What’s the Spin?

2010 has been an unusual growing season.  Carefully meted nuggets of data lament the late harvest, cool summer, and inevitable October rains.  Mildew pressure remains high, secondary to an unusually damp spring and persistent wet coastal fog.  Throughout summer, growers cut back canopies and dropped clusters to speed along ripening only to be whipped by Mother Nature’s oppressive three day heat snap in late August.  Without any leafy protection, the hundred-plus degree sunshine scorched exposed berries and thwarted further growth in others.  Stories reek of gloom and doom.  But horror depends on perspective. Growers from intrinsically warmer climes sound ecstatic.  The Sacramento Business Journal quotes Yolo County farmers as being thrilled about the “long hang time” and higher acid.  With typical summer heat abated, the grapes retained more acid, providing better quality fruit.  Indeed San Joaquin Valley growers are seeing an uptick in valley fruit purchased, as more consumers trade down to cheaper wine.  The milder 2010 growing season espouses potential for pretty good fruit landing in your Two-Buck-Chuck, as San Joaquin is the leading provider of grapes in the $10 and under wine division.

In contrast, predictions from Sonoma County foreshadow more somber realities.  Last week, the local newspaper noted, “Many of the grape varietals are ten to fourteen days behind schedule due to the cooler summer…Already this season growers have endured a cool summer's harvest delays, freakish sun damage and sluggish sales for the region's premier agricultural crop…Now they face the challenge of completing harvest before rain and autumn chill deprive them of a significant portion of tonnage.”

Still, this depends on your spin.  Honoring the cool weather, growers kept yields low, encouraging the fruit remaining on the vine to ripen fully.  That’s great for us.  Luckily, at Bruliam we purchase our grapes by weight, so I am expecting 1-1 ½ tons of spectacular fruit this year.  Berries may be smaller than usual, but that is a boon with thin skinned varietals like pinot and zin.  A higher fruit to skin ratio helps us extract more color, a trait we covet.  Plus our growers are seasoned pros.  They have been mitigating Mother Nature’s aberrant flux since early spring.  Nobody is responding to three cool months for the first time today; it has been a gradual adaptation throughout the season.  Late harvest does not portend a bad harvest.  In fact, sometimes logistics frighten vintners more than weather.  Many predict a huge aggregate of the county’s crop reaching ripeness simultaneously.  Many wineries aren’t equipped to handle a massive onslaught of fruit that is usually spaced out over a 6 week interval.  Happily we ferment our fruit in small, plastic t-bins, so when everybody else’s fruit is backlogged to hit the fermentation tanks, our crop will be happily gurgling away in its own little corner.  Sometimes it’s good to be small.

Finally, this unusual weather merits some additional analysis.  Two parallel but non-identical indices of ripeness are the so-called “phenolic ripeness” and the sugar/acid ripeness.  The former roughly encompasses tannin components and berry flavors.  Berries evolve from red to dark fruit flavors during ripening.  This flavor evolution is more dependent on “hang time” than sunlight.  In other words, it matters how long the grapes hang out on the vine before picking.  Plus, phenolic ripeness is something one tastes.  In contrast, quantifiable measurements like sugar and acid levels are alternative indices of ripeness.  Of course more sun = more photosynthesis = more sugar, so with persistent hot weather, sugar ripeness peaks in advance of phenolic ripeness.  This year, given the longer cooler season, the opposite may be true.  This year it's especially prudent to taste grapes routinely, since phenolic ripeness may mature ahead of "optimal" sugar quotas.  Thus grapes with less sugar than last year may already taste terrific and will be ready to harvest at a lower brix.  Secondly, in cool weather, grapes retain more malic acid, proportionally.  This is the type of acid that is reduced though “secondary fermentation,” malo-lactic conversion.  Thus even if one is forced to pick grapes on the high acid end of the spectrum (due to impending rains, for instance), this acid is ultimately reduced downstream anyway.

There are so many complex and intertwining factors to consider with harvest.  With no rain on the horizon and this week’s dose of hot sunshine, I think we are in superb shape.  Our grapes are getting plenty of TLC.  I’m hedging bets our first haul will harvest by the end of the week or early next.  Who wants to bet the over/under?