To say that I was "working" the harvest during the first part of my day at J Bookwalter Winery would not only be a stretch, but a bald-faced lie. I observed winemaking work being done at the winery, trying my hardest to stay out of the way of the people who were really doing the work. Cellar Master Travis Maple assured me that there would be plenty of work for me to help out with during the afternoon, as they were going to be sorting and crushing a big batch of Merlot grapes from the Conner Lee Vineyard.
As I mentioned in my post yesterday, J. Bookwalter was originally founded by Jerry and Jean Bookwalter. The Bookwalter family has been involved in agriculture for several generations. Jerry Bookwalter has been a fixture in Washington grape production since the mid 1970s. In 1997 John Bookwalter joined in the family business, bringing his business and marketing acumen to the table to help revitalize the Bookwalter brand. Jerry Bookwalter has continued to produce some of the best fruit that goes into J Bookwalter wines, and that fruit is being grown at the Conner Lee Vineyard. This vineyard is known for producing outstanding Chardonnay, as well as the grapes that we were going to be crushing, Merlot.
If you follow the vineyard news around the major wine regions, such as California, Oregon, and Washington, you doubtless have heard that everything is running just a little behind this year. Some places have been worse than others, but the West Coast seems to be generally a week or four behind where they would be in a typical year. Given the lateness of the season, there is a lot of pressure to "make hay while the sun shines", as they would say in my home state of Texas. Now that harvest has finally arrived, wineries are playing catchup to make the most of this season, especially here in Washington, where the cold temperatures are lurking just around the corner. The task of sorting through bin after bin of grapes means that the crew would be working some long hours over the next several days.
Sorting is one of those things that is not handled the same at every winery. Some wineries are more demanding in their sorting process than others, which comes out in the quality of wines that they produce. Wineries like J. Bookwalter that are trying to make wines of high quality tend to be more selective with the grapes that they let into their wines. There are large buckets that sit beside the sorting tables, generally collecting a surprising number of grapes for each crush session.
The sorting process is pretty simple. Grape clusters are dumped onto the sorting table, a conveyor belt that moves the grapes toward a destemmer at the end. I worked the sorting table, along with a collection of interns and full-time Bookwalter employees. This process is such an all-hands-on-deck process that even John Bookwalter got involved for portions of the work. Sorters are on the lookout for leaves, bugs (we found a doozie of a stink bug), and any other foreign matter, as well as for sub-par fruit. In this particular batch of fruit, there were a few overly green clusters that would have introduced green peppery flavors, as well as some raisony clusters, and some sunburned grapes. All of these could diminish the quality of the final product, so they are removed before they go in the crusher. Once the grapes have gone through their initial sorting, they have the stems removed, and then work their way onto a vibrating sorting table, where more staff look for individual grapes that need to be removed. The grapes are then dropped into the crusher, where the juice and solid matter goes into the tanks for fermentation. All of this is a very arduous process, but one that pays off in the end with higher quality wines.
I have to say that my first work sorting grapes could hardly have been any easier. The fruit from the Conner Lee Vineyard was amazing. I was actually surprised by just how little fruit had to be discarded. There was no mildew or rot on the grapes, and only a small amount of green or sunburned fruit. The flavors of the grapes were incredible, offering dreams of the beautiful fruit and velvety texture that Washington Merlot can yield. Given the challenges that this vintage is presenting for growers and winemakers across the West Coast, the fruit from this vineyard really showed a lot of promise for some beautiful wine. Of course, only time will tell how the final product turns out, but as my friend Christophe Smith from Titus Vineyards reminded me on my recent trip to California, "Every year, no matter what happens with the weather, we always make wine."