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Crush in Oregon and Washington moves into the fast lane this week, on the heels of a warm, dry summer. The two Pacific Northwest states, which often have dramatically different growing seasons, were in tune this year, both experiencing cooler-than-usual spring temperatures, followed by a summer with abundant sunshine and hot, but not sweltering, weather.
In Oregon's Willamette Valley, the Pinot Noir harvest is just getting under way. "Most of the vineyards are three to five days ahead of an average harvest, which is wonderful because we have a better chance of beating the pineapple express," said winemaker Ken Wright, of Ken Wright Cellars, referring to the rains that predictably arrive in the valley by mid-October.
Pinot Noir looks promising, Wright said. "Things look really concentrated. There are good flavors." The only negative is a slightly larger-than-normal berry size, which can lead to dilution of flavors. "If people managed their crop well, that shouldn't be a problem," he added.
While Wright gives some of the credit for the early harvest to good weather, he argues that growers and vintners are making a difference as well, aiming for smaller crop loads and allowing better sun exposure through canopy management. The results, he believes, will help Oregon overcome its sometimes radical fluctuations in quality from vintage to vintage.
"There was, I believe, a not altogether undeserved knock that Oregon was inconsistent," Wright said. "I'm encouraged by the results of all this. The rain has forced us to adapt new techniques to get fully ripened fruit sooner."
Oregon's grape crop is expected to be a record 23,300 tons, a 2 percent increase from last year's crop, according to the Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service.
Washington is also expecting a record crop: 118,000 tons, a 16 percent increase from 2001, according to the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
Doug Gore, winemaker for one of the state's largest producers, Columbia Crest Winery, said the white-wine harvest is well under way, particularly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer, although Riesling still needs time. The red-grape harvest is about one-third complete, with Syrah, Merlot and warm-region Cabernet Sauvignon leading the way.
"We've got great color on the reds, great tannins. The reds are really dark," Gore said. "We're having to go a little riper than we'd like to get the flavors we'd like, but it's nothing we can't handle."
Chris Camarda, owner and winemaker of Andrew Will Cellars near Seattle, also likes what he sees so far. "We had to wait a while for the fruit to come into balance, but things look great. The fruit looks very even."
Nearly through with his Merlot harvest, Camarda welcomes the temperate weather that has arrived in recent weeks, with daytime temperatures rarely going above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. "It's ideal for the Cabernet," he said. "I think we'll have sufficient hang time for the acids to drop out and have the flavors fully develop."
If the weather stays the same, Camarda expects harvest to wrap up by early November, a typical finish for the state. As most vineyards are in eastern Washington, which gets little rain, the state's winemakers have little to fear from fall storms.