How does a winemaker decide grapes are ready for harvest? Visit a Woodinville winery this fall, and you may have the opportunity to answer that question for yourself. In fact, many wineries offer guests the opportunity to sample freshly picked grapes in their tasting rooms this time of year and when it comes time to making the call to pick, winemakers agree there is no substitute for taste.
Few Woodinville winemakers know this better than Brian Carter of Brian Carter Cellars. Having spent the majority of his 34 years making Washington State wine on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, Brian is accustomed to driving 3-4 hours to visit Columbia Valley vineyards in Eastern Washington where the region’s dry, warm climate supports world-class grape growing.
“I like to chew on the skins because it tells you more about the flavor of the grapes than the pulp,” says Brian. He also tastes for tannins, particularly in red grapes. “In Cabernet Sauvignon, you can actually taste the tannins as they start to soften,” explains Brian, who notes tannin structures vary by the conditions of the growing season as well as the vineyard’s geographic location. The tannins should not be too soft or a wine won’t age, he says, but he also wants to make sure there isn’t any green character that might impart bitterness.
John Patterson, of Patterson Cellars, crushed his first grapes in 2000, and like most Woodinville winemakers, he monitors the fruits’ pH and total acidity, then when the grapes appear close to maturity, he heads to the vineyard to taste. While flavor is John’s primary concern, other factors enter into play, such as the health of the vine. If the plant hasn’t shut down for the season and photosynthesis is on going, he explains, he may give the grapes a little extra hang time. While the frequent drives can be taxing given the long, grueling hours that harvest requires, most winemakers say it’s their favorite part of the season. “There really is no substitute for tasting the grapes,” says Brian, “and being out in the vineyard is the most enjoyable part of my job.”