This time of year is always tough for me. I’ve never been a warm weather person and when the Autumn breeze picks up and the vineyards start to turn beautiful colors it makes me happy. But this is nearly always the time of year that is the most difficult for grape growers and winemakers – especially for those grapes that need the extra time on the vines.
Why? Well, for starters the moisture content in the air gets higher and usually we start to have cloudy days and certainly heavy morning fog. This can induce botrytis on the grapes leading to moldy clusters. Not good. In addition, with the shorter days there is limited amounts of sunlight which means it takes even longer to get the grapes ripe.
So as much as I want to light a fire, sit on my couch and get lost in a great wine…I’m torn. I want to enjoy this time of year and all the things that come along with it (like eating more), but I’m always concerned about the grapes. When the vineyards have been picked I feel so much better.
But it is about so much more than just getting grapes ripe. It’s also about developing flavors. Generally speaking the longer the grapes are on the vine, the more depth and character are developed. There is always a give and take when it comes to wine though. During the growing process sugars rise as acid levels fall – at some point the two intersect at the perfect time and that is when the orders are given to pick. There’s a little more to it than that, but those are two very important factors. But wait too long and the wine can be too alcoholic leading to a ‘hot’ character.
All reports I’ve heard is that this year has been a banner year. Quality is really great and quantity has been higher than expected. After two semi-rough years it’s a relief to see one where winemakers are really happy. The last two vintages have certainly had their challenges (cool summers, heat spikes, rain), but the great winemakers have taken the time to provide higher levels of care and sorting to bring out the best qualities.
I live in an amazing place to grow grapes and with very few exceptions the climate is perfect. We aren’t plagued with many of the issues that Europe deals with. It’s not uncommon for France to have rain in the summer and very cold weather early on requiring picking sooner than is desirable. Often I have customers ask me what my favorite California years are and I can truly say nearly all of them. Sure, they each have their nuances (some providing more fruit forward wines or others earthier) but we are lucky that we have these nearly perfect conditions turning out an excellent crop year after year.
Last year is a wine growing year that likely many vintners and growers want to forget. June was plagued with rain during bloom causing fruit set to be irregular leading to uneven grape clusters. So when the weather reports called for rain on Monday I was thinking it was June 2011 all over again. Turns out the highest rainfall amounts recorded were 4 hundredths of an inch or barely heavier than a thick fog.
I stopped and took a picture during the rain to check on the grape clusters…
These little clusters were in the middle of bloom, but it didn’t matter because the rain wasn’t strong enough to get in the way of the self-pollination. Did you know that wine grapes are self-pollinating? The grapes do not need an outside source (like bees) to pollinate. I’ve always thought that was a cool fact about wine grapes.
All is still going well for the 2012 growing season and the forecast for the next 10 days show sunny skies and temperatures in the low 80′s, just the right temperature to move this vintage along at a steady pace.
One more note about the rain (if you can call it that) from Monday. It was very windy on Tuesday meaning that any ill-effects of the cooler, damp weather were pretty much erased. Wind is exactly what is needed to dry the vines out after the drizzle.
More updates as we move through this season.
The reports have been rolling in during the last week that bud break was happening all over the county. However, on my drive through parts of Carneros and Sonoma Valley, I haven’t seen much action. But nearly every morning I wake up to a sound that lets me know Spring has officially begun and a new growing season has as well: Vineyard fans.
Vineyard fans are used when the temperature drops to near freezing. They are set to automatically turn on at around 36-degrees to start circulating air because moving air is always warmer than static air. If you’ve never heard a vineyard fan, they are loud. Very loud. I believe the closest one to my house is at least a 1/2 mile away and it sounds like there is a helicopter circling on the next block over. I can’t imagine what that would sound like if it was in my backyard.
Spring is an unpredictable time. One day it can be 70 degrees and the next it can be 45 and raining. It’s also what makes this time of year so scary for growers. These first few weeks after bud break are an extremely critical time. If it gets too cold, those precious buds can be ruined which is why the vineyard fans are no joking matter – they can make or break a grower’s year.
It’s no coincidence that Spring and Fall are my favorite seasons. Spring for the warm days and cool nights and the beginnings of the new growing season. Fall for the excitement of harvest. The past three years have each had difficult moments with some leading to crop loss in staggering numbers. It’s not all bad though because there was definitely less demand for finished goods.
I’m crossing my fingers that this year will be a stress-free year for the growers. Only time will tell…