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Benjamin Franklin once wrote “ . . . nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Let me amend that statement to read “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes and HARVEST!”
Here we go again, kids! We’re gearing up for Harvest 2018 and I suspect we will have grapes rolling in in just a few weeks. It seems like I just finished writing a blog about Harvest 2017 . . . how time flies when you’re having fun!
Always a great time of year for a winemaker, harvest brings long days and hard work for sure, but it also brings a new beginning, a new start, a chance to try the latest and greatest ideas, a chance to make yet again another great wine. There is excitement in the air like no other time of year.
Its sort of ironic because, as I said, with harvest comes long, tiring, never-ending days. There is no question that it is exhausting, yet everyone here can’t wait for it to start! Every day people are asking me “When do you think you’ll start? How are things looking? What looks the best this year?”
The crush pad is set up and ready. Must lines, pumps and hoses are being cleaned and sanitized. The press has been checked. We’re stocking up on yeast and making sure the lab is prepped. Interns are getting last minute instructions on how things will roll, what their duties are and how to do everything we’ll need to do.
I love this time of year not only for the winemaking opportunities but also because it offers me another chance to excite a new group of young people contemplating making a career of winemaking as I did. This is a time for me to pass on my experiences, to teach them the tricks of the trade and to get them excited about what we’re doing each day. You can always tell which of the interns each year might go on to become winemakers. They are the ones that never mention being tired, always show up early, are eager to stay to the very end, never complain about being cold, hot, wet, hungry, exhausted. Always smiling, always the first to greet me saying “You gotta try Tank 324 this morning! That stuff is liquid gold!”
And all of you reading this blog, all our Notre Vue and Balverne fans out there, this is your chance, too, to get involved, to get excited about harvest. Being a smaller operation, I have the time to welcome you to the winery personally and to guide you through the activities of the day. This is your once-a-year chance to taste harvest-ready grapes, to see us crushing fruit, making juice, filling barrels and to taste the juice and fermenting wines. Don’t pass it up! We’d love to have you visit the winery, be part of harvest and to stay for a tasting of our current releases. See ya soon ??
If you live in California you just know we’re going to have some wild fires every year. With all our beautiful forests along with our low humidities and high temperatures, fires are simply inevitable. But, holy moly, this is getting crazy!
Last year you will recall wild fires devastated Sonoma County with Santa Rosa being particularly hard hit. This year Mendocino and Lake Counties are ablaze. At last look, I counted 18 major fires up and down the state. A horrendous number of acres have burned, countless structures destroyed and, sadly, all too many lives lost.
Given that last thought, it is hard now to switch to winemaking and to comment on the damage wild fire smoke can do to wines. It all seems so trivial in light of the dire effects the fires have on so many peoples’ lives.
The warmest and driest part of the year here, when wild fires are at their height, typically coincides with our grape harvest. As grapes ripen and skins soften, the fruit becomes very susceptible to damage by smoke. “Smoke taint” is caused by grapes absorbing volatile phenolic compounds produced when wood burns. These phenolic molecules then bind to sugars inside the grapes to form glycosides.
Once these glycosides are formed, the original volatile phenolic compounds can no longer be detected by smell or by taste. There is no perceived smoke taint at that point. The problems begin to surface as the grape juice is fermented and wine is made. As the wine develops and ages the acidity in the wine begins breaking down these glycosidic bonds releasing volatile “smoky” phenolics back into the wine. It is these compounds that give a “smoke tainted” wine its characteristic old campfire smell or odors reminiscent of a cigarette ashtray. These are not pleasant smells or tastes and are not to be confused with the lovely toasty, smoky notes associated with some oak barrel treatments.
A wine can even smell just fine but, when consumed, taste of these campfire/ashtray characters. The thought here is that enzymes in your mouth are breaking the glycosidic bonds and releasing volatile compounds literally as you consume the wine.
Though methods are available to rid wines of the volatile smoky compounds, they are by no means 100% effective. While the volatile compounds that exist at treatment time might be removed, more will be released as the wine continues to age. Consecutive treatments are therefore needed and even then there is no guarantee that the problem will have been resolved.
Here at Notre Vue Wine Estate, I am happy and relieved to report that we have had no smoke damage to any of our wines produced to date. While we might be surrounded be fires, none is close enough nor the smoke thick enough to have caused any smoke-taint issues.
For all of you so negatively affected by the fires, please know everyone here at Notre Vue Wine Estate is praying for your well-being. Our thoughts are with you always.
Thank you for joining us for Winter WINEland last weekend - the perfect winter escape to taste current vintages and multiple varitals along Wine Road – Northern Sonoma County! Participants got to taste current releases of both Balverne and our exclusive, limited production Notre Vue Wines in our transformed Winter 'Wineland' tasting room. Click on the image to view photos from the event. We look forward to seeing you again soon!
Sonoma County is without question one of the most beautiful places in the world. Bound on the west coast by the powerful Pacific Ocean and stretching inland to the majestic mountains, we enjoy a mild, Mediterranean climate in Sonoma. Not too hot, not too cold. About eight months of dry, warm days follow the blustery winter rains. Our grape vines hunker down for the winter and, in their dormant state, are immune to the pounding rains and cooler days. The water table builds holding this precious resource in anticipation of the grape vines’ needs as they spring back to life. The growing season ensues and another incredible vintage is born. There is a reason Sonoma County is respected world-wide for our sumptuous wines.
Of course there are variations on the theme. Some summers are cooler than others, some warmer. Some dryer, some wetter. But, all-in-all, a pretty perfect place to grow wine.
But those long, dry summers don’t come without their inherent risks. While everything may be an emerald green during the winter months due to the abundance of water, the hills quickly turn golden as the rains cease and the dry, warm summer takes over. Without exaggerating, it takes about two weeks for the grassy hills to dry to a golden hue again once the rains stop. There is a reason it’s called the “Golden State!”
Wild fires are, therefore, a constant concern here. Even in normal times, without the added challenge of the last few years of serious droughts in Sonoma, the hills are laden with dry foliage and dead trees. Fire danger is always on one’s mind here and every precaution is taken avoid sparking a blaze. The simple task of mowing dry grasses can present a hazard if sparks are generated in the process.
What we really don’t need during this very dry time is wind. And certainly not prolonged 60 mph gusts of bone-dry air. Yet that is what we experienced just a month ago. As harvest was winding down, with 95% of our grapes in, Sonoma County experienced its worst wild fires in history. We all know of the horrific damage they caused.
As those fires raged, as people lost their homes and as some their lives and their pets, the world moved on. The few grapes still out there continued to ripen though many wineries simply couldn’t bring them in due to lack of power and/or water, if they even had a winery left to work with. Workers fled to safer places and wineries struggled to finish up harvest. While it seems trivial in respect to the lives and property loses we experienced, winemakers had to be concerned about “smoke taint” as the fires persisted. We were in a huge cloud of smoke in Sonoma for over a week. As the winds died down and that smoke lay over the vineyards, the threat of smoke taint expanded by the minute. A winemaker’s concern is that the smoke settling on the grapes will be absorbed into the skins of the fruit. While a smoky character might not be detectable in the grapes per sé, the threat is that during fermentation the smoke will be released from the skins into the developing wines. In miniscule quantities, compounds in the smoke can add a less than appealing character to wine. Some say that it reminds them of the stench of cigarette ash trays or the smells we associate with a burned out fire pit. Not pleasant at all.
There are measures winemakers can take to reduce the incidence of smoke taint in wine during these sorts of trying times. We learned a lot more about this during the Mendocino wild fires of 2008. “We know a thing or two because we have seen a thing or two,” that repeating theme in these blogs, is so true. I am happy to report that, at Notre Vue and Balverne, we had all our fruit in the winery prior to the horrific fires and, therefore, have no issues with smoke taint. And, fortunately, that is the case for most wineries. Two weeks early, these fires would have been devastating to the 2017 vintage.
As I type this blog it is gently raining and what a wonderful thing that is! Not only do we need the rain as per usual, but the rains will help the scorched, barren land spring back to life quickly and the golden hills will return to their characteristic emerald green. So we cheer on the rains, we pray for our family and friends with horrendous loses due to the fires and hope that good things will come. And remember, a holiday celebration without a glass or two of Notre Vue or Balverne wine, well, that’s just another scary thought!
Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and safe New Years!
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