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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.
Harvest 2018 is underway! The first of our Balverne Sauvignon Blanc grapes came in this morning in stunning fashion. We’ve had a beautiful growing season to date with just a bit of a cool snap for the last week or so. While sugars might not accumulate rapidly in the cooler weather, the flavors do continue developing, the result being that I found this year’s Sauvignon Blanc ready to harvest at lower Brix levels (sugar content) than usual.
Why is this good? Because it translates to lower alcohols in the finished wines. You may have heard the adage that “wine grapes benefit from a long hang time.” That means the longer the grapes hang on the vine, the greater the chance flavors will be more concentrated in the fruit at harvest, resulting in a more flavorful wine. While we’re blessed in California with beautiful, warm summers, the heat can sometimes be a little too much of a good thing making sugar accumulation (and therefore potential alcohol levels) run ahead of flavor development. The ideal situation, obviously, is to have maximum flavor development just as the grapes reach that magical sugar content.
For me as a winemaker, a lower alcohol is important as it helps keep the wine “in balance.” Put another way, a wine with an excessively high alcohol will taste “hot” or have an alcohol “bite” to it that may not be pleasing, and that higher alcohol may mask some of the more delicate fruity and floral notes of a wine. Sauvignon Blanc, known for its lighter body and bright, crisp fruit aromas and flavors, most definitely benefits from these lower alcohol levels.
Any winemaker anywhere in the world will always tell you without skipping a heartbeat that “This vintage is the best we’ve ever seen!” Well, you know what, I’ll say that right now about Balverne’s 2018 Sauvignon Blanc. And we haven’t even made the wine yet! Make a note on your calendars to visit Notre Vue Wine Estate in April of next year to taste Balverne’s 2018 Sauvignon Blanc. Trust me, you’ll be stunned! And happy you visited!
Keep tuned to this blog to hear about our upcoming Pinot Noir harvest. The weather for the foreseeable future is ideal and the Pinot Noir grapes are already tasting simply fantastic. In fact, I’m thinking this vintage will be the best we ever seen!
A votre santé, mes amis!
At least once a year a winery is faced with the challenge of bottling its wine as it is pretty hard to sell it otherwise. Admittedly this should not be a big deal and generally it isn’t. But bottling is not without its inherent pains and worries. Its not a part of winemaking that any winemaker enjoys. Or is it?
As we gear up to bottle our Balverne Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here at Notre Vue this fall, we’re attending to lots of little details and making sure everything is in place for a successful bottling run. We have our labels, corks and capsules. Glass supposedly arrives next week. We are scheduled to bottle just after the glass arrives. All this is carefully choreographed so that everything comes together perfectly and all on time.
We need to make sure the wine is ready, too. Following any final blending we will address the acidity along with the level of residual sugar and adjust each as necessary. The wines will be cold stabilized to prevent them from throwing tartrate crystals and will be heat stabilized to prevent protein hazes from developing. Fining might be done to soften tannins and/or to remove bitter components from the wine. One last decision to be made will be whether or not to filter.
Once the wine is ready and the materials arrive, its time to bottle. Again, this should be pretty straight-forward. How complicated can it be? You fill a bottle, cork it, label it and pack it away, right? Well, yes, that is the ideal scenario. But what if the wine is too cold and moisture is condensing on the outside of the bottle such that the labels won’t stick? What if we’re under- or over-filling bottles? What if the labeler is not cooperating and your margins are off meaning the labels are not centered? Or the labeler is skipping every third bottle? Or the filler is skipping every third bottle? Or some bottles are missing capsules? Or the wrong labels are being used? Or the filter fails? I could go on and on but you get the idea. “Best laid plans, yada, yada, yada!”
But once this necessary evil is complete, however challenging it might have been, the bottling line cleaned up and the exhausted crew headed home, you sit at your desk finishing up paperwork and look up at a few samples of the day’s bottlings each with perfect capsules, straight labels and all filled with delicious wine ready for wine lovers everywhere . . . life is suddenly all good again. Grab a bottle . . . I think you’ll agree!
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 ??
Like clockwork the rains have started! Almost every year, just as the last gondola of grapes rolls in, so too the rain clouds. Uncanny! Of course there are times when the rains jump the gun a bit and come in before we finish, but we usually finish up with Cabernet Sauvignon. Given its thicker skins and therefore better resistance to adverse weather, it is generally not a problem. Always causes a bit of anxiety for winemakers, though! But doesn’t everything ? ? ?
2017 will go down in history as one of the toughest harvests to date. Those of you that are faithful readers of my blogs read earlier that, no matter how long a winemaker has been making wine, no winemaker worth his salt will ever say he’s seen everything. Mother Nature always has a curve ball in the bull pen for us!
This year one of those curve balls was a couple of horrendous heat waves back to back. Now a heat wave during harvest is by no means unusual. Happens all the time. For a few days in a row we may hit the high 90s or low 100s but generally there is not much damage done. Believe it or not, above about 94F or so, grape vines shut down to protect themselves from the heat. As the cool air returns, the vines quickly recover and return to their normal ripening schedule. This year, however, we had a couple of heat waves that extended outwards of 10 days with temperatures in record high 100s or low 110s. Now that is hot for anyone! Records were broken and our poor grapes vines found little humor in those long, unrelenting blasts of scorching heat. Equally unusual was that the recovery took much longer than normal. Cool days eventually returned but it took the vines about two weeks to get back to their normal routine. During that two week spell, I honestly thought this time the heat had been too much and the show was going to be over before the grapes were ready. Things were a little tense here, to be perfectly honest!
Never let it be said that the grapes of Sonoma are wimps. Far from it! Sure enough, though it took a nerve-rackingly long time, the vines sprung back to life, ripened their fruit to perfection and offered up a delicious harvest. Both Notre Vue and Balverne are in fine shape with a cellar full of a superb 2017 wines from which to craft our upcoming offerings. “I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.” Add one more “thing” to that list!
Please come visit. I’d love to taste the 2017 wines with you and celebrate another great vintage with you. Cheers!
P.S. Yes . . . we did have a bit of an issue with some wild fires. See a future blog for a review of that “fun!”
The heat wave came and the heat wave went. And in its wake we have a cool spell predicted. We’ve been picking like crazy the last two weeks trying to keep up with the ripening process that’s been in high gear due to the heat. Now, suddenly, the brakes are on and I have nothing lined up to pick for at least a week. Maybe two. Or three. Yup, that shows you just that fast things change in this wacky business called “winemaking.”
But that doesn’t mean we’re bored. Quite the contrary as we are monitoring fermentations, prepping barrels for filling with Chardonnay juice and getting ready to press off the first Pinot Noir in a few days. As I do every morning, I tasted each and every lot today and am happy to say that this looks to be a very promising vintage already! I’m seeing great color in the Pinot Noir along with wonderful aromatics and flavors reminiscent of strawberries and raspberries. Grapefruit and citrus aromas from the fermenting Sauvignon Blanc fill the cellar. It is truly a great time of year and I invite you to come up to the winery and taste through the 2017 wines in progress with me! If you have never done such a thing, now is the time. And because we’re a small operation, I will personally have the time to take you tank-to-tank to taste.
Hope to see you soon and before the next wave of grapes hits!
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!
I just got back from sampling the Sauvignon blanc and two Pinot noir vineyards. Yikes! The numbers indicate the fruit is almost ripe and, certainly by taste, things are just about ready for harvest! Flavors in the Sauvignon blanc are moving from the grassy, jalapeno, bell pepper flavors to the more tropical, ripe fruit characters we like to see in the wine. The Pinot noir is developing spicy, lush, dark cherry and raspberry characters. Yum!
Checking in on the weather forecast is becoming more frequent now. This morning, as I got ready for work, I noticed that when the local weather report came on I raced to the TV to catch the updates. After the recent heat waves, we’re enjoying some more typical foggy, cooler mornings and beautifully warm, sunny afternoons. Perfect!
My 28th harvest is just about to get rockin’!
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