Prosser bulk winemaking operation poised to expand with growing demand
Four Feathers Wine Estates processed 15,000 tons of grapes last year
The winemaking happening inside Four Feathers Wine Estates in Prosser is no small operation.
The more than 100 towering silver tanks can store three million gallons within the 50,000-square-foot warehouse and process some 15,000 tons of wine grapes a year.
Four Feathers’ focus is on crafting high-quality bulk wines.
The winery serves two kinds of customers: those who buy the bottle-ready wine it produces (75 clients), and those who want wine made to their own specifications (four clients).
“We’re really selling clients wine rather than grapes …. The bulk wine clients know they like our wines and they come back every year to buy them,” said David Forsyth, Four Feathers’ winemaker and general manager.
Clients bottle Four Feathers wines under their own labels.
“We do take wines all the way through bottling for clients. We bring in a mobile bottling line. We’ll do about 40,000 cases this year, or about 80,000 to 90,000 gallons,” Forsyth said.
A bulk wine minimum purchase is 280 gallons. The winery’s bottle-ready wines include Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Syrah and Malbec.
“2012 is when we made our first vintage,” Forsyth said.
The longtime winemaker worked at two of the state’s most respected wineries before joining Four Feathers — 23 years at Hogue Cellars and five years at Mercer Estates.
Zirkle Fruit Co. owns Four Feathers. The Selah-based family operation farms apples, cherries, pears, blueberries and wine grapes throughout the region. The 70-year-old company also operates cold storage and packing sites in Selah and Prosser.
The Zirkles own about 3,000 acres of wine grape vineyards in Eastern Washington and about 2,200 acres are processed primarily for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the state’s largest winery.
The other 800 acres are used for Four Feathers’ wines. Last year, Four Feathers processed 15,000 tons of grapes.
The quality of fruit results in the quality of the wines, Forsyth said.
The Zirkle family owns and farms six vineyards: Four Feathers, which grows Riesling; Zillah Ranch, which grows Riesling and Syrah; Paterson, which grows grapes for Ste. Michelle; Soaring Eagle, which grows Cabernet; McNary, which grows Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; and Beverly, north of Wahluke slope, which grows Malbec.
Four Feathers’ bulk wine production is sourced primarily from the McNary, Zillah Ranch and Soaring Eagle vineyards.
With winemakers popping in and out of the Prosser facility off Benitz Road to monitor the progress of their wines, Forsyth said the operation brims with energy.
“There’s always a dynamic exchange of information,” he said.
The state-of-the-art facility can provide a “boutique winemaking experience,” Forsyth said.
“Some clients run out of room in their own facility or access to grapes or don’t want to tie up capital,” he said, explaining why bulk wines are popular.
The warehouse features an elevated receiving area and gravity-fed crush pad that doesn’t rely on an auger for maceration, which reduces grape-skin tearing and results in a higher quality of wines “because the astringent compounds are at a minimum,” Forsyth said.
“It’s a preferred process for making high-end white wines,” he said.
Three large 50-ton presses can accommodate two semi-trucks at a time. The facility also offers good lighting and wide aisles.
“It’s all about efficiencies. It’s not efficiency for efficiency’s sake. It’s for freeing up winemakers to do winemaking, rather than dealing with broken pumps, or small tanks, or insufficient cooling systems. We can take our resources and people and apply them to specific winemaking issues,” Forsyth said.
Ten people work at Four Feathers with a crew of 40 hired to get through harvest. Four winemakers are on staff. Forsyth, who sits on the wine advisory board for the Washington State University Wine Science Center in Richland, regularly offers internship experience to students studying viticulture.
“We have two people on our winemaking staff who graduated from WSU Tri-Cities. We have a number of interns who work at the winery full time that we brought on as interns. We continue to grow and add good-paying jobs,” Forsyth said.
Winery turned cidery
After harvest, which is a 24-hour, seven-day, two-month operation, production slows down and begins to focus on cider-making.
Four Feathers brews about 700,000 gallons of apple-pear ciders for MillerCoors’ Crispin Cider Co. annually. The ciders are naturally fermented using the raw, unpasteurized juice of fresh-pressed apples and pears, and brewed through classic cold-fermentation and specially selected wine yeasts.
“We sell apples to Tree Top. They process them and sell us the juice. We ferment and clarify it and then ship to Colfax, California, to Crispin,” Forsyth said.
The ciders have an alcohol content ranging from 6 percent to 10.5 percent.
“We’re probably the largest cidery on the West Coast,” he said.
Amid the giant steel tanks, Forsyth also oversees a small winemaking operation tucked into the back corner of the large warehouse. The 60 barrels of wine aren’t sold at stores.
“We produce wines under our own label to showcase what our vineyards can do,” he said.
Forsyth expects Four Feathers to continue to grow along with the state’s wine industry.
“We’re keeping an eye on the future. We know Washington wine continues to expand and we want to be there and offer services and be able to handle those additional grapes and wine that come in the future,” he said. “We’re poised to go there with the industry.”