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Watching wine happen during Oregon’s annual grape harvest

Vines give way to Douglas firs and farm fields, as seen from the Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard in Dundee, Ore. (Alex Pulaski/For The Washington Post)

I didn’t realize it at the time, but for one frantic, exhilarating, exhausting September minute, I impersonated an Oregon winemaker.

With a newfound friend’s arms bracing me, and my wife and daughter madly clearing stems and gathering fruit below, my stomping feet released a purple rivulet of grape juice. Granted, our neophyte grape-stomping team’s results proved to be predictably poor, but that fleeting sense of creation lodged its seed in my memory.

That same palpable feeling, on a much grander scale, seems to hang in the air around the fall harvest in Oregon’s scenic Willamette Valley. Fulfillment and trepidation battle for ascendancy as winemakers keep one eye on the sky and another firmly fixed on the grape.

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Weighty questions keep asserting themselves. How soon will it rain? When should we pick? And the biggest of all: Will this be one of those years to remember (a.k.a. lucrative seasons), especially for the region’s prized pinot noirs?

The final answer — that message in a bottle — begins to reveal itself on sorting tables, in fermenting vats and engorged oak barrels. Véronique Boss-Drouhin, who has overseen three decades of Domaine Drouhin winemaking on two continents, seemed hopeful.

“Put your ear here,” Drouhin gently commanded, pointing to a chardonnay barrel whose fruit had been picked nine days before.

Stopper out, head tilted, an insistent low whisper of bubbles in my ear.

“That sound?” she said. “That’s life.”

The Oregon advantage

Oregon’s wines remain far from undiscovered — a Wine Spectator cover story declared the state “an American home” for pinot noir as far back as 2012. Yet compared with the better-known wine regions further south in California — Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara — the Willamette Valley remains relatively uncrowded and unhurried.

At harvest, those two “un” words ofttimes translate to a third — unfettered access to the winemakers themselves. Interspersed with some romantic and memorable meals (such as those at the mushroom-centric Joel Palmer House in Dayton), every opened bottle tells a different story about its authors and when and how their work was captured.

On a September Saturday morning, as the sun fought past a misty rain, my wife and I took the winding drive up Parrett Mountain to the J.K. Carriere winery. Exiting our car, we immediately found owner and winemaker Jim Prosser whistling, walking and toting a shotgun.

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“Robins can eat six times their weight a day in grapes,” Prosser announced, answering our unasked shotgun question. He wields it to frighten the birds, nothing more.

Prosser qualifies as one of Oregon’s most entertaining and talented winemakers. Open a spigot of conversation, whether in front sampling a 2015 Vespidae pinot noir or out back where the 2017 harvest has just begun to ferment, and Prosser’s words flow nonstop:

“The picking decision is the single biggest decision a winemaker makes. Once you cut the grapes they don’t ripen any more.

“What a vineyard represents is potential. It’s not celebrity that makes a great wine — it’s how close you can get to the grapes’ potential.

“What you get from small wineries is a distillation in a glass of what they believe about the world.”

Ask winemakers about their beliefs, their goals, their fluctuating levels of tension and relief at harvest time, and variations on the same refrain emerge.

At Domaine Roy & Fils, winemaker Jared Etzel appeared calm overseeing a production area where that day’s grapes were being sorted, but said, “I always get amped for harvest.”

“The first harvest day is very nerve-racking — it’s like going on a first date,” he said. “You don’t sleep well.”

At Kramer Vineyards, owner Trudy Kramer lent a hand moving tables, chairs and table settings under a veranda after the sky opened scant minutes before guests were to arrive for a harvest dinner.

“Oregon is one of the hardest places in the world to make wine because of the variability of the weather,” she said. “We’ve picked as early as Aug. 23 to as late as Oct. 19. We just never know what is coming.”

During harvest, her daughter and winemaker Kim Kramer says, “I might be kind of a perfectionist psycho but it’s necessary.”

Sharing the harvest with visitors, she says, completes the arc from grape to glass and sometimes creates lifelong fans.

“They come to me three years later and they want to buy that wine because they had the harvest experience,” she said. “There’s only so many weeks in the year when they can come and see that.

“And even though it’s exhausting, we’re giddy.”

The draw of pinot noir

A few years ago, Oregon winemaker Anna Matzinger dabbled in a bit of pinot noir psychoanalysis at my behest, trying to explain to me a grapevine’s motivations and how a winemaker has to anticipate and manipulate (my word, not hers) them.

Essentially, the vine’s primary purpose is to propagate itself. It does so by making its fruit as rosy and sweet and aromatic as it can, to attract birds. The birds — recall Prosser’s warning about robins’ appetites — consume the grapes, seeds and all, and may travel miles away while the seed is moving through the digestive tract, awaiting deposit in the soil.

At harvest, while the grapes are struggling to start their own journey, wine-lovers, like the birds, descend on Oregon vineyards from all over. A harvest luncheon we attended drew visitors from as far away as Brazil, and over breakfast at the sumptuous Black Walnut Inn I found myself listening to Pedro Parra, a wine terroir consultant from Chile.

At Roco Winery, as forklifts buzzed behind grape-laden semis, I ran into Samantha Withall, beverage director at the Hamilton, a restaurant in the District. She was in the middle of a two-week harvest vacation.

“You read about winemaking, and you learn all these terms,” she said. “But actually seeing all the different steps is totally different — it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

There is, perhaps, no better Oregon wine country vantage point than from a second-floor balcony at the Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard. In the early morning and late afternoon, the vineyard rows and nearby Douglas firs cast long shadows over rolling hills that yield to mowed hayfields in the distance.

Time it right and you will see pickers scurrying up and down the rows. We stopped one morning at a neighboring vineyard to observe them snipping bunches, filling their plastic buckets and dumping them into bins. Speed equals money, as they are paid by the bucketful rather than by the hour.

The pace remains quick at the winery crush pads, where the grapes are unloaded, usually de-stemmed mechanically and passed along sorting tables where workers manually remove damaged fruit. But as the grapes ferment in giant vats, a waiting game begins, punctuated by persistent checks of sugar level, temperature, color, acidity — a constant vigilance against something going wrong.

During vat fermenting, workers wield what looks like an oversized plunger to punch down the dense top layer of grape skins. The skins lend the wine its color and character: Take them out and instead of a deep ruby the same pinot noir grapes produce a clear pinot gris.

A handful of wineries have stuck with the old ways for the task of punching down. That means literal legwork.

“The foot is softer than a piece of metal or plastic,” Etzel of Domaine Roy & Fils told me. “Plus, you feel the temperature differences.”

I can relate to that, mostly, based on the event that inaugurated our harvest experience last fall. After a couple of alternating rounds of tacos and wine at the Carlton Crush Harvest Festival, our grape-stomping team made its pedestrian debut.

Afterward, a hose stood at the ready to rinse our tired, grape-skin-littered toes. Every now and then, when I peel back my socks, I search in vain for that tinge of purple that would have labeled these as the feet of a real winemaker.

Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.

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Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard

9600 NE Worden Hill Rd., Dundee


This recently renovated inn, surrounded by its own working vineyard, epitomizes romance and comfort. Nine rooms, each with a balcony, and many with spectacular views of vines and the Willamette Valley. Rooms from $170.

Family Estate

16161 NE McDougall Rd., Dayton


Three guesthouses, from a cozy cottage to a rambling farmhouse that accommodates up to 12, put you right in the middle of a working winery and nearby farm fields. The just-renovated Wine Farm House that we stayed in blends century-old craftsman style with modern conveniences such as flat-screen TVs and a tiny wine refrigerator stocked with wines. Rates from $277 (two-night minimum, no children under 14).

The Joel Palmer House

600 Ferry St., Dayton


Chef/owner Christopher Czarnecki’s artistic creations showcase mushrooms, truffles and other seasonal Oregon fare in an elegant, romantic country house. The Oregon-centric wine list runs 600 wide and a quarter-century deep. Three courses for $59, or five for $85.

Red Hills Market

155 SW Seventh St., Dundee


The word “market” doesn’t really convey the wood-fired goodness — bread, pizza, sandwiches — on display in a casual, comfy but deservedly crowded setting. Plenty of craft beer, wine and cured meats and cheeses as well. Appetizers from $5, main dishes from $9.

Winemaker Dinner: Harvest Celebration

Kramer Vineyards

26830 NW Olson Rd., Gaston


The caterer changes periodically, but not the lovely hilltop patio setting amid the vines. Winemaker Kim Kramer and other family members mingle with guests sampling the breadth of the winery’s cellar, including library offerings such as a 2016 Cardiac Hill pinot noir. Sept. 8, 2018; cost: $125.

Winderlea Harvest Luncheon

Winderlea Vineyard and Winery

8905 NE Worden Hill Rd., Dundee


Owners Bill Sweat and Donna Morris answer questions in an intimate gathering with spectacular views of the Willamette Valley. Sept. 28, 2018; cost: $65.

Carlton Crush Harvest Festival

Lower Wennerberg Park, Carlton

Wine, craft beers, food, a kids’ watermelon-eating contest, live music and four-person teams stomping grapes — what could be more fun? Sept. 8, 2018. Entry and parking are free; tasting fees vary; grape stomp entry fee is $100 for a team of four.

J.K. Carriere

9995 NE Parrett Mountain Rd., Newberg


Winemaker/owner Jim Prosser is simply a delight, as are his high-acid and food-friendly pinots. Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays or Monday through Thursday by appointment. Tasting flights are $10 or $20, depending on vintage.

Stoller Family Estate

16161 NE McDougall Rd., Dayton


Magnificent hilltop setting cannot be beat on a sunny afternoon; emerging Chardonnays, accessible pinots and more. Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Tasting fee of $20 is waived with a two-bottle purchase.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon

6750 N.E. Breyman Orchards Rd., Dayton


One of the timeless classics on the Oregon wine scene; elegant pinots and Chardonnays and a viewing deck to match. Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Tastings are $20.

Matzinger Davies

Winemaker Anna Matzinger made her bones at Archery Summit and since 2006 has reigned over a tiny winery with big expectations. Tastings are by appointment only, but wines can be purchased at the Rex Hill winery tasting room (30835 N. Hwy. 99W, Newberg), open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Archer Vineyard

32230 NE Old Parrett Mountain Rd., Newberg


Old vines and bold wines, and about as close as you can get to wine country from Portland. Owner Saj Jivanjee, an architect by trade, says he wants his wines to connect people. Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Wednesdays. Tastings are $15, waived with a two-bottle purchase.

Domaine Roy & Fils

8351 NE Worden Hill Rd., Dundee


Beautiful Dundee Hills location and an impeccable winemaking pedigree, from the sons of the founders of the Beaux Frères winery. Tasting room open daily by appointment. Tastings are $25, waived with a one-bottle purchase.

Roco Winery

13260 NE Red Hills Rd., Newberg


The dynamic winemaking duo of Rollin (Argyle Winery’s founding winemaker) and Corby (former co-owner of Panther Creek) Soles have melded their first names and talents into Roco, home to distinctive sparkling wine, chardonnay and pinot noir. Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tastings are $15 or $20, based on the vintage, and waived with a three-bottle purchase.

L’ Angolo Estate

18830 NE Williamson Rd., Newberg


Upstart family-run operation brought its first harvest in during 2015, but if that pinot noir is any indication, expect big happenings on the horizon. Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday-Monday or by appointment. Tastings are $20, waived with a two-bottle purchase.