How Does a Winemaker Decide When to Pick Grapes?

Posted on: October 14th, 2013 by

the crystal ball - large squareWhen to pick grapes? It’s one of the biggest decisions a winemaker will undertake each year. So what tools and tricks of the trade are deployed? Is it a process assisted by:

Science? Art? Taste? Voodoo? Clairvoyance? Luck?

Fortunately, I know Ross Andrew Mickel, winemaker at Washington State’s Ross Andrew Winery. And I was able to chat with him just as grapes for the 2013 harvest were rolling in. (September 19th to be exact.) Naturally, I recorded our conversation for my Wine Without Worry podcast.

According to Ross, the decision on picking is all about spending time in the vineyards and knowing what’s happening to the grapes. He even shared with me one extremely technical, at-home manner in which he evaluates sample grapes from the vineyard. It involves a couple things you have in your kitchen (Ziploc bag, scissors), a glass, and your taste buds.

After extracting juice from a bunch of grapes using the above tools, Ross will smell, sip, and surmise. Does it have “banana tannin” or any “green banana aromatic”? He reveals, “I definitely don’t want to make a wine that smells like a green banana skin.” [Ed. note: Nor do I want to drink that wine.] The resulting decision is based on a combination of science and the simple, yet essential, act of tasting.

Ross makes wine from a variety of vineyard sources in Washington. He drops knowledge on the Celilo vineyard in the Columbia Gorge wine region (AVA) right by Hood River. It’s a cooler site where he gets Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. And great for windsurfing. (Not in the vineyard, but rather on Hood River.) It’s also majestically scenic, as I witnessed from the Oregon side:

Stupendous view of Mt. Hood from Phelps Creek. #wbc12

Speaking of Oregon and Washington, Ross makes a multi-state wine called Meadow that you should check out. It’s a Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling blend that follows a blueprint to create a wine that’s both aromatic and lively. And since he was inundated with questions about making an Oregon red wine to compliment his (almost) Oregon white wine, Ross thought, “Maybe I can give myself some more stress,” and decided to make a Pinot Noir with fruit from the Lachini vineyard. It’s farmed using biodynamic practices, which involve uber-organics, a somewhat mystical bent, as well as a holistic system of agriculture. If you want to know more about it, have a listen to my podcast with Katherine Cole.

How To Stay Cool In WoodinvilleAlso discussed: when to blend versus deciding on a single vineyard wine, making wine in Australia at Rosemount, and how fly fishing with Mark Canlis led him to a career as a winemaker. Plus late nights full of pizza and beer during harvest. And if you’re ever in his tasting room in Woodinville, WA, find out why there was, on my last visit, a photo of a Ross Andrew white wine on ice commingling with Bud Light. Listen up:

Wine Without Worry Episode 21 on iTunes: Wine Grape Harvest Season: To Pick or Not To Pick, That is the Question

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Image of J. W. Waterhouse’s The Crystal Ball via Mira d’Oubliette.

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