They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- William Carlos Williams
The daylight has now overtaken the darkness. Each rotation here in the North now sees more of the sun with the moon more often framed by blue than black. This is usually the time we start to look for the first signs of new life among the vines. Surprisingly, things have happened a bit earlier than usual this year. More often than not, early April gives us our first hints of green emerging from the cordon. The 2013 vintage has decided to begin just as the sun and the equator align themselves on the same plane.
In 2012, the first bud break of the Estate Chardonnay plantings took place around April 5th. Here is a photo of that same Chardonnay this last Friday, March 15.
Our Estate Chardonnay was harvested on August 31st last year. This represented a journey of 148 days from bud break to the press. A similar lifespan would put the first pick of 2013 sometime around August 10th. While I don't see that happening, our earliest ever harvest was August 15th. So it is within the realm of possibility.
This has been a fairly dry year so far with no major winter storms, just the occasional light rain. The temperatures have been mild to cool, so things may slow down a bit over the next 4-5 months. There is no telling what April (The one month a year when the Central Coast Weather reporter actually must do some work) will bring. But shockingly enough, even the Malbec looks like this today.
A quick walk down to the next block also saw the Syrah starting to rustle and swell. Of course, the late bloomers like Cabernet, Mourvedre and Zinfandel are yet to say their piece. The all important flowering is still yet to come. But as things stand right now, an early harvest may be bearing down on us. It is time for winemakers as well to roust from winter's time of recovery, and make the preparations for what lies ahead.
They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15536#sthash.2DKOMCf
Contest Alert! First person to answer in the comments what classic ag logo inspired the hat designed by the band from whom I stole today's title from wins a free bottle of unreleased 2009 Tres Violet. Sorry for the complicated nature of that sentence, I never realized how dificult it is to make a question that is not simply answered with a single google search.
Anyway, harvest keeps marching along here and the last of our Carver Vineyard Pinot Noir came in. I tend to get a bit tired of all the talk about how beautiful and graceful Pinot is. I always think to myself, "You know, there are a ton of varietals that can produce beautiful wines if farmed and cellared properly." But while working with the fruit on the sorting table I realized that there IS something unique about Pinot's grace. The cluster itself just might be my favorite. The Rhones like Syrah, Mourvedre, and especially Grenache can be these huge footballs of grapes. The Bordeauxs are a bit thin and lacy looking, a lot of empty space. Pinot on the other hand just looks perfect.
Each cluster fits perfectly in the hand, usually not much bigger than a pear. Each berry is tucked perfectly in place. It is one of those designs in nature where you start to think about what way you can steal the idea and apply it to some other field. Maybe all this love for the Pinot is just due to the fact that we got fruite that is simply much more beautiful than normal. We actually harvesed with reasonable sugar and acid levels this year as well. For an area not know for producing decent Pinot (or rarely even acceptable pinot at that), this vintage is looking spectacular.
In celebration of Paso Robles doing things right, we ended the day with the present we recieved from the tasting room:
While the Double Barrel Ale is the Firestone beer that is all over this town, this is my personal favorite from our local brew house. It's not an over the top California IPA where its all about maximum hops and power. This is a bit more restrained and appropriate for relaxing during these days where the heat just will not stop. In the spirit of relaxing and another hint towards today's contest, here is today's headphone special. Perhaps my favorite little protest song of all time, which helped lead me down the path to having an old timey job like making wine.
As presents became more grown-up, Christmas lost its place atop the pantheon of Holidays. When my insatiable appetite for M&M's and Snicker Bars eventually was filled and I no longer attended college costume parties, Halloween fell down a bit. In a few years, once my children grow old enough to truly grasp the magic of those days, they will return to the top. For now though, Thanksgiving is the King of Holidays for me. A day dedicated to the simplistic perfection of meal and family. Brining the wine that I produce to the table, celebrating the harvest that my life is so intertwined with now adds even more to the special feeling. Sadly, cool years in 2010 and 2011 have made Thanksgiving Day a working day each of the past few years. Imagine my joy today when I got confirmation that this year would be different.
It was August 12th last year when I posted a similar photo. Veraison is the changing of color of the grape skin. It is the beginning of the ripening process. A very loose rule of thumb is that six weeks from now, we will pick this Pinot Noir. Harvest, which did not begin in earnest until late September last year, is looking to come much earlier this year. The timetable jumped on us and now the preparations must begin. All the trappings of the harvest start to take shape. The new barrels start to arrive. The destemmer, sorting table, and press all get cleaned and greased up. Discussions begin on new trial ideas.
I've wanted to try some really short macerations to emphasize fruit in a couple wines. Our assistant winemaker told me excitedly he wants to try some really long ferments, probably in a barrel. You won't really know until you try. We messed around with a new technique for our Chardonnay last year. It's going to bottle in a few weeks, and I'd have to say our new little trick had a positive outcome. A couple more idea will probably come, especially as sleep deprivation induced creativity sets in.
I love harvest. It is probably my favorite aspect to the whole wine making lifestyle. Once a year, one chance, all or nothing, the special mix of creativity under pressure makes for such a uniquely thrilling work experience. You can't really ask for much more. Well, maybe except for vintages like this one, when you do get more. You get it all wrapped up in time to completely enjoy that November meal with the family.
The year’s rain has come and gone with the heat of summer now waiting to take the vines the rest of the way. The worry has subsided and now been replaced by anxious expectation. Walking the vineyards these past couple of weeks, watching as the inflorescences flower and begin their transfiguration into fruit, the heart has been buoyed. The months of March and April could not have been more perfect. Gentle rains matched by mild temperatures provided everything a vine needs to awake from winter’s slumber and start life anew. Nothing more could be asked of the vineyard for the time being. The relief and pleasure of a perfect spring can never be overstated.
Fruit set is looking perfect, just slightly heavy so excess fruit can be dropped and yeilds from the vine can be optimized to our liking. Now that we are in mid-May, things are still looking wonderful. While the winter was warm and dry, summer has not reared it’s aggressive head yet. Temperatures have maintained in the high 80’s, preventing any early stress that can accompany the annual 100 degree days of Wine Fest. The flowering also looks to be well spaced. Our Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah flower first, taking their place as the initiators of harvest. The mix of Grenache, Malbec, Cab Franc, Merlot and the White Rhones seem to always jumble for attention mid-harvest. The last vines to set their fruit are the Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre and Zinfandel, the grapes that have you sweating late fall rainstorms hoping for just one more day to ripen.
Breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. -T.S. Eliot
These are indeed the anxious times. After the scars of last year the poetry I grasped at during my life ignorant youth started to speak to me more plainly.
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?"
Most people would assume that fall and the time of harvest is when wine making is at its most tense. I have discovered this year that for myself, that is not so. During harvest you can create for yourself a veneer of control. The increasing flavor complexity and daily measuring of the fruit tricks you into thinking you can decide what will happen. You can imagine that your bank of knowledge and experience will guide you and the wine down some certain path. At least this is what you tell yourself to keep the task within some reasonable scale.
In the Spring, we are truly thrown to the mercy of Nature. What will be, what will come, the future that starts rolling towards you is all set in these early stages of growth. All one can do is look to the sky, feel the air, feel the ground, watch...hope.
The burgeoning growth and young buds, in all their vulnerability, are the basis of what the 2012 vintage will be. Last year, a terrible cold decended upon us during this precious time and much of the crop was lost forever, a vintage not to be. That fear is what makes one focus solely on the low when reading forecasts. There exists no cellar magic that repairs what is lost on the vine. This pushing forth of the first hints of green indicates that everything is being set in motion, and the winemaker is now purely a spectator, witnessing the miracle of the vines bringing life anew. How will 2012 be remembered? The most important first steps are toddling up and down our steep vineyard hills as I write this.
It surprised me how in the facing of this great unknown, I suddenly found understanding in poetry buried deep behind my minds layers of chemistry and enology. I tried in vain so often to understand these verses in college, but without life experience, they fell on intellectual deafness. My professor must have felt like a young parent, attempting to teach a lesson to a child that only time can truly deliver. For what did this line mean to me before I was tasked with producing wine from the alkaline soils?
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?"
These great lines only grow personal meaning once they can be applied to something true from your own experience. The return of Spring is a call to revisit what you hold as truth. To shine light on your plans with an expanded perspective that comes with each successive vintage. This reminder prevents you from standing still, nature implores you to change with it. All is different from where we left it last fall. The winter retreat of the vines produce new character in these Spring shoots. You can sense it when you walk amongst them. They too are wiser, and will write their verse in some new style. What they capture and how they will explain it to us will be revealed in the poem of the wine they bring forth. That shall be the overiding goal of what we put in the bottle this year.
Shantih, Shantih, Shantih
Replace "new phonebook" with "active MJO" and this was basically me earlier today. Which leads to the obvious question, "What's the active MJO, and why is some jerk winemaker yelling about it." Well, it is all due to the fact that the most important aspect to wine is weather. Regardless of what tricks we have learned during human agricultural history, nature still has the first and last say.
I feel it is important to remind ourselves that making wine, at its heart, is simply an agricultural process. We often get away from this perspective due to the strange cultural significance that wine has taken in the modern world. Somehow growing wine grapes, and recently, organic heirloom vegetables, has become "sexy" to the point that it is viewed differently than growing corn or soybeans. For this reason you don't see as many millionaires retiring to start farming cotton for example, in order to return to a simpler or more natural life. Don't fall prey to this thinking. Despite all the flowery language, sales PR, and talk of esoteric viticultural processes, wine making IS grape farming, no more, no less. Wine though does have a unique way of making the relationship between nature and consumption crystal clear. The ultimate goal of wine making is to allow one to taste and interact with the time and place of creation. The idea of the vintage is rooted in this, that the year is as important as the place or varietal in conveying what lies inside the bottle.
With this in mind, I obsess over the weather endlessly. It dictates to me all the decisions I will make during the annual cycle of the vineyard and winery. Luckily, my obsession with weather pre-dates my time as a winemaker. Living on the Pacific coast, I started checking weather on a daily basis as it determined my plans for surfing. What is special about surfing and weather is that it is dependant upon two forms, the local and the global. The waves that cause one to skip morning class during college are not generated locally, but thousands of miles away. Off the coast of Japan and Russia during Fall and Winter, and way down by New Zealand and the Antarctic Pacific for Spring and Summer. You can't look outside and know that a good swell is coming, you have to do some research to be ready.
This research is what introduced me to the Madden-Julian Oscillation. All this winter the MJO has been in the "inactive" phase. This has been distressing for California farmers, surfers, and skiers. The heart of winter, January-Feburary, was basically one long sunny spring. Temperatures in the 60's and 70's, and never a cloud. While this made it nice to be outdoors hiking and biking, it was terrible for things like water tables, snow pack, and thirsty roots. Then last week came a rather substantial storm, and something felt different. After data analysis, the hopeful news was delivered by the web's greatest weather site Stormsurf:
Current wind analysis indicated modest easterly anomalies were all east of the dateline now (a good thing) extending from 140W to the dateline (180W) and continuing to loose ground. The coverage of these winds shifted east and was fading. Westerly anomalies were strong in the Indian Ocean pushing east to 160E and building more directly over the equator rather than displaced south. It looks like the Inactive Phase of the MJO was loosing control of the West Pacific. A week from now (3/29) the pattern is to continue with a weakening area of weak easterly anomalies hovering between 180W and 160E but nowhere else and with solid westerly anomalies building from the Indian Ocean to 160E and making easterly headway. This indicates that the Inactive Phase of the MJO is to be effectively gone by then with the Active Phase starting to take control of the West Pacific.
If that is not music to your grape growing ears, well, I don't know what to tell you. This is leading to hope that maybe some late season storms will produce water for our thirsty state. The vines are just about to start budding and the roots will start pumping water, making for some possible perfect timing. Spring is well underway though, which usually means a wall of high pressure that keeps California sunny from May to November. But that little bit of weather nerdery I read this morning got me in a solid Lloyd Christmas state of mind
Picking of fruit for 2011 is now done. Last week was a non-stop pick and process fest as a big storm was heading into town and things needed to get off the vine before the wet weather arrived.
Being a winemaker means you are obsesed with weather. This time of year, the weather you are most concerned with is rain. When rain will arrive, and how much will come down will make your picking decisions for you. So trying to predict what is on the way is of utmost importance.
In addition to basic weather reports, and the fancy wine grape based weather report we get from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, there are a couple of other inputs I use. The mostly I use the Pacific Surf Forecast. Whereas farmers are mostly concerned with what is happening right outside, surfers are more concerened with what is happening 1000's of miles away. If you read this stuff often enough, you start to see how weather, for example, off the coast of northern Japan can affect weather here in California. Understading the global trends and patterns of weather can often give you a good idea of what is comming your way well in advance.
Lastly, and most accurate, is this weather device for rain and cold:
Whenever these dudes start marching around the winery, I know something is up. I don't know if they are heading for high ground to stay dry or warm or what. But once I see a bunch of this kind of action, it's time to talk with the vineyard crew. This was the Saturday before last. I banked on this guy knowing what was up and called for 5 straight days of picking everything we had left on the vine. Worked out as we got done Thursday night and it poured all Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So thanks to my weather guy above for the heads up!
As a winery grows, the most pressing concern on the wine making side is how to expand production without loss of quality. The key reason quality can differ as growth takes place is the choice of new vineyards. In that spirit, it has taken 3 years of patience to find another Chardonnay vineyard here in Paso Robles that we felt comfortable with. The 2011 vintage marks our fist attempt to get to know this place. (People commonly claim that the French word Terroir has no translation to English, I disagree. To me it means place, as in "It's almost as if that building is of this place." Writing this blog has reminded me that the English language can be as beautiful as any if used with consideration.)
The only comparison I can find to this type of nervous excitement is a first date. When all possibilities are still available, your dreams framing what could be.
The vineyards this morning produced a most philosophical perspective in me. Sunrise amongst the greenery and expansive views sometimes bring forth thoughts beyond worries of heat stress and micro-nutrient uptake. My thoughts were constantly returning to what is this essence of wine that fascinates? Why don’t people spend weekends traveling the back roads of Forest Grove Oregon and why are fortunes not made and lost based on scores from the Rutabaga Advocate? Is the wine grape a most noble crop that resides in a special world of agriculture above all others? Not that I have seen or experienced. A product lovingly raised is always unique and cherished. How then do we explain the belief that wine is portal through which deeper knowledge comes? Countless Movies, books, and blogs have all been dedicated to idea that wine produces a unique signature of place, the terroir. But does a grape vine speak more to the terroir than an heirloom tomato or pasture raised beef? In this summer season of plenty, with the mantras of slow food and flavors of locality preached on each menu, you would be mad to suggest so. Any random combination of those offerings explains Paso Robles on the palate just as much as a wine can. So again I ask myself, why the captivation with this drink?
The answer to these type of questions often lie in that time which formed my perspective, my youth. Maybe it’s the answer to the riddle the Jims (Henson and Croce) asked of me in childhood. I remember the strange anxiety that small skit created in me and my initial dawning of thought on the enigmatic complexity of life, time and space. This great mystery of the unflinching progression of things was always with me in quiet times. In order to remain calm, I convinced myself that there must be a path of grace (with apologies to Terrence Malick) that could lead one away from fear and into understanding. Just because something is beyond comprehension does not mean one should recoil from it; the unknowable should be embraced. The wine we produce then is a product of that acceptance. The vintage is, in its essence, the capturing of the moment into some tangible state.
There is something more to wine than mere ethanolic intoxication. The corked bottle represents a chance to return to a place and time, without trepidation that the past is lost forever. Wine with its intrinsic link between our senses and memory can provide a wonderful window unto personal contemplation and revelation.
The idea of wine and the memory of my favorite wine experience are forever linked. This occurred on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. My future wife and I were enjoying a beach-front campground with a single little market from which to order our dinner. We sat eating a meal of fresh grilled octopus that neither of us would have ordered in different setting. Drinking a local wine, Samos Vin Doux (a fortified muscat!), that we picked off the shelf because it was the only bottle offered. Yet this perfect combination of all things new and beautiful along with the sun resting into the sea, created for us an experience that nothing could ever top. While not by any means the most technically superior wine I have ever had, it is perhaps the best wine I will ever drink.
So maybe this isn’t madness, laboring as we do to create wine. As the spectre of harvest looms just weeks away and I prepare to be enveloped completely by its demands, these thoughts give me assurance that it is all worth it. That the sacrifices that must be made of time, energy, mind and family will be rewarded. The goal is sitting out there plain to see in my mind. For me it is the end of November, with fermentations few and a Thanksgiving table filled with family, friends, food, and of course, wine.
Oh my, summer has finally decided to show up. After all the craziness, like rain the first week of June, it now feels like Paso. After the cool wet winter and spring, the horrendous frosts, all the what nots and who's fors in the vineyard, things are right where they should be. June 21st and the fruit is set on everything but a couple sections of Mourvedre and Cab. The heat that is hitting right now is like flipping the turbo on; the vines seem to be just exploding. It's exciting to see and the daily morning walks in the vineyard have begun.
I firmly believe that the winemaker needs to spend as much time actually in the vineyard as possible. That to me is the whole purpose of having the vineyard and the winery on the same property. So, from this day forth, my assistant winemaker and I (and Abbie and Salty) will spend the first part of every day walking the rows. Seeing the daily changes is the only way to really put oneself on the same time cycle as the plants. Yeah, you can sit in an office and start reading number off of various probes and data collected by others. But that doesn't let you understand the vintage. To feel the dew, fog, sun, soil and wind the same way the plants do. This is where the understanding comes from. This is where the plan comes from. This is where the great wine comes from.