Playing with Nature

The estimated harvest dates for Doctor's vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands are September 8 - 16 and for Annahala vineyard in Anderson Valley it's September 26 - October 10 (note that the Doctor's timing has been moved up by a week since our last update).  Why the spread?  Why the secrecy?  It sounds like a conspiracy by Southwest Airlines to force us to buy the most expensive seats at the last minute possible.  If you're vexed, we are too.  But in reality, deciding when to pick your grapes is arguably the most important winemaking decision one makes after selecting a grape variety.  After all, the flavor of the grapes at harvest and the sugar level at that moment, largely predetermine the outcome of your finished product.  While oak barrel aging can soften some viticultural sins, wood can only ameliorate a finite amount of damage before your wine tastes like a 2 x 4 plank from Home Depot.  So really, it all begins with the caliber of your fruit. Being practical, we give a range of dates because a vineyard may not ripen evenly.  Vines further up or down a slope, facing more southwardly, closer to an irrigation drip line, or under the shade of a nearby tree may ripen before or after berries at the other end of a property.  Some vintners specifically pick and re-pick at delayed intervals, forcing Nature's hand and playing the odds, hoping for a little more sun and a bit more sweetness.  Harvest roulette is routinely practiced among Germany's vineyards, where acreage is planted at the northernmost limit of viticultural boundaries, so maximizing sugar is the foremost objective.  Wait one more day and perhaps you'll be rewarded with that coveted bump in brix, but gambling for sunshine (and subsequently more sugar) is always tempered by the threat of rain, rot, and unusable fruit.  Josh Jensen of Calera Wine Company here in California has famously oscillated between keeping grapes from first, middle and final harvest sweeps together or separate and treated uniquely. 

So it would seem that waiting longer to harvest your fruit is better, right?  At budbreak, spring's minute, green berries are characterized by mouth-puckering acidity.  This gradually mellows to balanced sweetness after veraison, as grapes mature from hard green nodules into succulent, purple globes.  You'd imagine that since "riper," sweeter fruit contains greater natural sugar, this yields a more desirable end product.  Indeed some regions like the Southern Central Coast (think Santa Barbara) are lauded for "long hang times," where grapes have spent more time on the vine, theoretically developing a fuller, more intricate and layered flavor profile.  Yet as grapes grow and pulp increases, acid is diluted, which is not necessarily a desirable attribute.  After all, some acid is compulsory for structure, balance, and spunky vibrancy.  And so it appears the best fruit hails from a long, steady stint on the vine with just enough sugar that acid isn't sacrificed completely.

But as always, pinot noir plays the maverick.  Thin skinned and less intensely pigmented than other famous red Vinifera, pinot naturally tends towards less deeply colored wines.  Thus exacting pinot wine makers rely on higher alcohol concentrations to coax the maximum color extraction from their fruit.  And what determines alcohol levels?  Why the sugar level, of course.  The natural sugar in the berries at harvest provides the primary substrate for those carb craving yeast during fermentation.  Thus the sugar concentration at harvest (known as percent brix) is the primary determinant of the percentage alcohol in the finished wine.  Farmers use all kids of contraptions, from simple refractometers in the field to complex hydrometers in enology laboratories to measure and monitor percent brix.  Pinot is harvested at the higher end of the scale, usually between 24 and 25 percent brix.  But can science trump the human palate?  What if brix is maximized but the varietal character of the berry is not yet fully realized?  What cutting edge technology, beyond our maximally evolved taste buds, can better measure and interpret the intensity, depth, or complexity of flavor?

And so we come full circle.  Sometimes the best way to determine if a crop is ready for harvest is for a wizened farmer to trek into vines at dawn, when the berries are still slick with condensation, and to taste them.  When the fruit is ripe and balanced, deep and layered, robust yet refined, and tastes entirely the way a pinot grape should, well then, the berries are ready.  And clearly we cannot plan for that day too far in advance.