KENNEWICK — A new grape-sorting system with the brains of a computer is giving Columbia Crest winemaker Laura Sorge more control over the grapes that make it into this year’s vintage.
The Paterson winery replaced its old red grape crush pad, de-stemmer and sorting system with new state-of-the-art technology and added a smaller version of the same system for the higher-end reserve wines.
The new Reserve receiving and sorting line debuted last year at Columbia Crest. Company officials say the winery is one of the first in the U.S. to use this type of technology on a large scale.
Sorge said the new equipment allows her to better create boutique-style wines despite the winery being the largest in what Ste. Michelle Wine Estates officials like to call the company’s “string of pearls.”
Ste. Michelle owns Washington wineries such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Snoqualmie, Northstar and Spring Valley. It also co-owns Col Solare on Red Mountain with Italy’s Antinori family.
The first red grapes that will make up Columbia Crest’s 2014 vintage were brought into the winery earlier this week.
The de-stemmer and new sorting system will help keep leaves and stems out of the wines, adding a precision that head winemaker Juan Munoz Oca says will improve the quality of the wines.
Sorge said the winery runs some samples of the grapes they want to have come through the Delta Vistalys optical sorting machine to calibrate it. The computer will reject any grape that doesn’t fit those parameters. For example, it can discard small, wizened grapes, ones attached to stems or mushy grapes and allowing only the whole grapes to continue into the winery.
The grapes are evenly spread across a surface that looks like a giant Lego sheet before they move through the sorter. They are gently moved through the whole process, helping keep whole grapes intact.
Workers can tweak the machine if it is sorting out too many good grapes, she said.
Last year, the receiving and sorting system for the reserve wine grapes was used on about 200 tons. This year, Sorge said the winery will process about 1,000 tons of hand-picked grapes.
The larger main red grape receiving and sorting machine, which will process mostly machine-picked grapes, can process between 80 to 100 tons an hour, she said.
Sorge said the upgrades show how invested the company is in its future.
Officials from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates— which uses about two-thirds of all the wine grapes grown in Washington— have said the company aims to grow to meet the rising demand created by increased wine consumption in the U.S.
White wine hasn’t been neglected in the upgrades at Columbia Crest.
Columbia Crest started receiving the first green grapes destined for white wines about two weeks ago.
For reserve wines, the winery is using a new belt conveyer system to move the grapes into the presses instead of the screw conveyer system. Keith Kenison, the winery’s white winemaker, said they used the new belt on a trial basis last year.
The juice from the green grapes is separated from the skins and the rest of the grapes as soon as possible. The skins then go into a press to get more of the juice, Kenison said.
The goal is to preserve the fresh fruit taste of the grapes, he said.
Kenison started experimenting with different, more historical fermentation tanks about two years ago, starting with a concrete egg-shaped tank that makes 160 cases of wine.
Last year, he also tried out a terra cotta amphora, a large clay jar fermenter, to make about 50 cases of wine. He liked the taste so much, he added a second one this year, with plans to go up to four for next year.
Sorge also is getting a chance to play around with different fermentation tanks, with different shapes, such as conical, and different materials, such as oak.