I spent a good bit of my Saturday at the Asti Winery tasting room for the Barrel Tasting Weekends for the Northern Sonoma County Wine Roads. This included an event for Dry Creek, Russian River, and of course my stomping grounds the Alexander Valley. I love events like this because I was able to talk to so many great people who loved the wines and really enjoyed learning more about them. There’s always a danger that these weekends will devolve into crowds of drunken people meandering from tasting room to tasting room looking for a cheap buzz. I didn’t see any of the normal signs of that this weekend. It was pleasantly surprising to see the enthusiasm of our guests and that they were so hungry to learn about wine. It’s never a trial to talk to people who are sober and excited about trying your wines. Our barrels were both 2009 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves, each a single vineyard; one from the Asti Estate and the other from Stuhlmuller Vineyards in the southern Alexander Valley. Wine Thief in hand, I described the differences between the different ends of the Alexander Valley and pulled endless samples from the barrels for people to taste. As always, the Stuhlmuller was the more open fruit of the two vineyards because the Estate stays very closed and tight for the first 24 months and only opens up towards the end of the barrel aging cycle. Both wines were VERY young as we age the Reserves for 2 years in barrel and another year in bottle before release. Anyway, it was great to chat with everyone and stand out on the patio on such a nice day.
The remainder of the weekend was spent out in the vineyards finishing our pruning and pulling our catch wires apart. The vines are weeping like crazy and we had to be extremely careful because the buds have become very easy to knock off. Bud break is not far away at all. So far we are on target for a normal year of rain which is very exciting after so many years in a drought (not counting 2010 which was cool and wet). Sunday brought a thunderstorm which I loved because it reminds me of the storms on the east coast and today is still quite overcast. The forecasters in California call it “unsettled” weather.
For the uninitiated, every winter the vines must be pruned to remove almost 95% of the growth from the year before. This keeps them from becoming a crazy tangled mess that only a machete would be appropriate for. It is also a figurative “reset button” for the vineyard itself. It doesn’t clear all problems but it definitely helps. Once the ground begins to warm up the vines start to pull up water and sugar reserves through the vascular system (this is the vine’s circulatory system). The pruning wounds have openings to the vascular system and as the water begins to run up through the vine they begin to weep from the openings. This is the first sign of spring to me and it is once the vines have stopped weeping that we really see the first buds pushing for the new vintage.
Next blog I’ll go into a bit of trellis design for vineyards since I’m sure some of you are scratching your head as to what catch wires are.
So here we are again, standing at the precipice of another vintage. The next 6-7 months will shape our fruit for this year. What the year will bring is anyone’s guess. So far it seems to be moving along early as we had almost two lovely weeks in the upper 60’s and 70s in early February which has caused all the cherry trees to bloom and the weeping to begin for the vines. Many people are still working on finishing pruning, including me. This week has been the grab bag of weather from beautiful sun to torrential rain to snow in some lower elevations of CA, a most unusual occurrence. The drastic cold after such a time of warmth is a cause for concern for all growers. As the vines begin to shed their protection from the cold and buds begin to swell this year’s crop is now in harms way even before it has been set on the vine.
Each grapevine bud has three small shoots inside. The largest of which is called the primary bud and it is this bud that growers seek to protect as it will yield the highest quality fruit. Primary buds are the first to leaf out in the spring making them extremely susceptible to frost, wind, and hail. Should something happen to the primary bud the vine does have a back up; the aptly named Secondary bud. This bud can also produce fruit but not as much as the primary bud and it also takes longer to fully mature the fruit as it will get a later start than the primary bud. In the horrible circumstance that both the Primary and Secondary buds get taken out there is another bud. Yes, you guessed it…the Tertiary bud. This bud is purely a survival mechanism so the vine can still photosynthesize (produce food). It generally does not produce fruit and is very far behind in development when compared to the first two.
Long story short, growers want to do everything possible to maintain the health of the primary bud. These buds have already leafed out down in Santa Barbara where the danger of frost is being battled through overhead sprinkler systems which allows the water to freeze around the new, tiny leaves and through the magic of enthalpy (Yes, get out your high school chemistry books!) the energy, released as heat as the water freezes, warms the leaves just enough to keep them protected from the frost. It also makes for some very pretty pictures with dripping icicles and encased bright green leaves. Now we are at that critical period of bud break and what happens between now and bloom can have dramatic effects on the amount of potential crop and the timing of bloom.
As we’re hopeful for a good season with low frost risk and smooth sailing we, as growers and winemakers, know that it is likely to be another crazy year just like the previous few have been.
That being said I’ve got to give a shout out to the Alexander Valley Winemaker/ Vineyard Manager Pruning team who took first place at the Sonoma County Pruning Contest in that category for the second year in a row!!! My Vineyard Manager, John, and I participated on this team today and we’re pretty proud of our streak!
We’re about 5 weeks into our harvest here at Asti Winery in Alexander Valley however we’re just really getting into the thick of things this week. Perhaps some of you read my blog post a few months ago, June to be exact, “Meandering thoughts on the vineyards this season” (http://www.novacadamatre.com/?p=79). At the very end of this blog post I took a stab at figuring out how the season would progress. Well it turns out that one end of my prediction seems to be coming true. Everything seems to be ripening at one time. This week is the first week we’ve really been staring at a wall of fruit coming our way. Up to this point we’ve been harvesting mostly Central Valley fruit and while that constitutes a good bit of volume, it does not make up the most complex parts of the harvest.
Now with those complexities upon us in the form of barrel fermented Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs produced in open top fermentors, and a myriad of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot produced with different fermentation temperatures, yeasts, and skin contact times. For me, this is the really fun part of harvest but this year we will be fighting for tank space as well. From chatting with my other wine industry friends this seems to be a common theme throughout Napa and Sonoma Counties. The hot weather we’re seeing now is serving as both a boon and a bane as the sugars are beginning to spike in many varieties. Russian River Chardonnay is very close to picking, likely this weekend or early next week. This is normally one of the last Chardonnay vineyards to pick however this year it’s one of the earlier ones.
Botrytis has reared its ugly head once again with the bit of moisture we picked up last week but most growers seem to be controlling it well through treatments and canopy management. Acids overall are high and yields are down. So far we’ve seen anywhere from 15-30% below average tonnage. We’re just starting to get into the more northern counties of Lake and Mendocino with some Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc showing up in the near future. Overall it’s been a smooth harvest so far however I feel a change in the tides this week. We’re about to be up to our eyeballs in grapes. I think the next three weeks are going to fly by and we’ll all put our heads up at the end and think “Is it really the end of October already?”
On the tasting note side I’ve been very pleased to be drinking some really nice wines lately. For a friend’s wedding this past weekend we shared a vintage 2000 Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque which was lovely. It was very toasty with hints of floral notes and light citrus (Light and Bubbly). The other tasting highlight of the past two weeks has been a 1994 Penfold’s St. Henri Cabernet-Shiraz blend (Power Punch with Spicy and Smoky notes). I was amazed at the color that still persisted in this wine. It still had tints of purple on the rim and the fruit was mostly still primary and fresh notes of black cherries, blackberries, and spices. It had only just begun to show more tertiary bottle aged notes of mission figs. This one had a lot of life left in it.