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!
Over the weekend in Alexander Valley we reached an important milestone in the growing season…Bud break. Now all through my drive to and from the winery you can see the beginnings of little green shoots all over the cordons that have been barren these last few months.
Bud break is one of my favorite times not just because it signals the beginning of the growing season and with it the vintage of that year but also it reminds me of just how complex grape vines are. During my time at Cornell I dissected a dormant grape bud. Now I’m sure that just about everyone who has been through a viticulture class has done this (and if they haven’t, they should). What I’m not sure about is if everyone is as awe inspired by it as I was. Within a dormant grape bud is a very tiny shoot with distinctive leaves and (if you are really careful with your dissection) flower bunches. All right there in one tiny little package just waiting to be triggered into an explosion of green and pink in the spring. It is truly fantastic to see.
So this time of year when I see the shoots emerging (still small at 1 inch) they are already almost 20 times the size they were in the bud. They are very delicate at this point in the season. Frost, wind, animals, and even the careless vineyard worker can easily knock the new growth off or kill it. I have been that careless vineyard worker before and it is the worst feeling to know you’ve already removed 2 or more bunches that may have contributed to your wine’s success. So one must tread lightly around vineyards this time of year but do take a moment to marvel at the wonderful time that is spring in the vineyard.
On another unrelated topic…
Typically the other thing going on during this time of year is winemaker meetings. I have been to a number of the in the past week or so and have another next week. It’s a slower time for us and we’re able to come up for air, so to speak, to see what has transpired in the industry while we were busily recovering from last harvest. The theme of last week’s meeting was “Innovation”. I think in times of economic troubles generally the best ideas are found and take root. People are forced to be more creative, do more with less, and winemakers are no exception to that rule. So I’m sure in the coming months as the economy begins to recover we’ll see vast leaps forward as we all rush to innovate in any industry. These are exciting times we live in…