Archives: The Grapegrowing Year
Well, I should be excited that coastal California, from Santa Barbara to the Sonoma Coast, saw a little rain overnight. We need every drop we can get, right? Yes, that is, unless you’re a late-blooming Cabernet Sauvignon vine struggling to fertilize those last flowers and “set” a healthy number of berries. Yes, unless you’re a developing cluster of Pinot Noir, just starting to size up and don’t want rot and fungus-enabling moisture to endanger this year’s crop. And yes, unless you’re a winemaker who remembers 2007 and 2011 harvests when early Fall storms rained on tons of late-ripening Cabernet still out in the field.
There are certain times of the year when rain is welcome to growers and winemakers. Wintertime is great. The fruit is all picked and no fragile blooms are trying to fight for their existence. Even a short storm (as long as it gets warm and breezy immediately afterward) during October is OK. The Pinot will be mostly picked and the Cab, with its thicker-skinned berries and looser clusters, can hang through one rainstorm without many problems.
I just hope that last night’s excitement isn’t the beginning of a pattern, or a pre-saging of things to come. Sorry to sound pessimistic, but it’s the “farmer girl” side of me that recalls an old adage: “A short crop gets shorter.” What that means is that, this time of year, growers and wineries are trying to estimate their Harvest vineyard yields by counting the number of clusters on any given vine. The problem is that cluster counts have nothing to do with how each berry in that cluster will “size up” as it goes from being a hard green BB to a full, soft purple grape. It has nothing to do with how well that cluster, especially if it’s still full of flowers, will “set” and how many berries will be lost to shatter. Unfortunately, weather events like last night’s rain, can negatively affect both bloom, set and grape sizing. It’s not an early Harvest anymore, which means that with every passing day, the danger of late-Fall rains damaging the last fruit on the vine (in Napa, that’s usually Cabernet) increases.
I know, I know. There’s still a long ways to go before now and the end of Harvest, which for me tends to be around the first week in November or so. We could have a perfect ripening season, great weather during Harvest and still end up with an “average” sized crop. Yes, there indeed is a long way to go before all the grapes are safely in the barn and it could all work out perfectly. However, I’m no weather forecaster but I am hearing rumblings of an El Niño winter.
Remember how last week I said I had my rot and botrytis radar on? I just turned the dial up to “High Alert”.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and Winemaker for Picket Fence Vineyards, Garnet Vineyards and others. She sources from vineyards all over California for her clients’ projects and lives in Napa with her family. Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014. Reach her at LinkedIn, @alisoncrowewine ,email@example.com
1- It’s not early (anymore)
Back in April, after a historically warm winter in California, we winemakers were gearing up for an early start to the harvest season. Budbreak happened around the state at record early times; a full week earlier than 2014 which was in itself 2-3 weeks earlier than normal. Oh well, we said. That means it’ll finish faster and maybe we’ll get to dress up and have some beers on Halloween. Beers aside, one of the true benefits to an earlier-than-normal harvest is the reduced risk of November rain falling on any crop still on the vine.
Fast forward two months and it looks like, just about statewide, we’ve been flung back to “normal”. Two of the coldest spring months we’ve had in many years have really put the brakes on the ripening. For me that means I’ll be starting to pull off the first of our Carneros Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir around September 10 or so, instead of August 18 like last year. It also means that I may have to worry about late fall rains . While I’m not going to get all pessimistic and predict another 2007 or 1989 (though I was still in Junior High back then), I would be lying if I told you I didn’t have my rot and botrytis radar on.
2-Some areas won’t be so affected by the drought (this year)
The warmer, drier winter that accelerated an early bloom this year had a silver lining. Because we didn’t have many frost events, especially in the North Coast, those wineries using irrigation pond water for emergency frost protection didn’t have to get the sprinklers out. As a result, going into the (presumably) hotter summer and fall growing season, many folks in the North Coast have ponds over 80% full. The cooler, damper spring we’ve been having has additionally kept some areas of the state a little greener as we roll towards June.
Some areas of the state like Paso Robles however, have been so dry for so long that we’re starting to wonder if not just the quantity, but the quality of any water used for irrigation might have impacts on the fruit and on the vine. Higher salt levels can translate to higher levels of potassium in the grapes which in turn can cause higher pH’s (lower acidity). That can have a real impact on fermentation dynamics and eventual wine quality so those of us in really dry areas will be keeping an eye on juice and wine chemistries early on. Unless we get a really wet winter, even those of us who skated through this year will start to be really affected. If we don’t see appreciable rain in late 2015/early 2016, I predict a much lighter crop for Harvest 2016.
3- It’s going to be hard(er) to find the right pick date
If the weather is warm and clear during the bloom-to-set period of grape ripening, when the flowers get fertilized and turn into developing grape berries, it usually lasts two or maybe three weeks. Because of the cold, drizzly weather many of us have been experiencing this spring, this critical period has been elongated and interrupted. Little delicate flowers have a harder time getting consistently fertilized when it’s windy, cold or rainy. This means many of us are still seeing blooming flowers and set berries on the same shoot as well as many “hen and chick” clusters where bigger berries are interspersed with tiny little hard BB’s. This in turn means that, as the grapes approach ripeness, some clusters on the same vine and even berries within the same cluster may be more or less ripe when compared to their neighbors. That means winemakers have to be super-vigilant when choosing pick dates. They will have to really make sure their vineyard brix sample size is big enough to be significant and they will have to rely on multiple cluster rather than berry-only samples. Forget about just skipping down a few vine rows popping random berries to taste for development; 2015 will be a season where it will pay to sample early, widely and often.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and Winemaker for Picket Fence Vineyards, Garnet Vineyards and others. She sources from vineyards all over California for her clients’ projects. Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014. @alisoncrowewine firstname.lastname@example.org
For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of friends express their concern about the recent Northern California storms. Alarmed about images they’ve seen on the news of vineyards up to their elbows in water, they query, “On top of the earthquake, now you’ve got to deal with flooded vineyards? Can’t you guys in Napa ever catch a break?”
What they don’t know is that this December rain is just the break- the break in the historical drought- that we’ve been looking for.
This Harvest many of us were in a state of quiet panic. One more dry winter and ponds and reservoirs wouldn’t have enough water for frost protection during bud break. There would be precious little natural water in the ground for the vines to sip and many would go thirsty as the heat of summer parched developing leaves and clusters. In a Harvest heat spike, crop-saving water wouldn’t be available from wells or vineyard ponds to prevent grapes from turning to raisins on the vine. In short, without rain this winter we would be facing a very dire situation. Winter 2015 would be make or break.
It looks like (fingers crossed), in the short term at least, we are getting just what we need. Many areas in Northern California are close to average rainfall totals for this time of year and it’s only December. The overall picture of the drought Statewide is improving, especially in areas north of Santa Barbara County. Recent reports show the likelihood of the next three months being nice and wet.
We are not, however, out of this historic drought yet. If we don’t get enough water frozen into our Sierra Nevada snowpack “reservoir”, it’s possible that a wet 2015 will simply kick the can down the road and we’ll be quietly panicking again come the 2015 Harvest season. These storms need to deposit quite a bit of snow in the Sierra as well as significant precipitation in Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties to make me feel better about my vineyards on the Central Coast.
In the meantime, don’t worry about my little grapes getting wet up in Napa. As fellow Nap-kin Dan Berger recently explained, vines can survive “wet feet”, even for an extended period of time. Sure, the rain has caused and is causing small amounts of localized flooding and the odd new grapevine replant or two will end up in a culvert. We’re continuing to watch pockets of erosion-prone slopes and are taking care not to run the tractors into the mud bogs.
Wet vines? John Deere up to his axles in mud? So much water in our ponds that the reservoirs spill over? All of my wine making and grape growing buddies and I, North and South, near and far, have just two words on our minds and on the tips of our tongues: “Bring it”.
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger living in Napa, CA. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards among other consulting projects and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book. Started in 2013, www.girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. When she has time, she plays tennis, cooks for friends and family, writes the occasional wine article and does a daily rain dance.
In addition to making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Garnet Vineyards, I consult for a wide array of wineries and brands around the state of California. Every Harvest I crush quite a few tons for my clients and work out of a number of wineries from Napa to Sonoma to the Central Coast. You could say I get around. What that means is, aside from seeing some beautiful scenery and getting to work with a lot of wonderful people, I get a pretty good view of what happens across the state during Harvest.
You’ve probably already heard the chatter: “Early.” “Fast.” “High Quality” (the latter the standard rote from all of the regional vintners’ associations.) However, you may not have heard all that I did as I traveled, worked and shared the occasional beer with my grape-growing and winemaking colleagues during this fast and furious crush season. Below are some lesser-known bits of winemaking insight and what they might mean for the developing wines of Harvest 2014.
Harvest wasn’t early everywhere or for every varietal
In the North Coast, where I live and where my operations are based, Chardonnay was actually quite late. I got into the bulk of my Russian River Chardonnay only after I started pulling in Alexander Valley Cab, which in ten years of working with my current slate of vineyards has never happened. On the Central Coast last week I had friends that were still waiting for some Zins and Carignane to ripen, which is odd for their relatively warm Paso Robles climate. Here in Napa, one of my Oak Knoll Cabernet vineyards which is typically among the first to come in was one of my last this year, as I waited longer than anticipated for the flavors to really “pop”.
The consequences of this atypical ripening pattern were largely twofold. First, wineries had a bit of a tough time pressing finished red fermentations while pressing incoming whites. Unless you have multiple presses (or want rose wine) you have to carefully clean red skins from the press before loading in white grapes. This, coupled with cellars already crowded with wine from the bountiful 2012 and 2013 vintages made for tight quarters, long hours and frazzled nerves. So far from what I’ve seen, wineries pulled off miracles but it makes me wonder if all winemakers got their fruit processed exactly when they desired. Secondly, the flip-flopped ripening order made 2014 a year where, especially, you had to be in the vineyard early and often to determine the perfect “pick window”. This Harvest’s ideal moment for picking any given block was unpredictable and it’s likely that winemakers who just relied on Brix reports (and didn’t even visit the vineyard until sugars hit 25.0) missed it.
2014 could be the perfect “low alcohol” year for some reds
Looking for “lower alcohol” red wines that might clock in at 13.0% rather than more typical levels above 14.50% alcohol? 2014 might be a year to watch from your favorite producers, especially those who make Pinot Noir as well as Napa and Alexander Valley Merlots. These varietals came in from my vineyards up north and on the Central Coast at record early dates and most had reached full flavor and tannin maturity at brixes well under 25.0. Pyrazines (a dreaded “bell pepper” aroma indicative of unripe Cabernet and Merlot) even disappeared early, further indicating a high-quality, lower-brix pick date. I attribute all this to the warm, largely frost-free growing season we had on the North and Central Coasts as well as some propitious late winter rains that helped keep soil profiles relatively full except in the driest spots. Stanly Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir at 23.8 Brix on August 28th? Flavors were there, the balance was there, and tannins were ripe so I ignored the calendar and picked it. Based on what I just tasted in barrel yesterday, another year from now I know I’ll still be glad that I did.
Mid-October rains are not worrying winemakers (for once)
A major mid-October rainstorm in Northern California would normally be call for alarm during any typical Harvest season. Instead of worrying winemakers in what would usually be the height of the picking panic, the high probability of a few wet days this week is being welcomed by almost everyone I know. Unlike most years, just about every grape is in the barn, happily fermenting away, or just scooting in before tonight’s predicted raindrops are slated to start falling. Like “noble rot” dessert wines, those which get their concentrated sugars and distinctive, luscious flavors from indigenous vineyard molds? This extra moisture will surely encourage the growth of Botrytis cinerea and wines from producers like Napa’s Oro Puro and Foley Johnson should be especially fabulous from the 2014 season.
So believe the hype. Harvest 2014 was early (mostly). It was also fast, unless you’re still hanging your Semillon waiting for Botrytis to cover your clusters with a fuzzy grey blanket. And yes, you can believe the vintners’ associations too. I don’t know how we got off so easily, but statewide, Mother Nature blessed us with a flavorful, colorful, high quality Harvest- for a third time in a row. Now let’s just hope she comes through with a really wet winter.
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014.
What does a vineyard smell like? If you’re fortunate enough to be around vineyards in the middle of Spring, you might find out if you can catch the vines when they’re in the midst of that fleeting week or two called “Bloom.” This is when the developing grape clusters actually flower, get fertilized and begin their true journey to become this harvest’s grape crop.
Some express surprise that grapes actually flower. It’s not perhaps the most glamorous part of the wine year, and certainly never seems to get much attention in the media. Indeed, it is probably one of the quietest times of the growing season. The pruning crews are long gone and the tractors have done most of their post-winter tilling. The danger of frost season is largely over. Harvest is still many long months away and winemakers have their heads buried deep in their barrel stacks and their bottling lines. Attention is focused elsewhere.
In the meantime, screens of vine leaves obscure the drama quietly unfolding underneath. Push aside a saucer-sized leaf and you’ll reveal a thumb’s length of yellow-green nubs, each crowned with a tuft of cream-colored threads. Carefully wave away the drowsing bumblebee and bury your nose in the soft texture of the developing grape cluster. Inhale. Until the grapes are crushed and fermentation begins, this is the only time you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the scent of a grape.
So what does a vineyard smell like? Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir, at 10:01 in the morning on May 1, 2014 smelled like the skin of a sun-warmed D’Anjou pear, the flesh of a fuji apple and a slice of a barely-ripe honeydew melon.
The aroma of a blooming grape cluster is sweet without being cloying and like the scent of violets, is ephemeral and doesn’t satiate. It’s impossible to stop sniffing because the aroma of Bloom, like the time of the year itself, is subtle, beautiful and fleeting.
Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and is fascinated by the world of scent and loves how aromas stir our memories and touch our souls.
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Copyright Alison Crowe 2014
Just like TV’s favorite good guy/bad guy Walter White, there’s a lot of positive and negative about the season we call “bud break.” On one hand, it’s an exciting and exhilarating time when our vines wake up and the buds start pushing out the shoots which will turn into this Harvest’s grapes.
There are gorgeous sights to be had out in the field: stands of poppies, rows of mustard, velvety cover crops and of course, the stars of the show, our developing grape canopy and clusters.
On the other hand, there are some potentially not-so-beautiful experiences to be had: frost, continued drought, or even maybe crop-damaging hail. It’s a stressful time where we worry about how cold those nights will get or how much (or how little!) rainfall will manifest as the days creep by into late spring when warmer night temperatures take away a lot of the worry.
Though we’d like to see more storms and rain during this early growing season (we need it!), the main concern is frost, especially given the 2014 bud break which is tracking a week or two ahead of average.
What that means is that there are potentially two weeks’ more of nights where we could experience frost and subsequent damage to the emerging buds, resulting in stunted green growth and lost crop. Based on bud counts, shoot counts and just because I don’t think Mother Nature can hand us three bumper crops in a row, 2014 isn’t shaping up to be a big harvest season to begin with. Adding insult to injury, we are still in water-challenged conditions in California, which means that there could be little (and in some areas, no) access to extra water for frost protection (using sprinklers in cold conditions counter-intuitively can prevent buds from freezing).
So far, the Napa and Sonoma frost forecast into next week looks pretty good and continued cloud cover and rainy weather will keep nighttime temperatures above freezing. As we clear up into next week, however, those clear night skies mean colder temperatures could set in even as we get sunnier and warmer days. Cue the AMC (and the wind machines), grab some popcorn and a glass of Pinot Noir and be prepared for some “Breaking Bad”-style Jekyll and Hyde behavior. It’s always exciting to be in the vineyard in the springtime but we could be in for some cold criminal action!
Alison Crowe is the winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and is keeping tabs on vineyards in Carneros, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Monterey appelations. Follow her on Twitter @GarnetVineyards or on facebook.com/GarnetVineyards for the latest on the developing season!