Thursday, June 14, 2007

Two Worlds of Wine

Last week Stef and I were guests at a lovely dinner hosted by a local professional organization. They asked us to pair wines with a three course dinner, including our Syrah, and speak about each pairing.

It was a real fun night and the group was very enthusiastic. They had great questions and treated us like celebrities. We chatted away for several hours after the event was supposed to wrap up. It was the type of nice event we're starting to get more often now where people are so excited to meet the winemaker. I had a blast.

Sunday I was out in the hot sun. Me and Millie and a crew of two helpers. We were digging post holes and setting the end posts for the new vineyard in Los Altos Hills. At one point one of the holes was not aligned right and I picked up a shovel and expanded it out, digging down 3 feet in the rough mix of hard clay and rocks.

This is in a little suburban area, so there was lots of foot traffic (and horse traffic) going by as we worked. A couple people stopped, one to ask directions and one to ask if it was a vineyard we were putting in. As I held the shovel, I thought of the Thursday night event. What a totally different world. The glamour of the wine dinner vs. the business end of a shovel on a hot day. I think I'm lucky though, I enjoy doing both.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Here's what I've seen so far. Although I've followed the situation in other areas I've only talked in detail with growers in my area, and Casey Hartlip at Eaglepoint Ranch in Mendocino. Keep that in mind as the situation can be very different in different parts of the state.
So far 2007 has been the easiest year I've seen since I've started in 2001. There actually have been comparisons to 1997, which was also viewed as easy.
So what does easy mean?
It means that there has been a leisurely pace to vineyard work and no unusual actions needed in the vineyard. At this stage in the growing season you're looking at four main themes:
1. disease pressure - mildew2. potential yields3. green growth or vigor4. water stress and situation for the remainder of the growing season.
1. disease pressure. Mildew pressure has been the lowest I've ever seen. Many have cut back their spraying drastically. Casey didn't do his first spraying until May. Only Bradley Brown at Big Basin Vineyards has told be he's seen any pressure this year, and he zapped it early with oil.
Spraying has also been very easy. 2005 in particular and a lesser amount in 2006 were difficult years. The rain patterns often had us out 2-3 times a week. This year we've been able to stay on an every 2 weeks schedule. You have to spray after each rain if you use organics or time your spraying for dry periods with systemics. In 2005 and 2006 the weather drove us nuts. We'd spray, it would rain, then not give enough gap between rain to get another spray to set. To make matters worse there would be calm periods between storms, which lets Powdery Mildew thrive. It meant a lot of work, and some growers still had Powdery Mildew problems in both years, and black rot problems in 2006. It was a challenge and although the best growers brought in good healthy grapes, it was still a lot of work.
This year we've had rain, gone out and sprayed, the wind kicks up (which helps prevent Powdery Mildew) and then relaxed until the next spraying was needed.
The net result? Healthy flowering, fruit set and cluster size. Potential yields look good, and unless something dramatic happens in the summer, we're not worried about mildews and rots.
2. Potential yields - At this point in the season yields look good. Some plants are throwing 3rd clusters, but not many. Flowering is still underway but set appears good and the plants healthy. Good growers will drop 3rd clusters which tend to not catch up, but every thing was very even this year. Plants flowered and set all together, which leads to even ripeness.
3. Green Growth - Vigor. This was the demon in 2005. The rain patterns lead to excessive growth. That encouraged Powdery Mildew, and meant many growers had to increase their farming labor 25-75%. There was a lot of work to do to bring in healthy grapes and balance vines.
This year the plants have been late, 1-2 weeks, but even and controlled in their growth. I've had to do no shoot thinning or lateral removal before flowering. In 2005 I had to make 2 complete passes through the vineyards.
I've also had very little need to remove excess buds or double shoots. The plants have just been balanced and not needed extra fussing. The lateness is not a concern to anyone I've talked with, or myself. We're not pushing things severely like 1998 or 1999, it just looks like 1-2 weeks later than normal, or about the same as last year.
Although we have only seen one heat spike, our degree days seem fine, and the heat is really needed over the 90 days following flowering. The entire summer is ahead of us, and it is possible we'll have lower alcohol, lower pH wines again in 2007, like 2005 and 2006, but that will play out in July and August. No one is concerned on not getting grapes ripe.
4. Water stress and situation for the remainder of the growing season.
It has been a drought year, with rainfall at 30-50% of normal in many locations. I've turned on my drip systems later than I have in the last few years. In 2005 I had them off all season. Still the amount has been small 1/2 gallon per week and precautionary.
Others are doing the same. No one seems particularly worried, just cautious in getting water in the ground. We've seen no drought stress at this time. If things get really hot this summer it could be a concern. Those on reservoir water are worried that they can make it through a hot summer with the water on hand, but thus far it's not been an issue.
So overall? 'Easy'. The year is off to a good start, and for consumers I think it looks particularly good. Both 2005 and 2006 were challenging years. The kind that took hard work in the vineyards and separates the good growers and winemakers from the average. Maybe a little like 2003 in Bordeaux, where some made great wines, and some struggled.
2007 is off to a start like 2000 Bordeaux, the kind of vintage that lifts everyone and makes the average good, and the good great. BUT, the real work and risk is ahead. There's a long summer to get through, and the Fall is always key to quality.

(Also posted on Wine Spectator Forums)

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Visit to San Martin

Last summer we got a call from a family south of San Jose in the small town of San Martin. They grow walnuts there, and a few years ago planted about 200 Syrah and Grenache vines. The vines were in trouble and they didn't know what was wrong.

We went down to take a look and found that Powdery Mildew was the main problem. The vineyard was actually in pretty good shape. Most of the time we get a call like that we find a vineyard that has not been properly pruned, suckered and tied up. In those cases the damage to the vine is severe. Grapes are wild aggressive plants, and with improper care, they will grow like a weed. If the trunk and canes have not been kept in shape by suckering, pruning and tying up, it takes three years to restore them. The same amount of time to start over with new plants.

Their experience with the walnut orchard though had served them well. The pruning was good, the trunks suckered and strong, and the plants trained properly. They had just made a few small mistakes. They had watered too much and the vines had gotten to vigorous. It's very common for people to think vines need more water than they really do.

That vigor had created an environment that let Powdery Mildew thrive and they were not sure what, how and when to spray. That's the other common mistake people can make. It was too late to save the grape crop. Once mildew spreads to the grapes, they will never get ripe enough to make wine. They make look ripe, but the mildew prevents sugar development and stunts all flavor.

As we explained all this too them last year the entire family came out to take notes, ask questions and learn all they could. I really enjoyed our time with them. Their enthusiasm to learn was really fun.

This year they followed the watering and spraying schedule I left them with. Calling just once to track down a Powdery Mildew spray I recommended to stop the active spores left from last season.

A few weeks ago though they emailed worried about the vines. They looked 'wild and out of control', and they worried about mildew again. I made sure they didn't do anything right away. Doing anything while the plants flower in late May will ruin the crop, so I assured them: "wait, and we'll be out in a few weeks."

This morning we headed down and spent a few hours with them again. The vines were doing well, still full of vigor so they had gotten very bushy. Stef and I showed them how to thin the shoots, and remove laterals, then tie the vines into the trellis. We worked half a row with them until they had it down, and left them working away. They were happy that the wild vines now looked like the well tended vineyards they had just seen in Paso Robles.

Going down and visiting with them is a trip Stef and I both enjoy. A friendly family, full of cheer and enthusiasm about growing grapes and making wine is a trip that is a lot of fun for us. We'll go back in a month or so and check on them, and I'm sure their little vineyard will be doing great.