Category Archives: Master Of Wine Studies

Harvest 2014: Week 4 – The Earth Shakes

I suppose every vintage has its challenges. This one just happened to include a 6.1 earthquake with the epicenter a short 4 miles from Robert Mondavi Winery’s Napa Barrel storage warehouse. We have canceled the blocks we were going to pick tomorrow. The warehouse is a mess. We are not sure what was lost yet but it is a true miracle this quake happened in the middle of the night. If it was during the workweek I’m sure we would be missing more precious assets. The winery itself was largely unharmed minus 4 stainless tanks that decided to take a bit of a walk. I went in earlier this morning to help clean up. It was far less dramatic than it could have been. All the lab chemicals were unaffected. The equipment was still on the counters. My office was shaken up with the computer monitors tossed around and knocked over just like most everyone else’s. I spent some time cleaning up the winemaker’s vault with our lab manager. Most of the bottles on the floor were intact and just needed to be replaced.

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The actual quake was very surreal. The massive boom woke Brian and I up first, then a full 20-25 seconds of intense rocking as if a giant was shaking the house back and forth. I waited, frozen, waiting for the crashes of broken glass I was certain would shortly follow. We had found the light by the time the shaking stopped and turned it on just in time to see the ceiling can rocking precariously above our heads. My first words? “That was BIG! If we felt that here then it was major!” I immediately turned to Twitter to see who else had felt the shaking since our house seemed to be intact for the time being. This was my first earthquake, which now rounds out my list of natural disasters. As someone who has experienced tornados, hurricanes, blizzards, Ice storms, floods, volcanoes and now an earthquake, earthquakes are at the top of my least preferred list right above volcanos and tornados. Granted the volcano that I experienced was not up close and personal so that would probably make a difference in the rankings.

We’ll see what the rest of this week brings. If you are interested in what I was worried about before the earthquake keep reading.

I can’t believe that it is Week 4 of harvest 2014 already!  We’ve made great progress on the Sauvignon Blanc which will probably be finished by the end of this week.  Pinot Noir started coming in last week with our first blocks and will move steadily along this week with a constant stream of Pinot every day.  Last week’s weather was perfect for grapes to ripen with cool nights and moderately warm days however this week it is supposed to warm up a bit.  The fog is forecasted to lift early tomorrow and bring warmer weather.

I always get nervous with potential heat spikes while picking Pinot Noir.  It is a delicate variety and usually does not ripen at a constant pace the way Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon does.  It has a reputation for being fickle and no where is that more prevalent with watching the Brix numbers on Pinot Noir.  It will stall for a week, sometimes more, then jump rapidly over the course of 2-3 days.  Anticipating these jumps is more an art than a science.  It’s a gut instinct where you have to take the numbers with a grain of salt and trust your tastebuds in the field.  Heat spikes exacerbate the wild swings and can turn what is a reasonably restrained Pinot block at 23 Brix into a raisined, jammy monster at 26 in the blink of an eye.

We’ll see what this week brings us but so far we are doing well and catching the jumps when they happen.  Anticipating what the Pinot is doing is also keeping my mind off of the fact that in 2 weeks I get the results from this year’s MW exam on September 8th.  I’m still in that happy world of possibilities right now where anything could happen and I can’t imagine that I failed yet again.  Having failed the same part of the exam 4 times does lead me to believe, just out of habit rather than real proof, that a 5th time is unlikely to change. However, I have a hope that this time might be different (Add in Liza Minelli singing “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret here!).  I can’t bring myself to actually prepare for another fail, not when I’ve spent the past 6 years thinking that I was going to be an exception to the rule. Common sense says I should, but deep down I’m a dreamer and the dreamer in me wants to believe that if I put enough time and effort into something I will achieve it regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

In the meantime, I’ll continue focusing on the Pinot Noir. Maybe glance at the Merlot and Cabernet (that are chasing the heels of the Pinot) at 22-23 Brix already and keep my mind occupied until I have to face reality, whatever that may be on the 8th of September.

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The View from the Vineyard: 2014, Warmest Vintage in Ten Years??

This vintage is particularly intriguing to me for several reasons.

1) It is a drought year.

2) It is the warmest vintage in the past 10 years.

3) Flowering was difficult to say the least.

The drought issue is not news to anyone.  It’s been widely publicized.  However, I don’t think many people outside of the industry know how close we all really came to having zero water for this vintage.  All I hear from growers is how the vintage was saved by the significant February rainstorms.  Those two rain events which brought us over 15″ of rain in some areas may possibly be the only way some farmers were able to have a crop this year.  It was serious! It still is serious.  From July of 2013 to the end of May there has been 18″ of rain TOTAL easily making it the driest in the past 10 years.  Short shoots have been less of an issue this year simply because growers were prepared for it.  Last year didn’t look like a drought year but it was since we didn’t get a bit of significant rain from January of 2013 through the growing season.  The only reason it wasn’t classified as an official drought is because we got a season’s worth of rain in November and December of 2012.

Now to the warmth.  I haven’t heard very many people talking about this.  The main focus seems to be on the drought.  Over the past 10 years, 2004 has been the warmest with 1291 growing degree days or GDDs (If you aren’t sure what a Growing Degree Day is click here) as of the end of May.  This year we were at 1365 at the end of May and that wasn’t even including the two scorching days we had this past weekend of 105+ degrees F!  We are once again flirting with an early harvest similar to last year but with a much warmer overall season. We were super fortunate to have had a very mild frost season this year.  Of course, that probably contributed to this warming trend. I hope the rapid season does not translate into high sugars while we wait for phenolic ripeness to set in, but only the rest of the summer will tell.

This brings me to the third issue, Flowering.  The weather for flowering was not great this year.  It was cool, windy, and we had a rain event right in the middle.  It was classic for what you don’t want to have happen during flowering.  Shatter has been a problem, particularly in Merlot but overall the Cabernet looks ok.  My biggest concern is vines with clusters almost two weeks apart in development.  2013 was a vintage of an incredibly even flowering which translated into an even set, verasion, and harvest with everything coming ripe at the same time.  I don’t predict that same issue this year.  The variability between development on clusters on the same vine is pretty drastic.  Check out the picture below!

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This picture was taken about 2 weeks ago with one cluster at pea-size and another just finishing flowering! While this is not the end of the world, all the growers will need to be extra careful during verasion this year and pay particular attention to the green drop.  Carefully selecting and dropping the fruit that is behind will help even out the ripening for the remainder of the season.  This season will not be without it’s challenges but it doesn’t look like everything ripening at once, like last year, will be one of them.

That is the view from the vineyard.  On a personal note, I finished my last MW exam last week and am now starting to figure out what life is like post-MW preparation.  I found more free time and a slight reduction in stress although waiting for the results for 3 months definitely has it’s stressful moments.  The good thing is, the next 3 months will fly by because harvest will be here before we know it.

Author’s note: Weather data sited is for the Oakville, CA weather station.
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My Last Night as a Practical MW Student

Tomorrow through Friday I will be sitting the Master of Wine exam for the last time. I’m so excited for the exam in the morning but also I will miss the intense preparation a bit. Starting Saturday I will begin a life with no intensive structured studies. That is a life which I have experienced only for short periods. I suppose I ended up being a perpetual student anyway even though that is what I swore off once I graduated college in 2006. However in June of 2007 I signed up for my first WSET course and have been slowly acquiring certifications ever since with the ultimate goal of achieving the MW. I suppose it really is the process of learning I enjoy as well as the pursuit of a goal.

Thinking to tomorrow, I wonder what the examiners have set up for us? Classics? The hot new world area taking London by storm? Avant garde new production techniques? Small production obscure Italian varieties? All are possible but many are not probable. Probability points to classics. Standards which have been set over time. Chardonnay, Cabernet, and others however there are always surprises and that is what makes this fun. Did I just say that this is fun? Yes it is! This year I have found the fun in the practical exam. That is how I know I’m going to pass this year. If is because I know that whatever they set out for me tomorrow and Thursday and Friday, I am prepared to answer it. It’s a good feeling.

Now I’m going to go grab some pizza with a friend, maybe a beer, relax, do some last minute vintage studying before bed and wake up ready for the experience. Research Paper, here I come!