Clutching a giant cluster of grapes in each hand, Davide Trezzi thrusts his arms toward the Green Bluff sky. “Look at this,” he says, carrying the deep purple barbera grapes as he walks between rows in the small vineyard. “Beautiful.” It was the moment he’d dreamed of three years ago as he and his wife, Stephanie, tended the tiny twigs that would become their grapevines – the harvest they barely dared imagine until gloved hands with clippers, and buckets overflowing with ripe fruit, made it real last week.
“Every barbera is different. Every cabernet is different, right? It will be different here,” says Trezzi, his words heavily accented by his Italian heritage.
“This barbera will be completely different. Instead of Italian style, it will be Green Bluff style. It will be Spokane style; that is what we need it to be.”
Davide’s enthusiasm draws smiles from the friends helping in the vineyard beside The Barn on Trezzi Farm on the cold but sunny October morning.
Leaves that had been lush, wide and green just weeks ago are shriveled and falling from the vines. An early frost ended the possibility of keeping the grapes on the vines any longer, though that makes it easy for the harvesters to see the fruit and cradle the heavy clusters as they cut them from the vines.
As they toil, they enjoy Trezzi’s ebullient mood. They know how hard he’s worked for this moment.
“We were just saying this morning that if we had known it was going to be this much work, I don’t know if we would have done it,” says Stephanie Trezzi. “I’m glad we didn’t know.”
In addition to the grapes, the Trezzis run a catering business, featuring the simple, fresh foods Davide grew up with in Northern Italy. They sell pesto, soup and lasagnas from the barn, which doubles as their home, and at area farmers’ markets.
Growing wine grapes around the Spokane area is a challenge, to understate it. Some might consider it a waste of time and money.
“I tell people if they are thinking of growing grapes, to think again – to think 10 times,” Davide Trezzi says.
After all, it was snowing in his small vineyard on June 10 this year. Hail threatened to destroy the delicate blossoms. Gusting winds blew the vines down off the trellises.
“I thought I had lost the whole thing,” he says. “I was very devastated, but Stephanie and Don said, ‘Don’t give up.’ ”
The Don he’s talking about is his good friend, winemaker Don Townshend. Townshend promised years ago that if anyone ever successfully grew Green Bluff grapes he would happily usher them into a corked bottle.
On this blue-sky fall day, he’s brushing aside the crumbling leaves and cutting grapes from the Trezzi vines.
“It looked awful,” Townshend says of the 2.5-acre vineyard after the summer storm. “But I think he probably only lost about 10 percent.”
Mercy Olmstead, viticulture specialist for Washington State University extension in Prosser, says Spokane area growers get pinched between late spring storms that can damage plant buds and early fall frosts that strip the plants’ ability to photosynthesize. The result can be grapes without enough sugars, often measured in brix, for winemaking.
The Columbia Valley, one of the state’s premiere growing regions, has many advantages, Olmstead says. The growing season is longer and it’s warmer and sunnier.
“There are probably about 300 to 320 days of sun here each year,” she says.
Winter there is milder, too. Harsh arctic cold has been known to destroy vines in Eastern Washington.
Of course, that doesn’t mean growing grapes at this end of the state is impossible.
China Bend Winery near Colville grows and makes wine from French-American hybrid vines, which ripen during a shorter growing season, Olmstead says.
At Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay vines cling to a south-facing slope above the Spokane Valley.
Winemaker Kristina Mielke-Van Loben Sels says they use the fruit to make a sparkling wine, with the help of Mountain Dome, that is sold only at the Arbor Crest tasting room.
The vines were planted by her uncle, David Mielke, who experimented starting in the 1970s by planting many different grape varieties near the winery’s production facility on the valley floor.
Although the vines in the valley were killed by frost, those planted later near the Cliff House have survived. Air flow down the slope prevents cold air from settling over the vines, unlike those below.
Mielke Van-Loben Sels says it was her grandfather who first considered the possibilities for wine grapes for Arbor Crest. She has a letter he received from WSU in 1940 after he wrote to inquire about the possibilities for vines in the fertile Spokane Valley fields.
“Some years it will produce some beautiful fruit and other years it doesn’t. It’s pretty inconsistent,” Mielke-Van Loben Sels says.
Because of the lower sugar content, the grapes are usually used for sparkling wine. But some years the grapes have enough sugar for traditional wines – what winemakers call “still” wines.
South of Spokane, where the hills above the city begin to give way to the Palouse, Lone Canary winery owner Steve Schaub has been experimenting with wine grapes in a 1 1/2-acre vineyard near his house since 2000.
He first tried white varietals including chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot blanc and a bit of riesling. He began adding pinot noir to the vineyard the following year.
It was the pinot noir that thrived.
Tending the vines is hard work, Schaub acknowledges. In the arctic cold during the winter of 2004, his vines died to the ground and he had to bring them up again from the ground that spring.
The same day the Trezzis were cutting grapes from the vines at Green Bluff, Schaub and friends also harvested a ton and a half of grapes – about two-thirds pinot noir and one-third pinot gris – from his vineyard. Because of the early frost, they’ll work with Mountain Dome winemakers to make a sparkling wine from the grapes.
Lone Canary has also made a pinot noir that was a blend of the 2005 and 2006 harvests from the vineyard. It sold out to wine club members.
The 2007 vintage pinot noir is in barrels and will be bottled in coming weeks. It will be offered first to wine club members when it is released next spring or early summer.
“You know there is something very satisfying growing your own, in this case, grapes … and then enjoying it as a finished product,” Schaub says.
“One of the principal reasons I guess I do it is that I’ve loved bringing these vines along from little babies to where they can produce a wonderful wine.”
There are others dabbling in grape growing in the area. Beacon Hill Events Center owner Pete Rayner is nurturing chardonnay, cabernet franc, tempranillo and gewürztraminer vines to the northeast, and Schaub has noticed some tucked into the hills beside other homes south of Spokane.
Despite the uncertainties, the Trezzis were heartened by last week’s harvest. They estimate the crop yielded about 5 tons of barbera grapes, with a little bit of dolcetto.
They’ve already planted nebbiollo vines, another Italian wine grape from Davide’s childhood home in Northern Italy. They will add pinot grigio grapes to the vineyard next year.
They hope to release the wine made from this year’s harvest – what they believe will be the first made exclusively from Green Bluff grapes – in 2010.
As grapes are transferred from five-gallon buckets into larger bins, one cluster hits the ground.
“Oh no, what if they hit the dirt?” asks Marjie Decker, a neighbor and friend who is helping with the harvest.
“That’s OK. It adds complexity,” winemaker Townshend answers.
Among the other pickers is Shahrokh Nikfar, who met the Trezzis in California and later introduced them to Spokane, where they fell in love with Green Bluff.
“He told me back then he had a dream to start a vineyard, but it was too expensive for them in California,” Nikfar says, cutting bunches of grapes.
“I love this. I took the day off for it. To me this is like therapy. It is like being in heaven.”
KXLY “Good Morning Northwest” anchor Mark Peterson has been in the vineyard since 4 a.m. for a morning broadcast, but he stays to help with the harvest. Neighbor and longtime farmer Sherm Simpson, who moved to Green Bluff 60 years ago, is hauling buckets and driving tractor as well.
“I’ve been up here a long time, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Simpson, who helped Davide Trezzi till the ground to plant the vineyard.
Now comes what might be the hardest part for Trezzi, who scarcely let himself imagine what the bottle label for his wine might look like while he tended the fruit all summer.
He’ll have nothing to do but wait while Townshend works his magic with the grapes.