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Editor's Letter

 

Pulling Their Weight in Washington

November 2012
 
by Jim Gordon
 
 
The fire-engine red, four-wheel drive Ford F350 diesel pickup was pulling a trailer loaded with empty MacroBins and drawing unwanted attention on the otherwise quiet streets of Walla Walla, Wash. Unwanted, particularly since we were passing through a school zone guarded by a police officer leaning out the window of his cruiser with a radar gun.

The winemaker who was driving anticipated the cop being there, so he idled the truck past the school at 19 mph. Even so, the clatter from the underworked diesel seemed loud enough to get us arrested with a noise ordinance infraction. The patrolman let us pass, though, and soon we were clanking our way out of town.

It was mid-September, and our first task was to drop the bins at three different vineyards where the winemaker was buying fruit. Then came the real heavy lifting of the day: picking up a cumbersome 30-plus year-old Wilmes press from Russell Creek Winery at the airport and delivering it to the Otis Kenyon winery just across the border in Oregon.

Lay of the land
I came to Walla Walla hoping to see the crush under way, but little was happening yet. In five days I saw no red wine fermentations and only a few whites being pressed, but I did get a better lay of the land than I’d had before.

One clear observation is how open and vast this portion of the Columbia River Valley really is. Even though Washington, with more than 40,000 acres of winegrapes, has the largest plantings in the U.S. outside California, they seemed trivial compared to the truly giant wheat, soybean and onion fields, orchards and pastures, which were all in turn overshadowed by the seemingly endless prairie land all around.

One day winemaker David Stephenson of Otis Kenyon and Stephenson Cellars drove me from the Washington Tri Cities of Pasco, Richland and Kennewick out to see vineyards in Red Mountain, the Horse Heaven Hills, the Hanford Reach of the Columbia, Yakima Valley, Milton-Freewater, Ore., and then to Walla Walla.

From a distance Red Mountain looks more like a small ridge, and not nearly as dramatic as its reputation for high-quality red wines. The Horse Heaven Hills stand strikingly higher, broader and less densely planted than Red Mountain. It was a surprise suddenly to see acres of white grow tubes marking the new plantings at sloping Champoux Vineyards after driving through nothing but wheat stubble and tumbleweeds for 45 miles. We also visited the Bacchus and Dionysus vineyards of Sagemoor Farms, hugging the gravelly banks of the Hanford Reach where Cabernet Sauvignon vines date to 1972.

Forklift finesse
Another day I got in the way of winemaker Andrew Latta and his assistant Mark Fiore of Charles Smith Wines as they sprinted to sanitize the newly acquired former Whitman Cellars, where they were expecting Chardonnay to come in the next morning. I dodged forklifts at Artifex and tasted new releases in the spacious hospitality area of the newish Waterbrook Winery. At Long Shadows, winemaker Gilles Nicault showed me around the gleaming winery and tasted me through an amazing set of wines made by founder Allen Shoup’s international winemaking partners.

Back to the Ford diesel
Once we had dropped the bins, we drove to Russell Creek Winery to pick up the press. There, owner Larry Krivoshein showed his skill with the forklift. There was no way to grab the press directly with the forks, so Larry ordered us to fetch a weathered 4 x 6 beam about
8 feet long and place it across the forks. He maneuvered this above the press. Then he and Dave secured the two by stretching straps under the press and up and over the beam.

Larry raised it confidently while I ducked from what I expected to come flying when the wood snapped under 3,000 pounds of strain. But he calmly lifted the load without incident and deposited it gently on the flatbed trailer. Piece of cake.

On the drive over to Otis Kenyon, with a respectable load of steel to pull at last, the Ford’s engine stopped its clattering and purred like a kitten. That’s what I imagine must have happened in the region in general as the harvest really arrived about two weeks later: Everybody got busy pulling their weight—flexing the winemaking muscles they’d been saving all year.

 
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