Oregon's Willamette Valley produces some of the country's best wines. But it's also subject to the infamous "Pineapple Express"—heavy rains blowing in from the Pacific that can ruin grapes. Unless you've got a vacuum.
Ken Wright has been making wine since 1978, moving in 1986 to Oregon, ending up in the heavy-lidded town of Carlton. Like much of the northern Willamette Valley, it's top notch land for growing the finicky pinot noir grape. The further west a vineyard, the closer it is the weather rolling in off the Pacific, wet damp winds that push through a gap in the Coastal Range called the Van Duzer Corridor. The cold air from the ocean pushes the warm air off the valley floor, preserving the acidity of ripening grapes—a pinot noir trademark.
The long growing season of the Willamette Valley comes at some risk: as the polar jetstream pushes south in winter, it carries moisture from the Pacific. Specifically, from Hawaii—at least nominatively, if not actually.
When that first wave of rains hit Oregon, usually in mid-October, it can waterlog a grape before it can be harvested.
"Ideally what you want to do is to take that fruit down—to harvest it right away—before disease sets in," explains Wright, standing in front of a nondescript stainless steel machine in one of the Cellar's outbuildings. Unfortunately that ripe fruit, having weathered sometimes weeks of nonstop rain, can be waterlogged. Diluted, its delicate flavors faded, the grapes are processed by hand as they would be in an ideal harvest. But instead of chalking up the whole vintage as a bad lot, Wright has a better option.
"When you put any liquid into a vacuum state you depress its boiling point. The stronger vacuum value you can achieve, the lower the boiling point," says Wright. The vacuum values produced in his machine approach -0.997 bar. "It would pull the eyeballs out of your head," he laughs.
After harvesting the "bloated" juice, a small percentage of the entire vintage is placed inside the vacuum evaporator.
"We can boil that juice at fifty degrees Fahrenheit—cooler than the ambient temperature of the room the machine is in. The enemies of juice and wine are two: oxygen and heat. Inside that chamber, neither exists."
Even boiling at such a low temperature, a single batch of juice can lose up to 21 gallons of water—an hour. When the "concentrated" juice is added back to the rest of the harvest, the sugar content matches that of a year without late season rains.
Wright could jack up the sugars beyond that which is possible in nature itself. In fact he experimented making a port-like concoction when he first took delivery of the machine a few years ago—"pretty fabulous stuff"—that was fermented using only natural grape sugar and an aggressive yeast, reaching 18% ABV without the addition of a single drop of "white spirits" that normally are added to port wines. But for the pinot that is the Cellar's calling card, the goal is simply to restore the grapes back to something that resembles a more ideal state.
The evaporators aren't cheap, but after Wright and another grower imported the first two machines into the United States from Milan, other vineyards were quick to follow. Now at least half-a-dozen Oregon vineyards have their own vacuum evaporator.
"We spend a year of our life farming. It seems really silly to accept something sub-standard when you can make a difference, when you can do something to heal the issue."
That's good news. This year's crop is already off to a late start, not nearly at the ripeness Wright would like.
And this year, it looks like the rains are coming early.