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The wait, the weather, and the winemakers

“A wine is ready when you can’t bear to wait for it any longer”

-Karen MacNeil

And the same thing can be said for grapes…

“Are we there yet?”

“No.”

“Are we there yet?”

“Almost.”

“Are we there, now?”

“Yes, we are here”

And thank the wine gods that we are! It has been a long wait, but we are finally off and running. Two weeks ago, while talking with winemaker John Hawley of Hawley Winery, he was calm, but anxious to get started, “I’m kind of leery to talk timetables, because we just don’t know. We’re just kind of sitting around, trying to find things to do; all the barrels are soaked and tanks washed – now we’re just waiting for grapes.”

If you ask any winemaker, in the last month, there have been a lot of, “Yeah, we should start harvest here in the next week or two.” And then a week passed, but the answer stayed the same, “probably another week or two.”

The 2011 harvest was one of the latest in the last 30 years, according to Hawley, who as if prophesying, said, “We could really use another blast of heat to ripen things up and get the tannins under control with our Bordeaux varietals. There is a lot of concern about grapes actually ripening in some areas; we dropped a lot of fruit to ensure that they would ripen.”

And heat we got. Four straight days of 95+ temperatures last week, rapidly raised sugar levels, and despite a quick cooling trend, the heat has continued and we’re in the thick of harvest, scrambling to keep up with ready-to-pick vineyards.

Growing up, my dad was in the wine business, but I didn’t quite understand what that meant, short of delivering dinner to him when he was working a 15-hour day. I used to get excited for those opportunities; to walk through the wet cellars and smell the fermentation in the air. But now that I’m older and in the business, I understand what it means to wait and wait and wait, and then get hit all at once.

I have been anxiously waiting to get my hands on some grapes. Last Sunday, I finally got the chance; sorting through five tons of Zinfandel grapes for Blanchard Family Wines. Despite the warm weather, the cool season showed on some clusters, with uneven ripening (which isn’t uncommon in Zin), and a bit of mold and botrytis. But overall the quality was considerably better than last years. Mark Blanchard, of Blanchard Family is hoping for a line-up of solid wines from the 2011 vintage, “This Zin is going to be great. The quality alone is better; it puts the 2010 Zin to shame.”

I stood atop a Frankenstein-constructed jungle-gym of a structure (which you often do when you’re working with a start-up winery that sometimes has to improvise how to go about sorting and de-stemming), as bin after bin was raised and dumped into a sorting area where Mark and I picked through the good, the bad, and the ugly, selecting only the best clusters for his 2011 Zin. The grapes if you’re not looking, will slap you in the face while you’re hunched over, searching through the clusters. This is not a job for the faint of heart. You have to kind of ignore the fact that you’re 15 feet in the air and spiders and earwigs and other bugs are crawling all over you while you sort. But this is just the beginning. Sorting grapes is the easy part. Just ask my roommate, Jon.

Jon moved out here from Michigan two years ago, serendipitously fell into the wine industry, and after a few years working in tasting rooms, found himself in the cellar at Red Car Wine Company, where he now works. I was sitting on the couch when he came home after his first day and he exclaimed, “Man, harvest sucks!”

A week later, Jon would find himself working 6 hours of overtime, well into the wee hours of the morning before returning home – only to sleep for 5 or 6 hours before having to wake up and do it again the next day. I wonder if I should deliver dinner to him…

Yup, harvest sucks. It’s a lot of cold, hard, dirty work. And when things get dirty, you have to clean them. 90% of winemaking is cleaning. It’s not all about sipping on free-run juice and smelling grapes ferment in oak barrels. It’s about working your ass off, and being cold and stained all over. Doesn’t sound so romantic does it?

So this is what we wine folk were all waiting for? Long, cold nights in the cellar, with one solid meal in your belly.

The good news Jon: your hard work will be rewarded. When that wine goes into bottle, you can say, “My hands were in those grapes, and I helped make that wine.” And that is a great feeling that no one can take away from you.

At the beginning of last week, less than 10% of the county’s grapes were picked. Now, we’re at about 25% or more, picked – thanks to the heat spell. At the onset of the growing season, cool weather and late rains interfered with pollination, which has lightened the crop in most vineyards, but overall, a long cool growing season allows for a slow maturation and the flavor in the grapes develop earlier. So even though this year’s crop will be moderate, the quality should shine through. Aside from flavorful fruit, we should see higher acidity and lower alcohol wines – which are both good things.

Aside from the light yield, some vineyards have experienced a fair amount of “shot berries.” Shot berries are grapes that didn’t pollinate and as a result are much smaller than their pollinated members of the cluster. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing however; the grapes though small, are packed with flavor; they have not ripened any faster or slower as a result of their size. I took a few pictures while walking the vineyard so you can see for yourself the odd-shaped clusters.

Summer gave way to fall last week, so all we can hope for is consistent weather with warm days and no rain until November. It will be a long wait to bear before we get to sample these wines, but rest easy wine drinkers, the 2011 vintage should be fantastic.

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3 responses to “The wait, the weather, and the winemakers

  1. Well written and informative article. Can’t wait for the 2011 Zins.
    Frank

  2. Although I have worked at a winery, I have never been part of the harvest process. Thanks for the insight. I look forward to getting my hands on some of the varietals you mentioned.

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