We just finished Week 6 which saw the bulk of the Pinot Gris that we’re harvesting along with the first part of our Chardonnay. We even brought in some Zinfandel last week at 26+ Brix! No joke! Weather was a bit warmer last week with some days in the 90s but it has still remained fairly cool for this area. Week 6 is essentially the half way point of the season however the bulk of the craziness is still yet to come as weeks 8-10 is when the North Coast fruit really kicks into gear. Pinot Noir was harvested last week on the Central Coast last week from North Canyon and Chardonnay is beginning this week although acids remain very high. We’re talking total acidities of 9 or higher (for those who don’t know how high that is, normal acids around harvest are between 6-7 for whites and lower for reds).
Then it comes down to when the winemaker decides to pick. This is a tricky time of year. As with many of the decisions that winemakers make this time of year, picking time is critical in setting up wines for success later in their lives. It is also one of those decisions that should be considered carefully but once decided one should not second guess themselves. There are several factors that go into a picking decision; vine health, fruit analytics, flavor development, weather, and logistics.
For vine health, it is important to make sure the vines have the ability to ripen the fruit further should you want to leave it hanging longer. Vines that are shutting down do not want to continue to put energy into fruit that could be put into sugar storage for over the winter. Once the fruit has reached physiological ripeness (see my earlier post “What is Ripeness?” for more info on ripeness) the vine wants to put its efforts into going into dormancy for the winter. Some other reasons why you’d want to pick for vine health is a defoliated vine. Frost, hail, wind, and drought can all wreck havoc on a canopy. Frost fries the leaves causing them to dump Potassium into the fruit. This totally screws up the analysis of the fruit and can cause fermentation issues. Hail, wind, and drought can defoliate the vine, leaving it no ability to ripen the fruit naturally. The vine will then pull from its own sugar reserves in a last ditch effort to ripen the fruit. Harvesting at this point is the only way to preserve the health of the vine for later seasons. Vine health also covers fruit that may be breaking down from diseases such as botrytis or powdery attacks. If the fruit is going you know where in a hand basket, you might want to get it off sooner rather than later.
Assuming your vines are healthy and have no urgent issues the next piece of information you need is the fruit analytics. Sugar accumulation (or Brix level in the US) and Acids including pH and TA can give you an idea as to where your wine will be headed as far as alcohol and balance. If your acid is dropping rapidly but your sugar is not rising to match the wine runs the risk of being unbalanced. Likewise, if the sugar is going through the roof quickly then you may want to pick before the alcohol gets out of control. There are also ways to measure anthocyanin (color) accumulation and tannin development but they usually need some sophisticated equipment to measure accurately. Analytics never tell the entire story but do offer supporting evidence for when to pick.
The most critical piece of information comes from one of the winemaker’s most important analytical tools; their mouth. The analysis will get you a long way but there is no substitute for getting into the vineyard and tasting the fruit. If the flavors are where you want them to be and for reds the tannins are ripe then pick! Everything else can be adjusted but you can’t add flavor, weight and body where there is none.
Say the vines are healthy, the analytics and flavors are almost there. You want to pick next Monday, not this week. However, mother nature has decided to throw you a curve ball and it’s going to rain next Monday (it’s not really going to rain next Monday, I’m just throwing out a hypothetical situation here so don’t get all upset you NorCal folks!) or maybe have a massive heat spike on Friday (a la 2010 in Nor Cal). What do you do? Do you pick before or after the weather? It’s a decision we’ve all had to make at some point. You weigh the pros and cons and make a decision. Remember, this is wine, not brain surgery. The minute we winemakers start taking ourselves that seriously, we will need to step back and relax a bit.
Lastly, a winemaker has to consider the logistics of the whole picking operation. How are you going to pick it? Machine? Do you have one in the area that can accommodate you? Hand? Is there a crew you can call in? What are you going to put the fruit in? How are you going to haul it to the winery? Are there trucks available if the winery is far away? Is the winery even prepared for your fruit? Do they have room? I think there is this conception that all the winemaker does is says “Pick it!” and magically harvesters who were waiting for only that block descend upon it and in a few hours it is sitting at the winery being lovingly cared for by attentive staff. Well the last part is true. All the grapes should be and are lovingly cared for but it is a very fortunate winemaker that has the entirety of that scenario as their reality.
There you have it. Your decisions have been made, the logistics figured out, and the fruit is on its way. Now the real work begins….