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Thursday, October 04, 2012

In Woodinville it's Long Haul Harvest Time

Just a stone's throw from downtown Seattle, if you have a really strong arm, is Woodinville, Washington. Once farmlands and pastures it grew as an exurb of Seattle and through the growth has become a substantial community of 11,000. An enormous jump from the homestead of its two founders, Ira and Susan Woodin who moved to the area for the timber and to raise cattle back in 1871.

Today it boasts nearly 100 Washington wineries and tasting rooms.  100.  There are less than 750 wineries in the state of Washington.  That's quite a slice of the pie chart in Woodinville. Beginning in 1976 with Chateau Ste. Michelle, both Washington and Woodinville's founding winery and followed 12 years later by Columbia Winery, over the years it has become a serious Washington wine fan's destination.

While there is an obvious upside to being a much more proximate "wine country" destination for Seattle and the general Western Washington population centers, it's not without its challenges being so far from where the wine grapes are actually grown in Eastern Washington. Those challenges are never more magnified than during harvest.

While there is a little bit of vineyard land in the Puget Sound, for nearly every single Woodinville winery, the grapes that make these wines has a long way to travel. Anywhere from 400 to 250 miles, and that can make for some challenging logistics. For wineries that are located on estate vineyards, whether its in Burgundy, the Willamette Valley or Red Mountain, the fruit is right there, and in many cases the distance from the vineyards to the production facilities are measured in feet, as opposed to hundreds of miles.  Even in an "easy" growing season like this one logistical issues loom.  The co-op mentality that has been around since Woodinville's wine beginnings when there were only a dozen or so small wineries, still lives on.  "It's always been, can you spare a barrel, can I borrow this piece of equipment." says Mike Stevens of Brian Carter Cellars. That cooperative approach also makes navigating that distance a little bit easier.

"If we're getting two bins of fruit from say Stonetree Vineyard, we might call around and Januik is getting some, Brian Carter is getting some, pretty soon we can get a full tractor trailer" says Jason Gorski, assistant winemaker at Delille Cellars.  During harvest it's not uncommon for a winery like Delille to have a trailer parked at the warehouse, an empty one heading east and a full one heading west loaded with fruit. Woodiniville wineries work with a company called Vintners Logistics that specializes in wine and wine grape warehousing and shipping. "We rarely run into issues getting our fruit over the pass, I think once this year a driver ran out of drive time (similar to a pilot's allotted hours in a 24 hour period) and had to pull over so we couldn't take delivery of the fruit until the following morning."

The old saying goes "absence makes the heart grow fonder" but when it comes to the distance between Woodinville's winemakers and their grapes, that's not always the case.  "There is always tension between the grower and the winemaker, that happens everywhere, but if you add 300 or so miles, it can cause some issues" says Mike Stevens.  Linn Scott, assistant winemaker at Sparkman Cellars notes other challenges with the vineyards being so far away. "The distance can make vineyard inspection very difficult and frankly you can become a little detached from the vineyards when you're in the cellar way over here, and the importance that they hold, and that's a bad habit to fall into."  (It should be noted that both winemakers Chris Sparkman and Chris Upchurch of Delille were in the Eastern Washington vineyards at the time of our visit making picking decisions about fruit that would be shipped to Woodinville in the next few days.)

Ultimately, it's trust, communication and working with some of the best growers the state has to offer that has led to success for many of Woodinville's winemakers. Growers like Dick Boushey, Ciel du Cheval's Jim Holmes and Ryan Johnson or the Sauer family of Red Willow Vineyard know their craft and they have their own reputations for excellence to uphold. For the Woodinville wine industry their continued long distance love affair with Eastern Washington vineyards will mean that some vintages present more challenges than others but that a "wine country" destination will continue to grow in Western Washington.

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