by Sally Colby
Visitors to Airfield Estates Winery may think they’ve taken a trip back in time to the 1940s, when Stearman bi-winged airplanes and trained airmen waited for orders to fly. The Prosser, WA property once served as training grounds for military pilots, but today the acreage is devoted to a thriving grape-growing and winery business for the Miller family.
The Miller’s farm is in the heart of the Yakima Valley Appellation, on the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France. “We realized that we were in a good place,” said Miller, “but we couldn’t figure out if we should plant the vineyards and wait for the wineries come to us, or vice versa.”
“In 1978, we lost our sugar beet industry,” said Miller. “That was one of our key cash crops. We were looking for alternative crops, and had already been growing some grapes, so we signed a contract with Chateau Ste Michelle to grow 100 acres of grapes. That turned into about 850 acres.”
Today, the family grows both Concord and wine grapes on about 1,300 acres. After Miller’s son Marcus went to to school to become a winemaker, Miller realized that the business would benefit if he started a winery on the premises. “We had a winemaker in the family, and our vineyard needed more visibility,” he said. “We thought that by building a small winery we could get recognition for the quality of fruit we were producing. That would make us less dependent on Ste Michelle and allow us to find alternative markets.”
As the vineyards grew, harvest methods evolved. Miller recalls that for the first 10 years, Airfield Estates’ 100 acres of wine grapes were hand-harvested and sold to Canadian wineries. Eventually, Miller started to harvest wine grapes using the same equipment he was already using to harvest Concord grapes.
“It’s easier to pick Concord grapes with mechanical equipment than to pick wine grapes mechanically,” said Miller. “The biggest challenge with mechanical harvest is damage to vines. The grapes hang tighter — it’s harder to get them off efficiently.” Miller added that grape harvesters are self-propelled and there’s ample space for them to move down the rows, but the tractors pulling totes for the picked grapes often break posts and wires. Grapes that will be mechanically harvested are trellised with machine harvest in mind.
Fifteen acres of vineyards must be hand-harvested because they’re too high off the ground for machine harvest. Miller says it doesn’t take long for crews to hand-harvest the 15 acres, but there’s plenty of other vineyard work. “Our hand crews repair damage that has occurred after mechanical harvest,” he said. “We use the same crew for pruning.”
Miller purchased the first mechanical harvester in 1972, then when Ste Michelle gave the go-ahead for machine harvest, he purchased a second machine and eventually added a third. In 1999, Miller was having trouble with his Merlot harvest — the machine was leaving a significant amount of grapes behind and vines were damaged. He watched a demonstration of a different harvester and purchased one immediately. “It harvested 100 percent of the crop with less damage,” he said. “I’m always looking at the new technology — I know it’s better and stronger than what I have today.”
Although grapes are sometimes ready for harvest as early as Labor Day, the process usually begins in late September. Concords and wine grapes are ready for harvest at about the same time, so Miller has to carefully plan the use of his manpower and equipment. “When we’re doing wine grapes, we’ll start at around midnight and pick until about 2 p.m.,” he said. “Then we clean the harvesters, go home, get some sleep and start again the next day.” Miller says that picking white grapes at night helps keep them cool, but later in the season, reds are picked during the heat of the day to initiate fermentation.
The Concord harvest takes about 30 to 40 days, while wine grape harvest continues into November. Due to limited cooperage, Miller must wait until the initial fermentation is complete until more grapes are harvested. “We have to leave red grapes in the tank to ferment for about 10 to 12 days,” he said. “Once that fermentation is cleared and we pull the juice and put it in a barrel, we clear the tank and start over again. We have to cycle the tanks about three times during the course of the year in order to get the crop in.”
The biggest threat to Milller’s harvest is an untimely frost. “If we get an early frost and we’re only halfway through harvest, we have about 12 days before the grapes get real loose and fall off the vines,” he said. “Once they start falling off, they fall off so fast we can’t catch them.”
Winemaker Marcus uses about 25 percent of total production to create Airfield Estates wines, with the remaining grapes sold to several other wineries. Lori Stevens, Miller’s daughter, has developed the winery’s trademarks and an extensive website.
In addition to the tasting room at the vineyard, Airfield Estates Winery has a location in Woodinville, which is convenient for Seattle customers. “We’re always looking for ways to bring people to the vineyard,” said Miller. “The tasting rooms are one way we can do that.” Another draw is an annual 5K run held in October. Runners go through the vineyard, and during the race, pass 19 different grape varieties. Miller will sometimes do a tasting of grapes on the vine so that visitors can learn to detect the difference between varieties and how those subtleties translate to finished wine.
Miller says visitors include a variety of people, from experienced sommeliers to novice wine drinkers. “They might be able to recognize a good wine from an awful wine, but it’s difficult for them to know of good wine from a great wine,” said Miller of the new-to-wine visitors. “Those are the people we have a lot of fun with and try to educate.” Miller noted that new wine drinkers prefer sweeter wines, and he believes that it’s important to make those available.
One key that Miller says helped the business grow is the fact that Marcus and Lori left the farm and started out in different careers prior to coming back. “It was their idea to return,” he said. “They love the farm as much as I do. I’ve always seen my job here as the caretaker — it was never really mine, I’m just taking care of it and making sure it’s there for future generations.”
For more details about Airfield Estates Winery, visit www.airfieldwines.com
Airfield Estates ~ stepping back in time and into the future
by Sally Colby