It is palpable at nearly every winery in Woodinville. It is the smell of the grape harvest. It is intoxicating – not in an alcoholic sense, yet – but in a seductive, "I can’t wait to drink the final product" kind of way.
Visit any winery during crush season and you’ll also find it is an incredibly busy time of year for winemakers. If you’re fortunate to actually meet a winemaker in a tasting room, chances are he or she looks a little ragged around the edges.
That’s because most spend at least 15 to 16 hours a day at the winery for about eight weeks preparing the newly delivered grape harvest for their next vintages of wine.
The good news is that the quantity and quality of the grape harvest looks great this year, according to John Patterson of Patterson Cellars. "Our numbers are great. The weather was probably a little too hot this summer, but the grapes are great as far as ripeness and sugar levels," he said.
What you’ll also see, especially in the Warehouse District, where dozens of winery production operations are headquartered along with their tasting room storefronts, is a community of collaboration amongst the winemakers.
"We work closely, kind of like a brain trust," says Chris Gorman of Gorman Winery. He, along with Patterson, and many others, often help each other out — whether it’s sharing equipment or sharing advice.
Rather than being very competitive with the other wineries, Patterson echoes what other winemakers keep saying about the wine industry in Woodinville, "I am very happy when wineries become successful. If everyone’s making money, then everyone’s doing well."
It is that spirit of collaboration that is helping shape Woodinville into the premier destination for wine tourism in Washington state.
One winemaker appreciative of collaboration is Jim Page of Page Cellars. His day job for 35 years has been as a corporate pilot. It was as a pilot flying often to Walla Walla that he had the opportunity to meet Greg Lill, co-founder of DeLille Cellars, and Eric Dunham, of Walla Walla’s Dunham Cellars.
Both men offered to help Page start his own winery. "I wanted something to fall back on," said Page, as a back up to his flying career. "I was fascinated that these two men would help a future competitor start a business," he said.
Like many small-sized winery owners, Page is not in the business to get rich, but to just have fun producing quality wines he can offer to the public. His winery produces 3,000 to 4,000 cases of wine annually.
Several of the smaller winery owners still have day jobs outside of the wine industry during the slower parts of the winemaking calendar. When not at the winery, Page teaches Dash 8 pilots at a ground school.
For Patterson, though, along with Gorman, their labors in the wine industry have grown to the point where it is their full-time career.
Gorman Winery, which opened in 2002, has been Gorman’s full-time job since 2007. The winery produces about 6,000 to 7,000 cases annually, and is considered a medium-sized winery for Woodinville. This year, as last, he’ll use about 100 tons of grapes to produce mainly Cabernet, Syrah and Chardonnay.
Patterson, who produces about 3,500 cases of wine with the Patterson Cellars label annually, has also branched out into the early stages part of the grape processing business after people in the industry started asking him if he would help them with the processing.
His equipment is now used by over 20 wineries to begin the early stages of processing for an estimated 450 tons of grapes that will be brought in this year to his facilty.
Depending on each of those winery’s needs, Patterson and his crew can provide destemming, crushing, and pressing services and equipment. For smaller wineries, or those just starting out, it is more economical to rent out and use Patterson’s equipment and staff to help prepare the grapes.
Patterson works closely with the wineries, however, to ensure that each winery’s grape harvest is processed to their winemaker’s specifications.
For Gorman, this time of year gives him the opportunity to experiment in the production process. "The Washington wine industry has no set rules for what you can blend together, unlike most of Europe where traditional winemaking has set rules for blends," he said.
"We’re successful because it [Washington] is an awesome place to make wine," he added. California winemakers have taken note Gorman said, as evidenced when wine giant E. & J. Gallo bought Columbia Winery and Covey Run Wines in 2012.
In one of this year’s experiments, Gorman will use some of Patterson’s sorting tables to bring in 10 volunteers for one day to hand pull the grapes off the vines for his Cab Reserve Albatross.
Normally, grapes are mechanically destemmed and crushed before being placed into a large, open-top container where every 12 hours the skins, which rise to the top, are punched down into the juice until fermentation begins. This process takes up to 15 days to happen depending on whether commercial or natural yeasts are used.
But, Gorman will put the handpicked grapes right into oak barrels where they will be rotated every 12 hours instead of using the punching down technique. The grapes will not be crushed before going into the barrels.
"I’ve never done this before, but some of the bigger cult wines of Napa like Bryant do this," he said, adding, "I believe this is the first attempt in Washington state."
Cult wines are often viewed as investments or as a collectible by wine enthusiasts because they are produced in very small quantities, receive very high scores from wine critics, generate a lot of buzz, and are expensive.
However, in a September 2011 Wine Enthusiast column, writer Paul Gregutt argues that the exceptional quality of many Washington wines that are much more reasonably priced should allow more wine enthusiasts with less money in their wallets to participate in the cult wine trend.
This is good news for those who want to enjoy the many great wines receiving high scores that are made in Woodinville.
The crush season began in earnest in September and will continue through most of October.
For a map of the wineries located in Woodinville, including Page Cellars, Patterson Cellars and Gorman Winery in the Warehouse District, visit WoodinvilleWineCountry.com.