Hopes high for vintage

POLK COUNTY -- It's a magical time in vineyards around Polk County. The harvest is in, with indications that beautiful weather in September and October shifted the season from worrisome to possibly

POLK COUNTY -- It's a magical time in vineyards around Polk County.

The harvest is in, with indications that beautiful weather in September and October shifted the season from worrisome to possibly wonderful.

Ken Cook, the winemaker and vineyard manager at Cherry Hill Winery in Rickreall, certainly has high hopes for the vintage.

He said when it was time for the harvest -- about two to three weeks later than normal -- the berries were supple and had good flavor and aroma.

However, less than optimal spring weather resulted in lower yields, according to an Oregon Wine Board preliminary harvest report. In addition, a relentless late season bird assault on the grapes didn't help matters. Huge flocks of birds, many unafraid of deafening propane cannons used by many vineyards, would descend on the rows throughout the season.

At Cherry Hill, vineyard workers were forced to resort to chasing them with a shotgun.

Despite those difficulties, the grapes that were harvested were ripe for winemaking.

While acidity and sugar levels can be tweaked in the winery after harvest, some details have to be left to Mother Nature.

"You can't alter the ripeness," Cook said. "That has to be done in the field."

Late, but sufficient, sunny weather in October seems to have done the job.

"It truly could have been a disaster," Cook said. "But it shaped up and turned into a good opportunity."

In the last few weeks, the "what ifs" of the growing season are far from the winemaker's mind because it was time to take the fields' bounty and turn it into wine.

From field to barrel is a short, but busy time at the vineyard.

"You just move so much," Cook said. "I've lost seven pounds."

Harvest and initial processing filled seven tanks of pinot noir grapes, the largest of which held seven tons, in Cherry Hill's cellar.

Twice a day during fermentation, the winery's small crew -- Cook and temporary assistants Evi Martin and Tim Faytinger -- stir up the tanks. They use a pulse air unit device to break up a cap of grapes, seeds and skins that float to the top of the tanks. Then the tanks are covered and left to work the grapes into wine on their own again.

Cook said plunging the cap in the liquid allows colors, flavors and aromas in the grapes to be released into the wine.

At the end of fermentation -- 10 or more days at Cherry Hill -- activity at the winery picks up as Cook and crew begin pressing the wine. At that point, for all intents and purposes, what is in the tanks is wine.

"It's an exciting time," Cook said. "You get to see what you've worked so hard to do."

Cherry Hill uses a pneumatic bladder press, which rotates the solids -- not unlike a clothes dryer -- to squeeze out liquids. In the final step, a "bladder" inside the press fills with air to force out any liquid left.

Pressing starts with free-flowing wine being pumped out of the fermenting tank. The rest -- grapes, seeds, skins and remaining wine -- are drained or pulled out of the tank into half ton bins. The fragrant soup is then pushed outside to the press, lifted with a forklift and poured into the gigantic machine. Seconds later, a deep purple shower of wine escapes tiny holes in the belly of the press and into a holding pan.

Cook and his team repeat this process several times until only shriveled grapes that have to be raked out remain. But they, too, must go into the press, so Cook employs a clever technique to flush out the grapes.

Running a hose from the tank holding the free-flowing wine from the batch going to press, he blasts the grapes with a river of wine firefighting style into a waiting bin.

When all the material is in the press, Cook turns it on. The weight of the solids shifting around continue the process of "juicing" out the wine. Later he will employ the bladder -- using air to fill a pouch -- to squeeze the rest of the liquid out.

The pressed wine is then pumped to a holding tank until it is put into barrels a few hours later.

The team repeats the process, pressing one tank each day.

This year was Martin's first experience working in a commercial winery. She described the process as "short, but intense." Martin has made homemade wines before, but nothing on the scale of Cherry Hill.

"It's been great -- hard work, really hard work," she said.

In about 12 to 18 months, the fruit of that labor will be bottled and offered to customers.

After a roller coaster year for Cherry Hill and other area vineyards, Cook is optimistic.

"So far, what we are seeing is the potential for really good wines," he said.

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