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Long awaited harvest begins at Day Road vineyards
Cool weather makes for a late harvest at Day Road vineyards.
Gray days have been the backdrop for island agriculture this year.
A soggy spring, brief summer and the fast return of fall have added up to an especially challenging season for winegrowers.
The grape harvest began in earnest at Day Road farms Saturday, already weeks later than in previous years. Ordinarily the harvest would be nearly complete by this time in October, but so far only about half the crop has been picked, said Gerard Bentryn, who runs Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery with wife Jo Ann.
“It’s been the latest in 31 years,” he said.
On an overcast Monday morning, Bentryn and Betsey Wittick were using a mechanical press to squeeze the juices from a first harvest of pale green Madeleine Angevine grapes. Slower developing varieties – including Müller-Thurgau and Pinot Noir – have yet to be picked, which is worrisome for the farmers.
The longer the grapes stay on the vine, the more hungry animals and foul weather will take their toll, and the greater the chance the crop may not fully ripen.
“What we’ve harvested this year has been very good quality,” Wittick said, taking a rest from raking grape pulp over a steel grate. “It just scares us because if it backs us up two weeks it will push us to the end of October, and we don’t historically have good weather then.”
The crop is tardy, but so far not lacking in quality, Bentryn said.
After the grapes are plucked from the vines they are tested for sugar content and acidity levels. Grapes grown in the cool Puget Sound climate tend to be rich in acids but light in sugars, and imbued with delicate, aromatic character.
Bentryn said the Madeleine Angevine has shown levels on par with years past and will make a quality wine. If later-ripening varieties like the Pinot Noir don’t measure to his standards, Bentryn simply won’t harvest them.
Mike Lempriere of Perennial Vintners, which leases a portion of Bentryn’s vineyard and cultivates a parcel of its own vines, is optimistic that the later varieties will ripen well. But he has a plan in mind if they don’t.
“At worst we’ll turn it into sparkling wine,” Lempriere said.
Realizing the season was lagging earlier this year, Lempriere cut potential losses by trimming a percentage of unripe grapes from his Melon de Bourgogne vines. It’s a common practice that speeds the ripening of the remaining grapes. But instead of discarding the unripe berries, Lempriere crushed them into a tart grape juice that can be used in cooking. It was a hit at the Bainbridge farmer’s market.
“Instead of throwing away the grapes we were able to make a little money,” Lempriere said.
The impact of the cold season won’t be known until the end of the month when the last of the grapes are brought in. Though growing conditions are the worst Bentryn can recall, he said it shouldn’t impact the final product.
“We’ve never lost a crop, and people have liked the wine every year we’ve made it,” he said.
However, this harvest season turns out, Bentryn will be ready for a rest.
At 69, he still showed vigor operating the grape press alongside Wittick Monday, but he’s quick to admit that 26 harvests have sapped his energy. Each year there are hundreds of tedious hours spent pruning, shaping and weeding the roughly 14,000 plants lining the fields off Day Road.
Bentryn said he has never tallied up the work hours that go into a bottle of his wine.
“If we did, we would probably quit,” he said.
By comparison, the fall harvest feels easy.
This winter, Bentryn and Jo Ann plan to take a three-month hiatus from Island Vineyards, their first real vacation from farming in more than six years. When they return they will be looking for ways of restructuring the business to lessen their part in the labor.
Eventually Bentryn would like to pass the business on to younger farmers, not yet weary of the finger-aching work and the worry of cold springs.