by Matt Wastradowski
For Marissa Dineen, owner and vintner at Dineen Vineyards in Washington’s Yakima Valley, there is no more chaotic time of year than the unpredictable couple of weeks around the annual harvest in September and October.
For starters, she doesn’t know exactly when the grapes will hit peak ripeness; Mother Nature makes the call there, as the preceding years’ worth of weather events—snow, frost, heat and rain—play a key role in determining when the grapes should be picked. Begin harvest a few days too early, and the grapes might be more tart than a winemaker would like; pick them a few days too late, and the resulting wines might lack the appropriate structure or turn out too sugary.
When Mother Nature gives the go-ahead to pick the vineyard’s grapes—Dineen grows merlot, malbec and petit verdot, among others—the race is on to harvest grapes in that narrow window of peak freshness. At that moment, Dineen says the vineyard is a whirlwind of activity: Tractors are moving overflowing bins of grapes between vineyards and the winery, trucks are coming and going and pickers are working long days.
On top of all that, Dineen must contend with the resident bird population. “The birds can come and pick the grapes far faster than the crews, and they like very ripe, ready-to-pick grapes,” she says. As a sustainable winery, Dineen does that through netting, blasting cannons and turning on noise makers that approximate the sounds of rapid-fire guns.
Taken together, you have what Dineen calls “a feast for the senses.” And while it’s a lot to juggle, it’s also a sign of exciting days ahead. Your favorite pinot noir? That petit verdot you’ve been saving for a special occasion? A tropical chardonnay you uncorked with friends on that fun vacation a few years back? They all started the same way: as grapes picked at harvest time. And while it can seem like organized chaos to most of us, it’s a special time for vintners like Dineen.
“You’ve got all the beauty of the harvest, the people, the machinery moving around—and of course the smell of fresh fruit,” she says.
It’s among the busiest times of year for wineries all over the Pacific Northwest, but harvest also represents the chance for oenophiles to get involved and see that magical process up-close—through vineyard tours, grape-picking opportunities and tastings—and perhaps even come away with purple hands and feet. So if you’d like to see how it all happens, here’s a look at how a few Pacific Northwest wineries share the magic of harvest each fall.
Harvest Tours & Crush Experience
Even with all the uncertainty and hard work, Dineen loves harvest. “It’s the culmination of our growing season,” she says. “Just seeing the literal fruits of that labor is very exciting.”
So she’s collaborated with two other Yakima Valley stalwarts—Two Mountain Winery and VanArnam Vineyards—to offer an immersive look at how harvest happens at all three wineries.
The experience begins at Dineen Vineyards, where visitors learn about how the harvest season takes shape—when grapes are ready to be picked, what it really means for a grape to be “ripe”—while picking and sampling grapes. From there, the tour shifts to Two Mountain Winery, where winemakers talk about crushing the grapes and show how that process works. And the event ends at VanArnam Vineyards, where guests learn about everything that happens after crush—such as yeast selection, punch down and filtration—before the juice ferments and eventually becomes wine.
“It’s very tactile, very rewarding,” says Allison VanArnam, owner of VanArnam Vineyards. “It adds just a dimension to your wine-tasting that you’re not prepared for, and it makes the wine and wine-tasting so much richer and fuller.”
Other wineries in the Yakima Valley host harvest events that might be less structured and more aligned with whatever Mother Nature has in store that particular weekend. Paul Beveridge, winemaker for Wilridge Vineyard, Winery & Distillery, says the winery has a strong community of volunteers who help pick grapes, crush a batch or two by foot, and even clean tanks. If the weather thwarts the day’s plans, Beveridge says that volunteers can usually help out with another aspect of harvest.
Several other wineries throughout the Yakima Valley offer their own harvest events, and the two-day Catch the Crush festival celebrates the season with events throughout the valley. Learn more about harvest events and plan your Yakima Valley wine-harvest vacation at visityakima.com.
Immersive Harvest Tour
Left Coast Estate, which sits where the Willamette Valley begins to nudge up against the Oregon Coast Range foothills, has long been about crafting small-group experiences, so it’s no surprise the winery has crafted an interactive harvest experience that demystifies the process and gives oenophiles the chance to pitch in and help out.
Every Saturday in October, the winery is offering an immersive, three-hour harvest tour that changes with each outing—depending on how ripe the grapes are and what needs to be done that weekend. These hands-on experiences might include grape-picking, vineyard tours or tastings—and continue with a look at each step in the wine-making process.
Taylor Pfaff, owner and CEO of Left Coast Estate, says the tour reflects and communicates the uncertain, unpredictable nature of harvest.
“It’s going to be pretty representative of what we go through with harvest in the sense that Oregon’s a fun place to make wine, and we get very different harvest conditions every day,” he says. “We’re going to adapt the tour based on what the current conditions are and tell that story.”
Left Coast Estate is one of several wineries throughout the Willamette Valley to host harvest events, and the Carlton Crush Harvest Festival gets into the spirit of the season with grape stomp competitions, food vendors, art displays and more. Learn more about the season’s harvest events at willamettewines.com. Plan your wine-harvest vacation in the Willamette Valley at willamettevalley.org.
The southernmost of Oregon’s wine-growing regions encompasses five valleys, with approximately 180 vineyards producing nearly 10,000 tons of grapes each year.
One of those wineries is Schultz Glory Oaks Vineyard & Farm, which sits in the Applegate Valley. The winery hosted its first public harvest experience in 2018 after tasting-room guests asked about helping out.
These days, the winery runs what it calls its Half-day Harvest Intern Program for subscribers to its email list. Greg Schultz, the winery’s owner, says the event begins just before dawn—and that volunteers are given a pair of sharpened pruners and educated on what to look for while picking grapes. “Everyone is excited to get started but a little unsure: ‘Can I hurt the vine? What if I cut in the wrong place? Should I harvest these little clusters?'” he says. “A little mentoring answers the questions.”
Schultz says the background on harvest helps “interns” develop a deeper appreciation for the process and helps them better understand just how their favorite wines are made. “Demonstrating the ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘how’ adds to the educational experience,” he says.
Several wineries throughout Southern Oregon offer a wide range of harvest-inspired events each fall. See what’s happening in 2022 at rvwinegrowers.org. Plan your Southern Oregon wine-harvest vacation at southernoregon.org.
- Dineen Vineyards, dineenvineyards.com
- Two Mountain Winery, twomountainwinery.com
- VanArnam Vineyards, vanarnamvineyards.com
- Wilridge Vineyard, Winery & Distillery, wilridgewinery.com
- Left Coast Estate, leftcoastwine.com
- Schultz Glory Oaks Vineyard & Farm, schultzwines.com