Producing Organic Wine & Value-Added Products
For the last farm walk of the 2014 season, we visited China Bend Winery, located on Lake Roosevelt near Kettle Falls, WA. Owners Bart and Victory Alexander shared their passion for the art of organic wine-making using their estate grown grapes. A dozen attendees were even able to see their grape harvest and crush in process.
Bart and Victory purchased the land forty years ago and began planting the vineyard in the early 1980s. They were growing their grapes organically before certification even existed. In the process of developing their vineyard, they experimented with seventy-two different varieties of grapes that they sourced from around the world. In the end, they found seven varieties that were well suited for their climate and soil. Victory also grows a little over an acre of vegetables that she utilizes in her value-added products such as dilly beans, salsa, jam, jelly, hummus, pesto, and various other dips. She processes on-site in their certified kitchen and sells to various local farmers markets, on-line, and at the barter fair in Okanogan County.
Bart keeps his own nursery stock of grape plants that he has grafted from cuttings he gets when they prune the vineyard in the spring. The vineyard is planted in small manageable blocks as Bart found there to be different soil types across the vineyard acreage. In an average year, they will harvest four tons of grapes per acre. Bart limits the yield to enhance wine quality in flavors and sugar content. When he initially planted the vineyard, Bart installed overhead irrigation, but he suggested that anyone planting a new vineyard invest in drip irrigation. During this past growing season, Bart shared that he only irrigated once.
As attendees walked through the vineyard, Bart explained that making good wine is often times more art than science and making quality estate wine comes down to growing grapes that grow well on your land. During the fall, he’ll systemically sample grape blocks for the flavors developing and test the sugar or “brix” level with a refractometer. He deems the grapes harvestable when they have developed a good flavor (what he called a “wow” flavor) and when the brix level is between 23-24%. Bart also looks for a pH between 3.3-3.4. Attendees were able to observe China Bend employees harvesting ‘Leon Millot’ grapes and also the initial crushing of these grapes. China Bend will harvest grapes from the end of September through October.
Once crushed, the grapes are allowed to begin initial fermentation. Bart and his winemaker, Loyal, use both natural and commercial yeast to get fermentation started. Since China Bend doesn’t utilize any additives to control for spoilage, Bart shared that he doesn’t feel secure until the grapes start fermenting and the chance for contamination is lower. Loyal demonstrated how he punches the cap on grapes completing initial fermentation. This releases carbon dioxide or what is known as “monk’s breath”. They aim for the wine to reach an alcohol content of around 12.5%.
After initial fermentation in tanks, the wine is put into bladders for up to three months to allow solids to settle out. The wine is then pumped into oak barrels where it is allowed to age for two years. China Bend does not rack, filter, add sulfites, or add any other additives to their wine.
At the end of the walk Bart gave tastings of the wine to all attendees. It was great to see the whole process from grape harvest to the tasting of the final product.
This project is supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov, a component of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.