and other longtime members of the Washington wine industry said it's unlikely that wine grapes were ever picked earlier than Aug. 7.
The Chardonnay picked Friday will be turned into sparkling wine at Treveri Cellars, which specializes in bubbles.
Christian Grieb, who makes wine alongside his father, Juergen, and also is vice president of sales for Treveri, said the grapes were picked at 18.6 brix, a measurement of sugar content in the fruit. Most white wine grapes are picked at closer to 23 brix, and red wine grapes often are picked at 24 brix or higher.
"Sparkling wine producers are usually quite a bit earlier, usually two to three weeks ahead of still wine producers," he said.
This is because sparkling winemakers want bright acidity and lower alcohol, as the wine goes through a second fermentation to produce the trademark bubbles.
When the grapes arrived, the Griebs sabered a bottle of Treveri sparkling wine - cutting the top off with a saber - to christen the start of the 2015 vintage.
"We like to saber a bottle of sparkling as a toast to the new fruit," Grieb said. "We like to douse the fruit with a little bit of bubbly. Last year, it was Pinot Noir. This year, it's Chardonnay. It's a way for the old and new vintages to mesh. It's a fun little tradition we have."
Last year, Hilltop Vineyard was picked on Aug. 25, so this year's harvest - 18 days earlier - caught many off-guard, including Jack Maljaars, owner of Vine Tech Equipment in Prosser, whose crew began harvesting the grapes before dawn.
Maljaars and his crew were wearing coats as they picked the grapes, thanks to temperatures in the low 50s - nearly 40 degrees cooler than they were just 12 hours prior.
"It feels like the middle of September out here," he said.
Treveri is planning to bring in a bit of Yakima Valley Pinot Noir in about a week - fruit that also will be turned into sparkling wine.
"We're slowly easing into it," Grieb said. "We'll be full on into harvest by the end of August."
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates - which uses two out of every three grapes grown in Washington - has its first scheduled pick Tuesday, when it plans to bring in Sauvignon Blanc from Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain in the Yakima Valley, followed by Chardonnay from its estate Cold Creek Vineyard north of the Yakima Valley town of Sunnyside.
In 2010 and 2011 — cool vintages in Washington — Ste. Michelle picked no grapes until September. In 2010, it harvested almost no red grapes until October. That won't be the case this year.
Victor Palencia, director of winemaking for J&S Crushing in Mattawa, originally thought he might pick Pinot Gris this week or next but said he'll now probably wait another 10 days before harvest gets into full swing. During the next 90 days, Palencia and his crew will crush enough grapes to make more than 1 million cases of wine.
Rob Griffin, owner/winemaker at Barnard Griffin in Richland, is scheduled to bring in Pinot Gris on Aug. 17 - which is the earliest he's ever started since arriving in Washington in 1977. That year, he remembers not beginning harvest until after Oct. 1.