Grape harvesting winds down at Whidbey wineries

Like any group of farmers, the vineyard owners on Whidbey Island brace themselves every year for the “watch and wait” drama of predicting the autumn harvest.

A message on the website for Comforts of Whidbey, one of three Whidbey wineries that grows its own grapes, summarized the inexact science behind the agonizing wait:

“Once the grapes start to ripen and the sugar levels, acid levels and PH levels all get close to the perfect range and the weather forecast looks good, we make the call that harvest is imminent.”

Now, about a month after Comforts posted that tenuous update on harvest plans, it’s pretty much said and done. With a whole lot of hard work and more than a few helping hands, the grapes from Comforts, Spoiled Dog Winery and Whidbey Island Winery have been plucked from the vines, destemmed, crushed, pressed and are now slowly fermenting in cooled tanks or bins.

But make no mistake: Harvesting grapes and making wine is a monumental task and one with unexpected twists and turns. Greg and Elizabeth Osenbach, owners of Whidbey Island Winery, can attest to that like no other.

Whidbey Island Winery

The Osenbachs, now in their 31st harvest season on Whidbey, hold the honor of being both the biggest and oldest island winery. Greg laughed when reflecting on how polite people were when they first started growing their grapes, but then later admitted, “Yeah, we all thought you were crazy.”

Decades later, they process about 50 tons of grapes each season, which equates to about 3,000 cases. But this year had its own unique challenges, starting with what Greg called the “strangest growing season” ever.

It started with a cool wet spring, he said, which seems to be a recent trend. But the ever-warming summers have mostly made up for the later start, and the harvests have been getting earlier. He explained that this year they didn’t have any really hot spells, but the summer was generally warm, nighttime temperatures were higher than usual, and the grapes largely caught up.

The winery was on track for a typical harvest window of late September, but then came the rain – and it was unusually persistent. Even in Eastern Washington, where they source their red grapes, the September rain didn’t stop at the Cascades and ripening proceeded slowly.

Then, in the second week of October, the Osenbachs experienced the earliest frost in their careers as winemakers, fully three weeks earlier than usual. Greg explained that frost-toasted leaves don’t produce any energy for the vines and ripening stops.

“In the end, we sustained significant crop losses and brought in about half of what we have gotten used to over the last half dozen balmy harvest seasons,” Greg said. “But it’s agriculture; you have to roll with it.”

By the third week of October, the whites were being pressed onsite at Whidbey Island Winery, as they’ve been for decades, and the reds were fermenting in open bins. The same was happening almost simultaneously with their winery counterparts.

Comforts of Whidbey

At Comforts of Whidbey, owners Rita and Carl Comfort grow grapes on about four acres of their 22-acre farm. Of the approximately 6,000 plants, about a third are Madeleine Angevine, a third Madeleine Sylvaner and a third Siegerrebe (otherwise known as “Vine of the Victor”). And about three rows now produce pinot noir.

“We grow our grapes here and do a big community harvest, like the other wineries,” said Rita, “because that’s really the only way you can get the grapes in within a reasonable amount of time.”

Then they process it all downstairs in a facility that Rita and Carl built from the ground up. It’s designed to ensure the full operation takes place in a temperature-controlled place with plenty of storage and enough space for larger tanks.

Two years ago, they bought a big press that facilitates the pressing of about five tons of fruit at a time, a vast improvement over the past when they borrowed a press and accomplished only about three-fourths of a ton in each pressing. One year it took about 50 pressings to get the harvest completed and into the tanks.

Now the process is streamlined with increased tank capacity and temperature controls via tank jacketing and cryo-cooling, which especially helps with keeping white wines cold and fragrant during fermentation.

In a twist on typical Puget Sound wines, Comforts creates a sparkling wine out of the two Madeleines and allows the liquid to ferment within the bottles.

Another experimentation that’s showing great promise is a new “island red” made from Agria grapes grown on Whidbey at the Greenbank Cellars vineyard. Known in the industry as “Old Blood,” the Agria is a red grape with red flesh that produces a deep, dark liquid.

The winery’s other reds come from Eastern Washington, including the Cabernet grapes still fermenting in large containers. Rita and her son, Zach, assistant winemaker at Comforts, “punch down” the fruit three times a day, by hand, using a punch-down tool resembling an oversized potato masher.

“With reds, you want as much skin contact as possible and to extract as much color and flavor as you can,” she said, noting that the meticulously hands-on process lasts for 10 to 12 days while it finishes fermenting.

“You have to baby them,” she said. When she covers them at night, her future daughter-in-law, Liz, who recently moved from Tennessee to join the family and the winery, jokes that Rita is “putting the blankets on and putting them to bed.”

Spoiled Dog Winery

In the early 2000s, Spoiled Dog Winery owners Jack and Karen Krug planted a vineyard of Pinot Noir grapes on their 25-acre property – and the rest is history. Experimenting to find a varietal that would thrive in Whidbey Island’s microclimate paid off, and they now have six “clones” of pinot noir at the winery.

Lindsay Krug, part of the Spoiled Dog winemaking family along with her husband, Jake, explained that clones are basically mutations, but all are pinot noir.

“Some have more fruity flavors, some more spice and others backbone. … Blending these various flavors results in a more complex and appealing pinot noir,” she said, while also noting that they use organic earth-friendly practices, which is a priority for them.

The harvest and crush season at Spoiled Dog is pretty much complete now, after two separate harvests: the first for the winery’s Estate Rosé, and the second for the Estate Pinot Noir. They also get pinot noir grapes from the Hezel Family Vineyard off Bayview Road and make a separate single-vineyard pinot noir from those grapes.

Spoiled Dog follows the community harvest tradition with family, friends and locals who put “hands to harvest” and celebrate afterward with food and wine. Then the next phase begins.

The pinot noir is “vine to bottle” on Whidbey Island. After picking and destemming, the Krugs lets the grapes cold-soak for a few days before the primary fermentation begins. Once the grapes ripen to the right level, according to Lindsay, they are pressed and the resulting pinot noir is racked into French oak barrels for the secondary fermentation and barrel age.

“French oak is critical for a good pinot noir,” explains Lindsay. “We age ours for at least a year in barrel and then again in the bottle.”

Though Spoiled Dog is known for its estate pinot noir, the Krugs, like the owners of other wineries on Whidbey, make numerous trips over the pass to Eastern Washington for truckloads of grapes. The chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and pinot gris, as well as cabernets, merlots, malbecs and blends, all get processed onsite within hours of returning to the island.

All three wineries keep tasting rooms open during the winter months, with varying hours and days. They also participate in events such as the upcoming “Autumn on Whidbey” weekend on Nov. 9 and 10, which is put on by the Whidbey Island Vintners & Distillers Association.

Grape harvesting winds down at Whidbey wineries
Grape harvesting winds down at Whidbey wineries
Sean Karamanyah, forefront, helps Whidbey Island Winery owner Greg Osenbach process grapes during 2019 vineyard harvest, Oct. 2019. Photo by Wendy Leigh / South Whidbey Record

Sean Karamanyah, forefront, helps Whidbey Island Winery owner Greg Osenbach process grapes during 2019 vineyard harvest, Oct. 2019. Photo by Wendy Leigh / South Whidbey Record

Grape harvesting winds down at Whidbey wineries

Sean Karamanyah, forefront, helps Whidbey Island Winery owner Greg Osenbach process grapes during 2019 vineyard harvest, Oct. 2019. Photo by Wendy Leigh / South Whidbey Record