CHELAN, Wash. — Gaston Rocha worked swiftly, clipping Pinot noir grape clusters with his right hand and catching and dumping them into white, 5-gallon plastic buckets with his left.
He seemed oblivious to the beauty of the setting — perfect vineyard rows dropping sharply downslope to a placid Lake Chelan.
But time is of the essence while he’s working, not just because he’s paid by how much he picks, but because rain and cold may soon close the harvest window.
While the last 10 percent of California’s wine grape harvest was hit by wildfires and Idaho counts a light harvest from last winter’s frost damage, Washington’s crop appears to be near normal or slightly under last year’s record 270,000 tons.
The August crop estimate was 260,000 tons. That’s updated post-crush in November.
“It can be up or down. It’s gone both ways,” says Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Winegrower Association in Cashmere.
“We have some winter damage in older vines, but no drastic freeze damage,” Scharlau said. “Our heat units at the end of August were more like 2013, more normal.”
Cluster weight is down slightly, which will contribute to a bit lighter crop, she said.
Oregon had heavy smoke during the last two weeks of ripening. The affects so far are unknown.
But Shane Collins, vintner of Rocky Pond Winery, Chelan, which owns Clos CheValle Vineyard where Gaston Rocha works, said wine grapes so far are testing negative for wildfire smoke taint from the Columbia Gorge to Lake Chelan.
“It’s a timing thing,” he said. “There’s a 14- to 17-day window around veraison (when grapes accumulate sugar rapidly) that’s the critical time.”
Despite wildfires uplake, Lake Chelan smoke was nothing this year like it was in 2015, he said.
Smoke taint gives wine “an ashtray, gasoline taste,” he said. Nothing anyone wants but hard to detect because it develops over time, he said.
In 2015, wineries dumped it or sold it early, he said. “Karma Vineyards sold it as Bad Karma,” he said.
Freddy Arredondo, vintner at Cave B Estate Winery near George, said his 100-acre crop is lighter than last year, possibly from more of a January freeze nip than he originally thought. Mildew pressure was big from an overly wet spring, he said. Clusters are lighter, he said.
Washington has more than 53,000 acres of wine grapes, more than 860 wineries and is second to California in production.
Washington harvest normally begins in earnest right after Labor Day and ends in early November. It was about 80 to 90 percent done as of Oct. 17, Scharlau said.
Idaho is growing quickly and “stellar” in quality but is small compared to Washington, just as Washington is small compared to California, Scharlau said. Wine grapes tend to stay specific to AVAs and there are so many factors in buying wine “that it’s hard to draw any kind of conclusions” about one area’s loss benefiting another, she said.
Rocky Pond Winery owns the 30-acre Clos CheValle Vineyard on the south shore of Lake Chelan and the 90-acre Double D Vineyard 20 miles southeast at Sun Cove on the Columbia River. Plans call for adding 30 more acres at Double D and developing 50 acres of vineyard farther south at Skeels Road, Collins said.
Progress is being hampered by a lack of labor, he said.