Rick Small opened Woodward Canyon winery in Walla Walla, Wash., in 1981, just a few feet from the sandlot baseball field where he played as a child. Woodward Canyon has had its greatest successes with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, but now the winery also makes wines from Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. The latest addition to the portfolio is an estate Barbera. In 2003, Small hired winemaker Kevin Mott, who had previously worked at Chalone and Canoe Ridge wineries. To supplement the fruit from its estate vineyard, Woodward Canyon also sources grapes from several of the best-known plots in Walla Walla, the Columbia Valley and Red Mountain. In all, the winery produces about 13,000 cases a year. Small began picking white varieties in early September, and took a break from the harvest on Sept. 22 to talk about this year's crop.
Wine Spectator: How has this year's growing season been?
Rick Small: We had some spring rains, but overall it was very dry. It was very dry for the third or fourth season in a row. We've been on a dry, warm trend the past several years, and I don't know if that's related to climate change or just luck, but it's been good for the grapes.
WS: And the weather now?
RS: It's beautiful out here today. We had a little bit of rain and some wind the last couple days, which is typical for us: If we have rain, we're gonna usually have a subsequent wind blow through, so it dries everything out. But we were desperately in need of a little moisture, so this won't hurt anything.
WS: How is the fruit looking as it comes in?
RS: [This year's] grapes have been coming in a little bit lower in sugar for the same levels of acidity and pH, at least for us, and I'm delighted with that. We're going to have lower alcohol levels, which isn't a bad thing.
WS: What grape looks to be the winner this year?
RS: The Merlot looks like it's going to be great. [The wines look like they'll be] dark, very dark and deep. The texture of the wines is nice, the colors are fabulous, the fruit profile was extraordinary during fermentation--our word for it would be 'reduced,' because they're just supersaturated. There will be a softness that shows up in the wines once the malolactic fermentations get going, but that probably, for us, won't be until the spring.
WS: Are there any special vineyards from which you'll treat the grapes any differently this year?
RS: All of our vineyards are handpicked. I don't think we could do it any other way even if we wanted to--the vineyards are just too steep, [and] some of them are terraced.
We have tanks that hold 3 to 4 tons, and we usually do pump-overs with those, and we have smaller fermenters that hold a ton to a ton and a half, and we do hand punch-downs with those. The different lots that come from the punch-downs and from the pump-overs both bring some different aromatics into the wine, so that just gives us a little bit more complexity in our blends. We can shape the wine based on which ones turn out better. We typically like the aroma profile in the pump-over, but we usually like the structure and the richness and the texture of the punch-down, and in the blends, we get the benefit of both.
WS: During this year's growing season, and heading into harvest, what worried you most?
RS: Last year we had some mildew, and I was very worried about that going into this season, so I was all over that this year, out there checking the vineyards every week or two. The dry growing season really helped with that, and we didn't have any problems this year.
WS: Have you experienced any problems related to the labor shortage this year?
RS: Nope, not for me. But I have a sustainable garden for my people. They're in my pension plan and my profit-sharing plan and I pay them by the hour, even during harvest, so I have never had a problem finding workers. You can get good workers if you want to treat them well and pay them well.
WS: So when you do find some time to get away from the excitement, how do you relax?
RS: Bike riding. We have an intern from France, and he's really into riding too, so if we find ourselves with an hour or two to spare, we'll hop on our bikes and ride up into the hills. And coming back into town, the view is fantastic.
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