All over California, Harvest 2015 was a spooky one. Rumors of Sauvignon Blanc mysteriously vanishing were rife. Grapes were disappearing left and right. Winemakers tried to blame the viticulturists for poor crop estimates. Viticulturists tried to blame the weather. This, however, is the real story behind what happened……
In days of yore the Harvest lore
Was all ‘bout tons redundant
Ample flows, wines white and rose
Cheered us with yields abundant
Alas, ’15, with yields obscene
Doth make me scratch my head
Could it be our Cab and PV
Were pillaged by zombies instead?
One harvest night in full moonlight
A zombie horde I spied
In lieu of brains & bloody remains
With bloody paws & dripping maws
They gobbled with wild delight,
And so instead the crazed undead
Left nary a berry in sight!
Oh what a pick and such a trick
This grape massacre unforeseen.
Though ‘tis delish and you I wish
A most Happy Halloween!
Zombies ate my grapes. For real. OK, maybe only in Paso…..
There indeed was a “perfect storm” of causes all over Coastal California: long-term drought effects, extended bloom, poor set due to weather, sporadic frost damage, the odd freak summer rainstorm during bloom… but the great news is that what we have is looking great. 2015 is set to be a distinctive and delicious year. Small berries, great color on the Bordeaux varietals, concentrated flavors and extremely fruity wines all are making me grateful that one bad trick has provided many treats this Harvest!
Alison Crowe is a Napa-based winemaker with projects that include Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, and Back From the Dead Red. She works with grapes from Napa, Russian River, Carneros and the Central Coast so saw a wide range of yields in 2005. She is an award-winning blogger and winemaker and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book.
2015 was a record early Harvest in Northern California’s wine country. As a result, those of us (read: Winemakers) who rarely get to enjoy the festivities of fall are casting about for ways to celebrate the season.
I know some of us are thrilled to actually be able to make our kids’ Halloween costumes rather than throw something together from Safeway the day of. Many of we winemakers are mentioning classic fall food as the days get shorter; I’ve seen lots of recipes for pot roast, butternut squash ravioli and split pea soup on Pinterest lately. A lot better than taco truck burritos on the crush pad, to be sure!
We’re all talking about dusting off the hobbies, getting out for a little fall-weather hiking and maybe some “staycation” wine country activities with our friends and families. If it’s the kind of thing you like do (and it’s the kind of thing I’m getting back into doing), why not join me at the “Best Destination Race in the Pacific West”– the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon/Hallowine 5K on Halloween morning? It’s my first time doing this race, and, when I saw the invitation from Destination Races of course I had to say yes. I’ve never done this course because, of course, I’m always super busy on Halloween- except for this historically early 2015 season!
Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon Details:
Website: Click Here
When: Saturday, October 31, 2015
Start Times: 1/2 Marathon: 7:30am PST. The Hallowine 5k has 2 start waves, 8:45 and 8:50am PST
Fun Fall Extras:
-Welcome receptions and pre-race dinner events
-Race Day expo
-Post-Race wine and food festival
-costume contest, feed and beer, live band, awards, wine tasting ($35 extra fee
-Involved wineries include Truett Hurst, Coppola’s newest gig, Virginia Dare Winery, Kendall Jackson, Trione, Mazzocco and Trentadue Winery- what a lineup!
All info can be found here: http://destinationraces.com/runhb/
All in all this looks like a really fun wine country race. I’m so lucky to live in Napa, where it seems like there’s a 5K, 10K or half marathon within a 25 mile radius almost every other weekend. Now that I don’t have to grab a fright wig from the “Seasonal Sale” shelves at Safeway, I guess the only question is, what should I dress up as on race day?
Alison Crowe is a Napa-based consulting winemaker, blogger and author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards and Buccaneer Wines, among others. She got back into running this summer and was invited to participate in the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon event as a local blogger. All Photos credit: Destination Races.
He who laughs last, laughs best, right? Well, in this case it was our boss, Mother Nature who got in the last rib-ticklers as we finish a record early (and quite light) harvest here on the California Coast. From Santa Barbara County to the shores of the Russian River, she served us up quite a mixed bag. Though the dust is still settling (and the last tanks still just starting to ferment), there are some things we are sure of. We know, for instance, that there are ten things about Harvest 2015 that no Winemaker said. Ever.
-(To local taco truck driver)-“It’s a slow start this year- don’t even worry about putting us on your rounds until September 15.”
-(To Assistant Winemaker)- “We don’t need to work a Sunday shift to start pressing tanks out. This Cabernet never gets ripe before the Chardonnay.”
-(To Grower Relations rep)- “I’m not interested in tasting anything unless it’s at least 25.0 Brix- I’ll come out and check on the Pinot in about two weeks.”
-(To Night Shift Supervisor)-“Go ahead and schedule tank 5A for a two-week extended maceration- we probably won’t need that tank for a while.”
-(To Farming Company Scheduler)-“Can I schedule in four Cabernet deliveries off of five separate blocks for tomorrow morning? There should be plenty of tucks available and you’re not busy, right?”
-(To winery owner)- “My estimates indicate we’ll have more than enough tons for our reserve Pinot Noir program.”
-(To key regional distributor team)- “Sure, come on out for a vineyard tour with your folks on October 1. I won’t even be started picking Cabernet by and there’ll still be plenty of Pinot left on the vine for you to taste.”
-(To national sales reps)- “There’s no way we’ll be done pressing before Thanksgiving- I just can’t come out to the East Coast until early December.”
-(To Cellarmaster)- “Are you sure we don’t have a bigger tank? I think these trucks are going to come in heavy.”
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and makes Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards as well as the popular “Buccaneer” wines (in addition to other projects). She lives in Napa but works with fruit from all over California’s coastal winegrowing regions. She is the author of the WineMaker’s Answer Book and is always amused how each Harvest is something different!
Email: email@example.com @AlisonCroweWine
“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other…but to be with each other.”
― Christopher McDougall,
Been Doon That Long Road
It’s been about ten years since I’ve been able to call myself “a runner.” Back when I was working for Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, I did the casual 5 or 10 K’s and planned a couple of triathlons into my year. I was never what you would call hard core. I did, however, really enjoy regular solitary foggy mornings in my West Side Santa Cruz neighborhood and loved to put in some miles atop the windswept bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I had always been a solitary runner- I ran for myself and I ran only with myself.
Then marriage, grad school, a new full-time job based in Napa plus two pregnancies and four years of subsequent sleepless nights intervened. Needless to say, being up at 2 AM because your toddler can’t sleep is not conducive to early morning, pre-work jogs.
Time for “Me Time”….
About two and a half months ago our youngest, Bryce, began sleeping through the night on a more regular basis and I decided it was time to reclaim some of that vaunted “me time” they talk about. I started setting out running clothes (and the all-important automatic coffee maker) the night before a few times a week, and if the little one didn’t keep us up, got up with an early alarm and got out the door. Exploring our new neighborhood was nice (Chris and I moved to a new place in west Napa in March) and it did feel good to get some cool “early in the morning” time to myself before the world got crazy with Cheerios and work emails. But I realized something was missing.
Digital Life to #InRealLife
Thinking that I was lacking a goal, I searched for a local road race. I posted the details for one on Facebook, knowing that some of my friends-you know, the ones that have their lives so together they already do that kind of thing-would see it. I had never before done a race with anyone else. This time, however, I thought, if I had someone to meet me on race day I would be more committed to getting out of bed in the morning.
I was really happy when my friend Neeraj Singh, a fellow UC Davis MBA grad who lives in Walnut Creek but works up in Napa and Sonoma Counties a few days a week, contacted me about being interested in the race. He had never done any road racing before but he and some buddies had the long-term goal of completing a half-marathon this spring. This 5 K on September 13 in Napa would be his first step. Knowing I had to commit for real if I had someone else to meet on race day, I realized I would have to do some more training than just schlepping around the block in the mornings. Because I was already hiking around at Stanly Ranch in Carneros (part of which is open to the public as a portion of the San Francisco Bay Trail) checking on my Pinot Noir grapes, why not combine work with some working out?
Fast forward four weeks or so and we’ve been having a blast. We’ve roped in one of my neighbors, Sara Guzman, also a mom of two little boys but someone who’s got a lot more experience running than either Neeraj or I, and the invitation is still open…. We three went for our first “group run” on Saturday and as Neeraj and I carpooled to the start site we were laughing so hard about stupid stuff (don’t ask), our warm up huff of 500 feet, straight up, didn’t seem so tough. For the first time I was willing to run with others.
After a scenic 50 minute elevation and interval-intensive course, we stood around stretching and talking politics, the wine business and working parenthood (Neeraj has yet to reach that Waterloo). Team name? Highland Huffers? The Green Team (a nod to being “new” and to Neeraj’s volunteer experience with Auction Napa Valley and his “Napa Green” T-Shirt)….How about “Team Awesome”? Over the top to be sure, but hey, we’ll take it. We all admitted that we were just still figuring it all out-life the universe and everything. And getting out early on a Saturday morning to kick up the dust together was pretty awesome.
We’re meeting again tomorrow, have swapped running books (from which I extracted the above quote) and the running bug is infecting the extended family; my husband and his brother are set to do a half marathon in early December. Sara, Neeraj and I will high-five our way through our little 5 K on Sunday and then we all agree we’re looking for our next race. We’re eyeing the Wine Country Half Marathon on Halloween in Healdsburg.
So I’ve gone from “couch to 5 K” in about three months and, with the help, encouragement and laughter of Sara and Neeraj (and the babysitting prowess of my husband) and can now once again call myself a runner. And the goal isn’t necessarily to set a Personal Record or even cross a finish line. It’s wanting again and again that mix of laughing so hard you’re crying and breathing so hard you’re gasping- and capturing the joy of beautiful places, in real life, and sharing it with others.
The rigors of a professional career, the stresses of Harvest and the insidious isolation of social media can all take their toll if we let them. I still log solitary morning miles but have learned to appreciate the brother and sister-hood of others. I’ll say it again because it bears repeating:
“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other,… but to be with each other.”
― Christopher McDougall,
Alison Crowe is an award winning Winemaker, author and blogger and laces up her running shoes in and around Napa.
Today I had a great catch-up conversation with friend and colleague Craig Root, a 30-year winery tasting room and hospitality veteran. Though not a winemaker or grower, Craig has “been there done that” in Sonoma and Napa Valleys for many years and of course has seen many harvests come and go.
He asked me how Harvest 2015 was going and I filled him on what I’ve been experiencing in Napa, Sonoma and on the Central Coast as I pull in grapes for Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, my Buccaneer, Longhand projects and many others. “Well,” he said. “Mother Nature always bats last.”
Indeed she does.
Line drive? Surprise pop fly? Strike out? Here’s what Mother Nature is swinging at us as Harvest 2015 really starts to get underway:
-Yields are down: After three cosy and ample harvests (’12, ’13 and ’14) 2015 is a bit on the lean side tonnage-wise. Many of us will admit that, as with the stock market, it was time for a correction. However- if you’re planning on getting 8 barrels-full of Rodgers Creek Pinot Noir and only come up with enough grapes for 5, that’s a little tough.
-Yields are unpredictable: So far, North Coast Chardonnay seems to be in “average” yields and since I haven’t harvested Napa Cabernet yet can’t speak to these later-ripening varietals. Sauvignon Blanc from Napa was about 20% down from predicted yield for me. Pinot Noir seems to vary by vineyard and even by vineyard block.
-Hurry up and wait: It’s like bases loaded, a hit into McCovey Cove to end the first inning and then….crickets. I’ve pulled in the “early bird” blocks like Block 17 Pinot Noir at Stanly Ranch (Napa Carneros) and Sauvingnon Blanc from Alexander Valley and now, like many of my colleagues, am waiting for the next wave of grapes to ripen. It was an historically early harvest for most of us across the state, still and sparkling wine producers alike, and a heat spike last week got a lot of winemakers a little antsy. We then had about a week of cool weather that slowed everything down again. We’ve been enjoying a few warm days now but it’s slated to cool off again this weekend. I’ve heard rumors of precipitation but it seems to be just that- rumors for those of us south of Eureka.
-Lower Brixes with respect to other signs of ripeness: Could 2015 be a “lower alcohol year” and shift some winery’s styles back into what some would call “Classic Old School” California? Craig, and many of my best sources for wine industry stories, love to regale us young whippersnapper winemakers with tales of lower-alcohol Cabs from the 1970’s and 1980’s that tasted like a dream, aged beautifully and didn’t get you hammered after two glasses. So far, I’m seeing that I don’t need to wait for something to get to 25 Brix to taste ripe. Acids are dropping out quickly, seeds are browning well, and flavors are “popping” – all at moderate Brixes.
Who’s up next? Pinch hitter? Stay tuned…..After all, Willie McCovey was one of the best. But don’t ever forget that, like Craig says, Mother Nature always bats last.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and harvests from all over the North and Central Coasts for her winemaking projects and brands. She lives in Napa. firstname.lastname@example.org @alisoncrowewine
Harvest happens- and so do earthquakes.
An historically early 2015 harvest is what is rocking the winemaking world in Napa right now. A year ago, however, the early morning rumblings weren’t the sound of grape trucks heading from the field to the winery.
At 3:20 in the morning, after 15 seconds of shaking at 6.0 magnitude, most of Napa County was without power. Barrels toppled from metal racks, bottles launched off shelves and even stainless steel tanks full of wine lurched from their concrete pedestals. Heavy stonework showered down onto cellar floors, old stonework facades unpeeled onto crush pads and wineglasses mingled with reagent bottles and measuring cylinders in slippery shards on laboratory floors.
Luckily, most wineries quickly cleaned up the mess and got on with the business of prepping for the Harvest to come. Most lucky indeed was the fact that most of us- winemakers,lab staff, cellar hands and vineyard crew-were largely home in bed when the quake hit.
“It could’ve been so much worse” is always tiresome to hear. Tell that to my neighbors down the street who were red tagged, or the owners of Sala Salon, Vintner’s Collective or Napkins restaurant, who had their businesses (among many others) badly impacted by the quake. The semi-morbid reality is however, had Harvest 2014 been as early as this year, many more of us would’ve been in harm’s way.
In late August 2014 only a handful of wineries were in such full Harvest swing as to be working a night shift. The sparkling wine harvest typically starts at least two-three weeks earlier than other wineries because they seek grapes at lower sugars and higher acids for their Champagne-like fizzy wines. I knew that my buddies at Mumm and Domaine Chandon had been picking for about a week or so but most of us who do Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Carneros or Sauvignon Blanc from Napa (typically the earliest grapes to get going) hadn’t scheduled our picks yet. We were still prepping tanks, cleaning barrels and letting our crews get some precious sleep before the 12 hour days and the midnight pumpover shifts started.
It was chilling, in the early morning hours of August 24, 2014, to drive around to the local wineries where I make my wine (one practically over the epicenter) and to realize how lucky we were that the quake happened in the dead of night and that Harvest 2014 wasn’t earlier than it was. All of our wineries had been shut up tight, and amazingly, the damage report was only three broken barrels, broken bottles in the store room and some random drops of wine which had slopped over a full tank top onto the cellar floor. Later that day I dropped by a friend’s winery in Carneros and was distressed to witness both his shellshocked face and the terrible state of his barrel room. Had Harvest 2014 started earlier, there would’ve been much more new wine in barrel and the possibility of much higher property loss.
This is not to say that we “got off easy” from the Quake, nor that it was a complete disaster. The damage was very uneven, varying from winery to winery and neighborhood to neighborhood. My old Victorian house in downtown Napa, one of the hardest-hit areas, got off lightly with cracked plaster and broken wine glasses while three houses in our neighborhood came off their foundations and practically came down.
I was relieved when I heard later in the day that the night crew up at Mumm (still a small number because of how early Harvest started) all got out safely when the shaking hit. Facebook feeds, text messages and emails helped keep us in touch as the days wore into weeks as we cleaned up, took stock and moved forward towards recovery.
According to what I’ve heard and read lately, it’s been quite a recovery. The #NapaStrong Comeback video, created six days after the quake by Evan Kilkus, told the Bay Area and the world that we were open for business while local vintner’s groups and wineries communicated the same “Come Visit Napa” message they do every harvest. A recovering national economy has no doubt helped, but from what I understand most businesses are back on their feet and wineries welcomed record numbers of guests in the last year.
One of the best things to come out of the earthquake was the amazing sense of community, togetherness and sharing we felt then and still feel today. Neighbors dropped everything to help neighbors, benefit concerts and dinners were hastily arranged, and the Napa Valley Vintners started a community assistance fund with $10 Million in seed money. On Monday, August 24 2015, Napa is planning an anniversary event of remembrance and togetherness-“Napa Strong 6.0/365”- at Veterans Park from 3:20 PM-6:00 PM. Music, speakers and disaster preparedness booths and presentations will be featured, all in view of many of the damaged buildings on Main Street still swathed in scaffolding.
Those of us in the full swing of the early 2015 Harvest will read about it in the paper on Tuesday and continue to be glad we weren’t crushing-yet- a year ago.
Comeback Video by Evan Kilkus, produced 6 days after the quake.
Appreciation of History and Heritage”
Back when I was a college student at UC Davis, the Carneros AVA held a special place in my heart, for a lot of reasons. It was the closest serious wine region (about 45 minutes) to campus. Though known for great Pinot and Chardonnay its tasting rooms produced amazing sparkling wines as well as structured and soulful Merlots, Cab Francs and Syrahs. More than a few of us worked Harvest seasons as interns, shuttling back and forth between long shifts on the crush pad and our crash pads in Davis.
Characterized perhaps more by what it was not (touristy, expensive, pretentious) than what it was (authentically California, laid back and “cool” in more way than one), Carneros became a favorite secret spot for many. Founded in 1983, Carneros was one of California’s first American Viticultural Areas.
Today I’m proud to say I’m on the Carneros Wine Alliance Board, serving this special, quirky, quality AVA with my time, my wine and #CarnerosLove.
Come join us this Saturday, July 25 at 3:30 at the diRosa, a beautiful property housing an extensive collection of Bay Area art. Alongside beautiful sculpture, installations and other artworks we will be sipping art of a more liquid kind from 20 of my fellow Carneros wineries. Food will be provided by Stag Dining, wine and food pairing by Fine and Rare, while live music by the Max Bonick Trio and a magnum raffle will be sure to keep things hopping.
Tickets are still available– join me this weekend for a Birthday Bash to remember!
Click here to buy tickets, hang out, and see why I love Carneros.
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, including Carneros, for her clients’ projects. Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014. She serves on the Carneros Wine Alliance Board and can be reached at LinkedIn, @alisoncrowewine ,email@example.com.
Sometimes girlandthegrape.com isn’t only about wine and winemaking. Sometimes it’s about living (and yes, eating) in “Wine Country”. Wherever you live and eat, and whether for environmental, ethical or health reasons many of us are asking more questions about how food gets to our table. It’s not yawn-inducing hipster foodie fetishism; it’s about how the choices we make every day affect our bodies, our communities and our world.
For the last couple of years I’ve been searching for a better way to get quality food on my family’s table.
I wasn’t about to pay the outrageous prices charged at Napa’s boutique charcuterie shops ($13.00/lb for pork chops?) or at the farmer’s market ($9 for a dozen eggs, are you kidding me?).
So we started growing our own tomatoes and I found a regular source of backyard-raised eggs on Craigslist.com (I literally slip $5 under the door mat for a dozen). We look for organic or hormone-free chicken and pork as well as grass-fed beef at the supermarket. Yes, we find ourselves spending a little more on meat but overall we consume less quantity and more quality (luckily the kids love tofu).
The 4-H Meat Solution- as local and humane as you can get
For the last two summers, however, I’ve been stocking up our freezer (and those of friends and family) with what I believe to be the ultimate source of humanely raised, amazing-quality, farm-to-table meat: your friendly neighborhood 4-H club.
For those not in the know, 4-H is national youth-development and mentoring organization with over 6 million members. Kids can participate in a wide array of activities and projects in areas including business, science, health, agriculture and handcrafts. In rural/urban Napa County where I live, many 4-H members choose to raise animals as pets or for market as part of their annual project. Rabbits, chickens, goats, hogs and even dairy cows and horses are shown off every summer at the Napa Town & Country Fair and competition for “Grand Champion”and showmanship ribbons are fierce.
To Market, to Market……
I know, it sounds a little weird and involved. Certainly, buying an animal from a live auction is an experience in and of itself and does take a little practice to get used to. Luckily, I had done 4-H as a kid myself and had raised lambs for market so knew a bit about “how to do it”. And this year, since I couldn’t be at the auction for the whole day, I had a friend (a mom whose daughter was at the fair showing rabbits and goats) kindly volunteer to do the final bidding for me.
After the bidding was done, we were excited to have purchased Bessy, a pure-bred Duroc hog, from Alexa Butts, an 18 year old Napa 4-H member who has raised hogs for auction for the last three years. Yes, paying $5.00-$8.00 a pound for an entire animal that can weigh over 200 pounds is a big upfront investment. If you get together friends and family, however, you can form your own kind of “buying club” and make it affordable for everyone.
It’s About More Than The Meat…..
One of the best parts about buying an animal directly from a 4-H member is that you can get to know who raised your animal as well as how. Alexa told me all about her experience in 4-H this year. She bought two pigs (one a Duroc, Bessy, and the other a “Cross”) from a specific breeder, after much research. “Durocs,” she says, “are considered one of the tastier market hogs.” She described some of the work involved. “You have to feed them, bathe them (on occasion), clean their pen and most importantly practice showmanship,” which prepares you and your animal for final judging in the ring.
As Fair-season approached, she switched up the composition of their feeding routine and even included “an apple a day and the occasional sugar cube as a sweet treat.” She admits that as auction time draws near “It is hard to say goodbye.” The last two years she has gotten a henna tattoo at the fair with her initials and those of her pigs (this year it was “B&B” for Buddy and Bessy). “It is my small way of saying goodbye and as the tattoo fades so does my sadness, because by the time it is gone I know I need to let go.”
In addition to getting some very tasty meat, by supporting 4-H animals you’re directly supporting their owners. “I will be attending Purdue University in the fall studying Animal Science, Pre-Veterinary,” Alexa says, and the money she earns buying, raising and finally auctioning her 4-H animals will help her along the way. The long hours caring for animals, the research and the hard work involved provide their own lessons. “Overall, 4-H has taught me responsibility and respect for where our food comes from, and the care that goes into producing it.”
Eating meat, not to mention eating meat that you’ve actually met, isn’t for everybody. Animals raised for food consume a large percentage of the world’s resources and yes, we should all be eating a lot more plants. Animal or vegetable, however, there’s something very special about closing the circle between what’s on your plate, where it came from and what it took to get it there. Teaching my two young sons about where our food comes from, whether from a row-crop farmer in the Salinas Valley, our own garden or literally from “a girl next door”, is a valuable lesson in and of itself. Thanks, Alexa, for all your hard work and thank you, Napa 4-H!
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 and is an alumna of the Carpinteria Valley 4-H Club. Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014. Reach her at LinkedIn, @alisoncrowewine ,firstname.lastname@example.org.
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