Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker – A Tale of Two Harvests

by Peter Wellington

Hard Times - Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008

I can usually predict harvest dates quite accurately by early June, when grape flowering is complete. This year I projected that we might bring in our first grapes the week after Labor Day, but that we certainly wouldn't be in the thick of it until the following week. I planned a market visit to Ohio for Sept.2-8, figuring if one small batch came in during my absence it wouldn't be any big deal. I do travel under my own name, unlike my great-grandfather, a merchant during Victorian times who made a habit of registering in hotels as Martin Chuzzlewit because he didn't care for the sly looks he often got when he used his real name, John Smith. I had made my plans well before Lynda (assistant winemaker for the last 7 years) left for a dream job at Hanzell, and before the prolonged heat wave in late August. There was no way I could leave Sam and Dave (the Soul Men) what with it being the first crush at Wellington for both of them, so I postponed my trip until the end of October. My prior blog, This Could Be The Last Time, covered the “first harvest” when we brought in over 80% of our whites plus Malbec, some Zin and some Cab.

Please Sir, I Want Some More

Unseasonably cool weather the last two full weeks of September meant we crushed only 5% of our annual total during that normally busy time frame. Almost everything that was “supposed” to be ready at that time had already been harvested. This allowed us to catch up on “pre-crush” maintenance and preparation, keep on top of white fermentations very well, and recover both physically and mentally from the early September onslaught. It got to the point where I was thankful that one other prospective crush worker had backed out in late August, because there wasn't enough work. I had lots of time to check vineyards thoroughly and sample repeatedly, partly in hopes of finding something that was ready to harvest. The greatest benefit of the long cool spell was that the unharvested grapes had a chance to recover from the heat stress, re-equilibrate and mature slowly and evenly – probably the most important vintage related factor in high quality wine. We brought in our last grapes precisely three weeks ago and just pressed that tank this morning (Mohrhardt Ridge Cabernet sauvignon, only 6½ tons, after 16+ last year)

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

I'm very happy with the quality of everything that came in during the “second harvest”, though Zinfandel gets an asterisk (see below). Quantity, however, was way down – by 42% from 2007 if I don't include grapes from two new (to us) vineyards, by 32% even when those are added. Frost, drought and a heat spike during bloom all took their toll on what already would have been a smaller than average crop; fortunately none of mother nature's little “gifts” had a negative effect on quality. I've always been a Pollyanna, and my optimistic spin is that my bottling costs will be down this year and next and I'll be lowering my inventory going into uncertain economic times. Speaking of that, we set an all time sales record in October. Various explanations come to mind: that people are in denial, that they want to drown their sorrows, that they're drinking more wine at home instead of going to restaurants, etc. My favorite idea is that people want to trade down in price, but not in quality, and recognize the high qpr of our wines.

Great Expectations - Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008

During my recent trip to Ohio several wine buyers asked me about the quality of the 2008 vintage. It's a common question, and I always preface my answer with an explanation of why you can't generalize about vintages in Northern California. This year's wines will definitely be a mixed bag, with some incredible wines, but also some so-so wines. It takes a while to assess wine quality; you get an idea of flavor and aromatic intensity during crush, but you really have to wait until the wines have gone through ML and settled clear to make a good assessment of balance, mouthfeel and concentration. In general, I'm concerned that the wines from the “first harvest” may be lacking in depth and concentration. I think most of our Cabs and other Bordeaux varieties will be outstanding. Zinfandel was our biggest challenge this year.

* Naughty, Naughty Zinfandel

The late Summer blast of heat caused shriveling, dehydration, and elevated sugar levels in all varieties.. This essentially affects all clusters and is more pronounced on the parts of the cluster exposed to direct afternoon sun. It is somewhat reversible in that the grapes tend to rehydrate and swell back up if they have adequate water and cool weather. Zinfandel, however, has a unique problem: random individual berry shrivel. It seems that the stems of individual berries shut down, restricting water movement into the berries. The result is a cluster spotted with raisins before the rest of the cluster is ripe. We have to harvest when the “normal” berries are ripe or we'll end up with unripe flavors and too much acid. This is why Zinfandel wines tend to have more alcohol than any other varietal. The amount of this raisining varies year to year, and 2008 was about as severe as I have ever seen. We had one tank that was 21.6°Brix at crush and went to 26.5°B after four days' cold soak. We drew off some juice for Rosé and replaced it with water, but the fermentation slowed at over 14% alcohol with 5% residual sugar, so we had to add more water to get it to go dry. By back-calculation, the grapes at crush had been approximately 32°B. A subsequent tank from the same vineyard had even more raisining, so I caved and we made our first late harvest Zin ever. Even with extended cold soaks and adjustments based on the assumption that sugars would still go higher, the average alcohol level of our Zins is over 15.5%. I guess we'll be looking into some alcohol removal again.

Only a couple of w00ters got into the spirit of the Stones last time. Maybe I'm too lowbrow for this crowd, so I thought I'd try a different twist this time. Cheers:)