Watching wine happen in Oregon

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The sorting table at Domaine Drouhin Oregon. At harvest, wine-lovers descend on Oregon vineyards from all over.


Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post

Sunday, August 26, 2018

I did not realize it at the time, but for one frantic, exhilarating, exhausting September minute, I impersonated an Oregon winemaker.

With a newfound friend’s arms bracing me, and my wife and daughter madly clearing stems and gathering fruit below, my stomping feet released a purple rivulet of grape juice. Granted, our neophyte grape-stomping team’s results proved to be predictably poor, but that fleeting sense of creation lodged its seed in my memory.

That same palpable feeling, on a much grander scale, seems to hang in the air around the fall harvest in Oregon’s scenic Willamette Valley. Fulfillment and trepidation battle for ascendancy as winemakers keep one eye on the sky and another firmly fixed on the grape.

Weighty questions keep asserting themselves. How soon will it rain? When should we pick? And the biggest of all: Will this be one of those years to remember (a.k.a. lucrative seasons), especially for the region’s prized pinot noirs?

The final answer — that message in a bottle — begins to reveal itself on sorting tables, in fermenting vats and engorged oak barrels. Véronique Boss-Drouhin, who has overseen three decades of Domaine Drouhin winemaking on two continents, seemed hopeful.

“Put your ear here,” Drouhin gently commanded, pointing to a chardonnay barrel whose fruit had been picked nine days before.

Stopper out, head tilted, an insistent low whisper of bubbles in my ear.

“That sound?” she said. “That’s life.”

Oregon’s wines remain far from undiscovered — a Wine Spectator cover story declared the state “an American home” for pinot noir as far back as 2012. Yet compared with the better-known wine regions further south in California — Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara — the Willamette Valley remains relatively uncrowded and unhurried.

At harvest, those two “un” words ofttimes translate to a third — unfettered access to the winemakers themselves. Interspersed with some romantic and memorable meals (such as those at the mushroom-centric Joel Palmer House in Dayton), every opened bottle tells a different story about its authors and when and how their work was captured.

On a September Saturday morning, as the sun fought past a misty rain, my wife and I took the winding drive up Parrett Mountain to the J.K. Carriere winery. Exiting our car, we immediately found owner and winemaker Jim Prosser whistling, walking and toting a shotgun.

“Robins can eat six times their weight a day in grapes,” Prosser announced, answering our unasked shotgun question. He wields it to frighten the birds, nothing more.

Prosser qualifies as one of Oregon’s most entertaining and talented winemakers. Open a spigot of conversation, whether in front sampling a 2015 Vespidae pinot noir or out back where the 2017 harvest has just begun to ferment, and Prosser’s words flow nonstop:

“The picking decision is the single biggest decision a winemaker makes. Once you cut the grapes they don’t ripen any more.

“What a vineyard represents is potential. It’s not celebrity that makes a great wine — it’s how close you can get to the grapes’ potential.

“What you get from small wineries is a distillation in a glass of what they believe about the world.”

Ask winemakers about their beliefs, their goals, their fluctuating levels of tension and relief at harvest time, and variations on the same refrain emerge.

At Domaine Roy & Fils, winemaker Jared Etzel appeared calm overseeing a production area where that day’s grapes were being sorted, but said, “I always get amped for harvest.”

“The first harvest day is very nerve-racking — it’s like going on a first date,” he said. “You don’t sleep well.”

At Kramer Vineyards, owner Trudy Kramer lent a hand moving tables, chairs and table settings under a veranda after the sky opened scant minutes before guests were to arrive for a harvest dinner.

“Oregon is one of the hardest places in the world to make wine because of the variability of the weather,” she said. “We’ve picked as early as Aug. 23 to as late as Oct. 19. We just never know what is coming.”

During harvest, her daughter and winemaker Kim Kramer said, “I might be kind of a perfectionist psycho but it’s necessary.”

Sharing the harvest with visitors, she said, completes the arc from grape to glass and sometimes creates lifelong fans.

“They come to me three years later and they want to buy that wine because they had the harvest experience,” she said. “There’s only so many weeks in the year when they can come and see that.

“And even though it’s exhausting, we’re giddy.”

A few years ago, Oregon winemaker Anna Matzinger dabbled in a bit of pinot noir psychoanalysis at my behest, trying to explain to me a grapevine’s motivations and how a winemaker has to anticipate and manipulate (my word, not hers) them.

Essentially, the vine’s primary purpose is to propagate itself. It does so by making its fruit as rosy and sweet and aromatic as it can, to attract birds. The birds — recall Prosser’s warning about robins’ appetites — consume the grapes, seeds and all, and may travel miles away while the seed is moving through the digestive tract, awaiting deposit in the soil.

At harvest, while the grapes are struggling to start their own journey, wine-lovers, like the birds, descend on Oregon vineyards from all over. A harvest luncheon we attended drew visitors from as far away as Brazil, and over breakfast at the sumptuous Black Walnut Inn I found myself listening to Pedro Parra, a wine terroir consultant from Chile.

At Roco Winery, as forklifts buzzed behind grape-laden semis, I ran into Samantha Withall, beverage director at the Hamilton, a restaurant in the District. She was in the middle of a two-week harvest vacation.

“You read about winemaking, and you learn all these terms,” she said. “But actually seeing all the different steps is totally different — it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

There is, perhaps, no better Oregon wine country vantage point than from a second-floor balcony at the Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard. In the early morning and late afternoon, the vineyard rows and nearby Douglas firs cast long shadows over rolling hills that yield to mowed hayfields in the distance.

Time it right and you will see pickers scurrying up and down the rows. We stopped one morning at a neighboring vineyard to observe them snipping bunches, filling their plastic buckets and dumping them into bins. Speed equals money, as they are paid by the bucketful rather than by the hour.

The pace remains quick at the winery crush pads, where the grapes are unloaded, usually de-stemmed mechanically and passed along sorting tables where workers manually remove damaged fruit. But as the grapes ferment in giant vats, a waiting game begins, punctuated by persistent checks of sugar level, temperature, color, acidity — a constant vigilance against something going wrong.

During vat fermenting, workers wield what looks like an oversized plunger to punch down the dense top layer of grape skins. The skins lend the wine its color and character: Take them out and instead of a deep ruby the same pinot noir grapes produce a clear pinot gris.

A handful of wineries have stuck with the old ways for the task of punching down. That means literal legwork.

“The foot is softer than a piece of metal or plastic,” Etzel of Domaine Roy & Fils told me. “Plus, you feel the temperature differences.”

I can relate to that, mostly, based on the event that inaugurated our harvest experience last fall. After a couple of alternating rounds of tacos and wine at the Carlton Crush Harvest Festival, our grape-stomping team made its pedestrian debut.

Afterward, a hose stood at the ready to rinse our tired, grape-skin-littered toes. Every now and then, when I peel back my socks, I search in vain for that tinge of purple that would have labeled these as the feet of a real winemaker.