RIDGEFIELD — On a bright, picture-perfect morning in late September, Joe Leadingham plucked a pair of golubok grapes from the vine at Stavalaura Vineyards.
He mashed one between two fingers, watching the pulp run into the crevices of his hand and stain an indigo trail. He popped the other one into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
He was using his touch, taste, sight and smell — along with a healthy dose of intuition — to decide whether or not it was time to harvest.
“For each color, there’s a set of stuff that goes with it. Right now, if you taste the skin and work your way to the center — the sweetness, when it’s consistent all the way through, that shows you the grape is ready,” Leadingham said.
He sized up the grapes on the vines and eyed the weather for the week. It was going to be mild, with highs in the 60s, though Clark County isn’t known for its predictable weather.
In the end, he decided to gamble and wait until the first Saturday of October. It’s a late harvest this season.
“This year, the bud break was three weeks late for me,” Leadinghamsaid. “We had all that heat, so the plant tries to catch up, then wehave all this mild weather and it says, wait a minute.”
It’s all about the timing. When grapes are harvested at just the righttime, the wine practically makes itself, he said. But the more he has to tinker with the acidity and sugar content, the more he loses from the natural flavors of the wine. Sometimes, he said, making wine is about knowing when to let the grapes speak for themselves. It’s a science, but it’s also an art.
“You can make wine chemically perfect, and it’ll be just flat,” Leadingham said. “You gotta know when to stop making it chemicallyperfect, because that does not necessarily make good wine.”
There’s certainly good wine to be had in Southwest Washington, which over the last few years has stealthily crept up as a premier region inthe state for growing and tasting.
Vineyards and wineries are cropping up across Clark County, especially in the rural areas surrounding Ridgefield and Battle Ground, where cheap land and pebbled soil make for good grape-growing conditions.
Clark County’s formal wine industry traces back nearly 40 years. It first took root in 1980, when Carl English planted grapes at what would eventually become English Estate Winery. Through the 1990s and 2000s, a smattering of wineries and vineyards operated in the region.
But in just the last few years, a campaign to organize and brand the wine industry in Clark County began to take shape.
The Southwest Washington Winery Association formed in 2016 to “promoteand encourage the development and growth of the grape wine industry in Clark County,” according to SWWA President Richard Meyerhoefer, of Emanar Cellars.
Upon its founding, the association had 11 members. In two years, membership has more than doubled, growing to include 24 wineries,vineyards, restaurants and oenophiles.
The next step is to establish the region as an American Viticulture Area, which would formally recognize Clark County as wine country and improve branding and marketing prospects for association members.
In the spring, the SWWA formed a task force to gather and analyze data and topographic maps of the region, said Roger Rezabek, owner of Rezabek Vineyards and acting task force chair.
“For the petition, we will need to provide evidence to the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau that justifies the name chosen for the proposed AVA, climatic, and geological information, and our history of viticulture and winemaking in the region,” he wrote in an email to The Columbian.
There are around 30 commercial wineries in Southwest Washington, two-thirds of which are in Clark County. Cumulatively, they cover around 120 acres.
“It’s a long process that will take a couple of years, but it will allow this region of the state to finally gain the recognition as an official American Viticultural Area, and will allow local winemakers to include ‘Estate Bottled’ on their wine labels,” Rezabek wrote.
Currently, there are 14 AVAs in Washington recognized by the TTB.That list includes the Columbia Valley and the Walla Walla Valley, well-established regions for growing and tasting. Just 60 miles to the south is the wine-producing behemoth of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where lighter rainfall and hotter summers make for more favorableconditions.
Part of the challenge for Clark County is establishing an identity separate from that of its better-known wine-producing neighbors.
Growing wine in the Pacific Northwest can pose a challenge.
June through October, Clark County sees an average of 29 days of rain.The weather is unpredictable, and the summers are a few degrees cooler than those in regions to the south and east.
Conditions aren’t optimal for some of the rich, jammy varietals that require plenty of heat, though light and delicate wines — like riesling, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir — can thrive.
The trick, according to Tom Thornton of Bellingham’s Cloud Mountain Farm Center, is to pick grapes that can adapt to fewer hours of sunlight and wetter conditions. Mold is an especially persistent problem for Washington and Oregon winemakers.
“You’ve got to manage the response to all that rain,” Thornton said.”It’s not a low-input crop for people.”
By selecting and nurturing some rarer grapes, Washington winemakers can carve out a niche for themselves, distinguishing themselves from more well-established winemaking regions.
Thornton runs a 20-year grape trial through Washington State University’s viticulture school, sourcing interesting varietals fromall over the world to help growers know what they can expect. He’s the one who nudged Leadingham toward more unusual wine grapes a few yearsago — the golubok, which hails from Russia, and zweigeltrebe, an Austrian varietal.
“You can find a bottle of zweigelt here and there, but they’re really odd ducks,” Thornton said. Zweigeltrebe is a fruity, floral red that draws comparison to a pinot noir, and Thornton said it does best as a commercial variety in cool climates throughout the world.
“Up here it does really well,” Thornton said.
Golubok is spicy and a blackened, inky red, the kind of heavy wine that pairs well with a marbled steak.
It’s also Leadingham’s personal favorite, though it takes some getting used to.
“When I first made it, I didn’t know what the heck I was tasting,”Leadingham laughed. “It doesn’t taste like a cab or zin. It’s just a different flavor.”
Stavalaura was founded on trial and error — in fact, it started out as a ninth-grade horticulture project for Leadingham’s daughter, Laura, who was trying to avoid dissecting frogs for a science class.
She got the green light from her teacher to grow grapes instead, and so she and Leadingham raised a few pinot vines.
“I didn’t know anything about grapes, but they just took off like crazy,” Leadingham said. “I thought, maybe I should try to do this.”
A retired airline pilot, Leadingham is always looking to learn something. There’s a “fun-factor,” he said, to cultivating a skill from scratch, even if his one-man winemaking operation takes an enormousamount of work.
“There’s the good, the bad and the ugly, but I gotta say the good part out-percentages the others by far,” he said.