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Harvest starts early for Woodinville wineries

The Woodinville Weekly of Woodinville, Washington

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It's that time of year again. The beginning of the some of the busiest weeks of the wine maker's whole year: crush. And it is early.

The hot summer means grapes in Eastern Washington are ripening early, which signals go-time for Woodinville wineries: get the grapes picked, trucked over the Cascades, sorted, crushed and the fermenting process started.

At JM Cellars, grapes are typically crushed within 12 hours of being picked.

"You want them as fresh as possible," said JM Cellars' Susan Berns. Getting the grapes processed requires more hands than are usually on staff at most wineries. That's where the volunteers come in. Lots of people just want to be a part of the wine making process. Wineries usually bring them in during crush.

"This is the time of year when we need a few extra hands," Berns said. She's the volunteer coordinator. She has a list of people waiting to get their hands, and feet, dirty helping make wine. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer can email

At JM Cellars, grapes go through a machine that separates the grapes from the leaves and stems. Volunteers are needed to pick out by hand any straggling stems or leaves before the grapes get crushed.

"It's a great educational opportunity to just understand how wine gets into the bottle," Berns said. And at JM Cellars, volunteers get to be a part of an old-school method of winemaking.

"I actually do foot-stomping of our grapes," said john Bigelow, owner and wine maker at JM Cellars. All the grapes for the red wines are crushed the old-fashioned way. Stomping them by foot brings just enough juice out, but leaves many grapes partially intact.

"That just really adds a beautiful fruit forward flavor to the wine," Bigelow said.

Doing it that way is also labor intensive, but that's where the volunteers come in.

Most volunteers are members of the JM Cellars wine club.

"It's just another one of those things that adds to being a member of the JM Cellars family," Bigelow said.

After sorting, volunteers — with food-grade plastic bags over their feet, Bigelow assured — can stomp the grapes. It just takes about five minutes.

"They are surprised at how much of a workout it is, in just five minutes," Bigelow said. "It's amazing."

It's hard work, but fun. "I see more smiles than you can believe," he said.

This is all happening a few weeks earlier than usual. Usually crush starts later and lasts through October. This year Bigelow said he might actually get to enjoy Halloween for once.

Warm weather ripens grapes faster. According to Bigelow, it also makes them tastier.

"It's been warm," Bigelow said. "Wine grapes love warm. So they're going to be really concentrated, juicy."

He is optimistic about this year's wine. "The fruit has just been phenomenal," he said. "It's potentially going to be one of the great years out of Washington state."

Gordon Rawson, owner and wine maker at Chatter Creek Winery, doesn't exactly share Bigelow's enthusiasm.

"I think it's going to be a pretty good year," he said. Then again, he also said he's a pessimist.

Rawson has already been crushing grapes for Chardonnay; normally that wouldn't start until mid-or late September. The early season has left him without many of his usual volunteers. While Chatter Creek doesn't stomp grapes manually, volunteers are needed to remove stems, leaves and grapes that are less than perfect.

"This year with grapes coming in so early, a lot of the usual volunteers are still out [on vacation]," he said. He gets his volunteers from people who sign up for the Chatter Creek mailing list. That can be done at, and there's a box on the form to check for those interested in volunteering.

People like getting involved with the winery, Rawson said, because while it is work, it's not their usual work.

"I have people who live normal lives as lawyers and engineers," he said. "Here they get to get their hands dirty and yak with people."

The social element is a big draw.

"It's really social," he said. "You meet a lot of neat people."

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Original Publication Date: September 7, 2015

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