Hot spot for Pinot Noir
Growing Pinot Noir wine grapes in sandy soil requires frequent, but light watering.
Lois and Mike Thiede's Ginkgo Forest Winery is near the Petrified Ginkgo Forest State Park. They have planted hundreds of ginkgo trees near the winery to create their own "ginkgo forest."
What started out as a challenge to prove someone wrong turned into an award-winning Pinot Noir wine—made in the unlikely wine appellation of Washington's Wahluke Slope.
Pinot Noir has the reputation of being one of the most challenging and fickle wine grape cultivars to grow. It needs warm days but cool nights and is very temperature sensitive. Vintners in Oregon's Willamette Valley have developed a cult-like following for many of the Pinot wines produced there, but it's hardly a signature grape for Washington growers. Only 800 tons of Pinot grapes (out of 70,200 tons of total red varieties) were used by Washington wineries in 2008, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
Mike and Lois Thiede, owners of Thiede Farms LLC in Mattawa, Washington, planted their first Pinot Noir grapes (Dijon clone 777) eight years ago as a trial in their Ginkgo Forest Vineyards.
"The Pinot started as an experiment just because someone said 'you can't do it,'" Mike said, adding that he loves to experiment and worked for many years on the Arid Lands Ecology project at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
In 2005, the Thiedes harvested their first Pinot Noir, selling some of the grapes to a small winery and making 45 cases of Pinot Noir wines to sell through their small winery, Ginkgo Forest Winery. Both the 2005 and 2006 vintages are sold out.
Mike, who doubles as the winemaker, described the 2006 vintage as a "test." He wanted to see what his Pinot Noir grapes were capable of, so he made the wine without any modifications—just the grapes and Pinot Noir yeast.
The test was an overwhelming success. The Ginkgo Forest Winery's 2006 Pinot Noir was the winning Pinot at the 22nd annual Ray's Boathouse Northwest wine competition held in January. From a blind tasting, the panel of judges consisting of sommeliers, wine writers, and local wine experts chose the top 5 wines from 11 categories. Nearly 400 wines were submitted for the Seattle restaurant's competition.
"I feel a little sheepish to win the award, beating the big guys from Oregon," Mike said. "I'm probably as shocked as much as anyone else. I beat $60 Pinots with my $20 bottle. My four acres beat 32 entries of Pinot Noir wines from Oregon."
Watch the water
Growing Pinot Noir in the Wahluke Slope, one of Washington State's warmest appellations, requires careful attention to the soil and vine water balance. Mike installed a separate irrigation system for the Pinot Noir rows so the vines can be watered independently of the rest of the block.
"If you stress them too much, you'll have shriveled berries," he said, adding that his sandy soil means frequent irrigations—every other day during hot months—in small amounts. He notes that the sandy soil contributes to higher pH in some grape varieties.
Worried about potential problems from the heat, he initially planted the Pinot Noir vines 2.5 feet apart with rows in a 9-foot spacing. He wanted a tight spacing that would keep the canopy thick for protection from sunburn. More recently, he has planted vines five feet apart, but is keeping the 9-foot rows.
His average production volume is around three tons per acre, although he thinks that he was closer to four tons per acre last year.
An advantage of growing Pinot Noir in Mattawa is the lack of rainfall at harvest compared to what often occurs in Oregon. "In 2006, Oregon growers struggled to get one ton per acre because of the rain during fall," he noted.
For many years, both Mike and Lois worked on the Hanford Project by day and in their apple and cherry orchards in the evenings and on weekends. While growing tree fruit, Mike watched neighbor and wine mentor Doug Fries of Duck Pond Cellars in Dundee, Oregon, and Desert Wind Winery in Washington, plant more than 400 acres of wine grapes in the area, including the Pinot Noir variety. (Fries won fourth place with his Pinot Noir wine in the Ray's Boathouse wine competition.)
The Thiedes left Hanford almost 15 years ago to focus solely on farming. Today, they have about 140 acres total, with nearly 30 of that planted to wine grapes.
"We started planting grapes with the intention that we would eventually build our own winery," Mike said. The orchard subsidized construction of the winery, which opened with a tasting room (run by Lois) and full-scale laboratory in September 2007.
Wahluke Slope is home to about 5,200 acres of grapes, but there are few wineries in the AVA and even fewer that are open to the public for tasting and direct sales. Only the Thiedes, with their Ginkgo Forest Winery, and Fox Estate Wines, both located on State Highway 243, are open to the public. Other Wahluke Slope wineries are either custom-crush facilities or have tasting rooms in more traveled locations, like Prosser.
Mike knows it's virgin wine-tasting territory with unknown potential to draw visitors. It's a risk he admits, but "This is where we grow our grapes and where we want to have our winery. The hardest thing is not to overproduce. It takes a lot to build up your reputation and sales."
Ideally, Mike and Lois would like to sell all of their wines through the tasting room, but currently use a wine agent to help promote their wines to Seattle restaurants and wine shops and a distributor in Grant County to reach eastern Washington retail markets. They will be bottling around 1,000 cases this year.
About half of their grape production is kept for their estate wines, with the other half sold to small wineries. While they initially produced wines from the mainstay red varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot—and the white Gewürztraminer, they have added small amounts of other varieties, producing about three tons of each for use in blending. Varieties include Pinot Noir, Grenache, Barbara, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmerne, Sangiovese, Mourvèdre, Viognier, and Riesling.
With an overabundance of Syrah vines, Mike grafted several rows over to Pinot Noir in April, using scion wood from his own vines.