Road Trip One: Quest for Merlot

The Gorge a little after dawn, heading eastThere’s nothing quite like the first run of the season. It’s early and dim, but it isn’t long before you’ve shaken the Portland traffic and the sun starts to rise, raking across the suede hills on the other side of the Columbia and shimmering the mist rising off of it. On the second, third, and fourth runs… well, it’ll still be stunning, but the season will then be a little older, a little more corporeal, not quite as lush with promise — its ineffability worn thin enough in some places to reveal the eff’ing tedious 8 hour slog up and down I-84 that whizzed right by on the first run.

So I tried to pay attention as I pointed the Ziptruck east toward the Tri Cities and Merlot from Horse Heaven. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to pay attention to traffic reports before I set out, so I was also rewarded with a bridge closure at Maryhill and an hour-long detour. It beats working, don’t get me wrong, but also meant the fruit would get that much warmer as the day got hotter.

You want cold fruit for the same reason you keep things cool in a refrigerator: to slow down the inevitable feast by micro- and other card-carrying organisms. That slows down spoilage, of course, but in this case, also helps to put off the drunken riot yeasts will start once they get a taste of the good stuff. We like to crush and give the juice a little quality time with the skins (where most of the flavor comes from), but once the yeasts show up, that romantic evening for two quickly accelerates into table dancing, beer bongs, and karaoke.

I didn’t pull into the vineyard until nearly noon. The affable grower rounded up a crew to gather the yellow totes of fruit, left by the pickers up and down the rows where they’d filled them, but by the time it hit the back of the truck the clusters were easily over 70 degrees…


Of course, you can always cool things down later, but there’s something elegant (and less expensive) with letting the great outdoors do it for you. So I was already thinking about dry ice when I pulled out our refractometer (a gizmo for measuring sugar) to get a glimpse of how ripe our fruit was.

    First squeeze: 30 brix. Woah! Well, sure, some clusters will always be riper than others…
    Second squeeze: 30 brix. Uh, woah. Well, like I was saying, some clusters…
    Third squeeze: 30 brix. Shit.

Now, I hope you’ve forgotten my earlier post about how sugar tests in the field are often (though not always) higher than the sugars turn out to be. “In my experience…” I brayed, confident that the grower’s report of 25-27 brix a few days ago was on the high side.

Mmmmm… crow. So tasty… So (mfff) many (urrgn) feathers…

Yeah, that’s ripe. Way ripe. 18% alcohol, instant Port, rocket fuel ripe. The grower was clearly embarrassed, at least, and hopefully he’ll keep better tabs on the syrah we’ll be picking up in the next week. But on the plus side, it was packed with flavor, if a little lacking in backbone. So I spent much of the ride home plotting about what we could do to keep our Merlot out of the space program, and luckily, we have a few tricks that should save the day.

But first, we had to crush them. To be continued…


Alder Canyon and the hat that calls it home.


1500 lbs of ripe Merlot leaving its lunar home for the flight back to earth.

1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Corranc October 3rd, 2008 9:20 am

    Whatever the numbers are, it looks like an invigorating trip. Thanx for the photos, for all of us who missed out!