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As a winemaker I would never, ever suggest, just one week into harvest, that this might be a “perfect vintage.” Why jinx it? Why take the risk of inviting Mother Nature’s wrath so early on when we have so many weeks to go?
So, I won’t. However . . .
We have both lots of Sauvignon Blanc in the barn. Perfect numbers. Our first Pinot Noir came in today and I was just handed the lab report for the lot. Perfect numbers.
By “perfect numbers” I mean the sugar and acid content are ideal for making stellar, well-balanced wine with minimal winemaker intervention. We won’t have to adjust the sugar or the acid and that’s a good thing. Natural is always preferred over making any sort of add or adjustment. Perfect.
And the weather? The forecast is for excellent ripening weather over the next few days then a bit of a cool down that will slow sugar development but will allow flavors to continue to mature. Sunny and dry. Perfect.
Yet I am petrified! How long can “perfect” continue? I’m hoping for about another eight weeks. That’s all I ask. But that is a long time this time of year. There is no reason a heat wave won’t hit us in the near future. The riper fruit gets the more susceptible it is to damage by extreme heat. So, no heat wave, please. Or, heaven forbid, we should get some rain. Ripe fruit, with softer skins, is very susceptible to damage by mold. And mold thrives in moist, damp air. So, no rain, please. Just perfect. That’s all I ask.
This is the life of a winemaker. Faced with perfect conditions for the foreseeable future, here I sit worrying. I’m trying not to think about the weather, though I did just check the forecast again minutes ago, for the nth time today. And its only 10 AM.
The good thing is that, whatever comes our way, I’m ready and that does take the edge off things a bit. This is my thirtieth harvest. If I don’t know how to handle a little adversity by now, there is no hope for me as a winemaker. I keep thinking about the Farmer’s Insurance commercial “We know a thing or two ‘cause we’ve seen a thing or two.” So true. I’m ready for anything. I hope.
The perfect vintage? Could be. Too early to tell but things are looking mighty good out there right now. Though this winemaker, for one, will not ever say that. Not now. Nope. No way.
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 ??
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!
Do you ever wonder why winemakers are always “worried” about the weather at harvest? Why do we constantly, and I do mean constantly, check the weather reports?
The main reason is that we need to know if there are any “problems” looming. Might rain be on the horizon? And, if so, when? How much? What kind of weather follows the rain? Or perhaps a heat spell is forecast. How hot? And for how long?
Armed with that intel, winemakers can then more appropriately decide when to pick a certain block. For example, if a heat spell is predicted and I have a block that is very close to ready, I may pick it a day or two too early just to protect that fruit and to get it into the house. On the other hand, if extreme heat is predicted and a block is healthy and far from ripe, I am much less inclined to pick prior to the heat wave. Weather the heat and regroup. Same thing with rain. Sometimes it is better to pick ahead of rain, others times we’ll just sit it out, knowing then that we’ll have to be particularly diligent about looking for and handling bunch rot if it shows.
The photo shows today’s forecast and it is as close to perfect as a winemaker can hope for! Cool nights and mornings with sun and warmth in the afternoons. That combination helps the grapes maintain solid acidity while slowly accumulating sugars. It concurrently allows winemakers to space out picking dates a little more, which eases the pressure on the pickers, on trucking and on the cellar. We’re tired enough without the added pressures of inclement weather so have a glass of your favorite Notre Vue or Balverne wine and pray for warm days ahead! You’ll be rewarded with stunning wines from Harvest 2017! Cheers!
One minute we’re sitting around waiting for grapes to ripen and watching the weather reports, next minute we’re knee deep in Sauvignon blanc and Pinot noir! But still watching the weather reports!
Yesterday we kicked off Harvest 2017 with some Pinot noir destined for the reserve tier. Always good to start with the best and hope to hell everything works perfectly on Day One. And it did! We now have Blocks 12A and 12B in house and I am happy to report good sugars, good acidity, great color and most importantly great flavors! Already we can taste lush, spicy black cherry berry flavors creeping into the sweet juice. Color is slowly extracting. We’ll keep these two lots on “cold soak” for four or five days until we have solid extraction of color and flavor. Then a quick check to make sure sugars and acids are good and off we go! We’ll pitch with yeast, stand back and watch the magic happen. Our dear friend Saccharomyces will start munching up all the sugar, converting it to alcohol and carbon dioxide, and the cellar will fill with delicious aromas of fermentation as the delicious juice becomes precious wine!
Today we are processing the Sauvignon blanc. The pristine grapes started arriving at the winery at about 3 AM with the first press load getting underway at 6:30 AM while everything was still cool and with a light fog lingering until sunrise. We’ll do four press loads today finishing up at about 8 PM tonight. Then clean up. Ah, harvest . . . gotta love watching that overtime pile up!
Yesterday our harvest intern was a rookie. Today she is already a full-fledged cellar hand! A great thing about interning here and helping us out with the harvest activities is that, due to our smaller size, each intern gets exposed to all aspects of the winemaking process very quickly. They’ll do lab work, analyzing juice and wine samples for acidity, sugar, malic acid and such. Also some cellar work cleaning and sanitizing tanks and equipment, destemming fruit, doing pump-overs, making tank adds, shoveling out tanks. And, yes, enjoying an ice-cold beer at the end of a long, hard day!
Yikes! That reminds me . . . I still need to stock the frig with beverages! A winemaker has to do everything . . .
Breaking news . . . the lab just gave me the results of the juice analysis on the first load of Sauvignon blanc. Perfect numbers! Now that calls for a beer!
Stay tuned, folks . . . we have a major heat spell approaching this weekend. These are always fun! Our intern thinks today was a long day? Ha! “Warp Factor Nine, Scotty!”
“We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” This classic tag line (Farmers Insurance) says it all, even for a winemaker. Or does it ?
I remember my first harvest as the head winemaker vividly. Whew, I’ve finally made it! The schooling, the internships, a position as a lab tech, then as an assistant winemaker . . . it all seemed to go on forever. And certainly, as an assistant winemaker, I thought I knew just about everything about wine-making. I mean, after all, it ain’t rocket science! Or is it ?
So there I was. My first harvest as head winemaker. No one else telling me what to do, when to pick, how to adjust the acids, how to predict weather, what barrels to use, what yeast to use, etc., etc., etc. Nirvana!
And then suddenly everyone was looking to me for the answers. When are we gonna pick? Can we schedule a tour tomorrow on the crush pad? What fruit is coming in? The condenser on the cooling system just went down . . . want me to call somebody? Do you think it is gonna rain next week? The sugars in Block 7 are at 25.2 . . . wanna schedule that? A grower just called . . . he has sugars at 23 and wants to pick tomorrow, OK? We have heavy bunch rot in a Chardonnay block . . . how do you want to handle that? The Merlot fermenter has a bit of a stink; what shall we do about that?
“I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two” all of a sudden didn’t work. Why didn’t I “know a million things because I’d seen a million things ??” I felt like I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Relatively simple things like walking a vineyard and thinking about a harvest date suddenly became seriously major decisions that I seemed unable to make. Heat wave on the way, or rain pending, or need to pick tomorrow or we can’t get a truck for a week. All these decisions to be made! I thought winemakers just sat around enjoying five course lunches with their sales distributors every day!
I made it through that first harvest in good shape. But, man, did I have renewed respect for winemakers! No, it’s not rocket science but there is a lot to it and there is always more to learn. Even entering my 28th harvest in a few days, I know I’ll experience something this fall that I have never seen before. I guess that is part of the draw in any business. There is always more to learn, always more ideas to test out, always a better way to do things. Which is exactly why harvest time is so exciting! As demanding as it can be, as busy and tiring as it can be, the thrill of a new start, of new and hopefully even better wines being made . . . it’s a great time of year!
“I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.” Yet none of us has ever seen everything and I, for one, certainly don’t know everything. But I’m ready to tackle whatever the harvest delivers knowing we’re prepared to do the best we can and that my team is ready to face whatever Mother Nature sends our way!
Time to get back to the weather reports, check the daily sugar sample report and then head out into the vineyards and get ready to start picking!
As July closes out and we enter August, it means but one thing . . . harvest is nigh upon us! This morning I toured the Sauvignon blanc and Pinot noir vineyards on the estate, spending a little more time than usual in each block, looking more carefully at the fruit, tasting a few berries, noticing the condition of the canopies, looking at crop loads. Such visits will become more and more frequent as the weeks pass by and the fruit ripens.
Harvest is an exciting time for all of us in the winemaking biz. Yes, it means long, tiring days are looming but it also means we’re about to start another vintage and that is a wonderful thing! Harvest interns are on call, chomping at the bit to get a chance to experience what it’s like to really make wine. We’re busy bottling up the past vintage to make room for the next. New barrels are arriving. Tanks are being scrubbed and sanitized. The crush pad will soon be set up. And interest in the weather forecast heightens!
By the end of the month Sauvignon blanc will be in house and the sweet smells of fermentation in the air. Pinot noir will follow quickly and we’ll be off to the races! Stay tuned . . . I’ll keep you updated on events as they unfold. In the meantime, grab a bottle or three of your favorite Balverne wines (perfect time of year for rosé!) and join us in looking forward to a great Harvest 2017!
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