Basking in 75 degree temperatures at the end of October, with a warm breeze blowing the fall leaves throughout the vineyard, it’s hard to vividly remember the worrisome fog, rain and cool weather and the problems it brought us last summer.
Over 2 inches of rain in early June caused many of the flowering grapes to lose their set, thus reducing the volume of grapes on each vine . . . sometimes by as much as 60% in some hard-hit areas. The early morning fog lasted several hours into the day, and cooler weather persisted throughout the summer, lengthening the growing season by a month or more, as we all anxiously projected a late harvest and hoped that the winter rains would hold off until November.
Wineries and pickers found other work while waiting for the trickle, then the onslaught of grapes to ripen. We all foresaw a “train-wreck” scenario where the wineries would be full of this year’s later ripening white wine grapes that ferment in the tanks at a cooler temperature and thus stay longer in the tanks, when the red wine grapes would suddenly ripen and need the same fermentation tanks! Winemakers were also concerned with having to harvest grapes at lower maturity levels and degrees Brix (the natural sugar or sweetness in grapes that ferments into alcohol), producing leaner and more European-style wines unlike the full-bodied vintages that our California climate typically gives us. We tried to remind worried, youthful winemakers and vintners that, “back in the good ol’ days” of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, wineries used to offer bonuses to growers for the sugar levels that you are worried about now, but they all chuckled and shook their heads!
Our Sauvignon Blanc was picked a month late, on September 26th, but at peak ripeness. The juice was given 24 hrs. of skin contact then pressed off the skins and into the fermentor with the yeast to start bubbling away. After almost 4 weeks of very cool temperature fermenting, the wine was finally dry (no residual sweetness) and racked off the lees (the sediment leftover from yeast cells and fermentation) and into smaller tanks to leave room for the influx of red grapes.
Just when the sun finally came out and temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s were ripening our Cabernet Sauvignon, we received another 2 ½ inches of rain in early October. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem to the thick-skinned Cabernet, but humid conditions persisted and many of us started to notice what is commonly this year being called “The Fuzzies”. Several types of mold and rot developed randomly overnight in many vineyards, ours included, thus pulling the plug on the hopes of leaving grapes to hang and further mature on the vine.
We harvested the Two Old Dogs and the HL Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon back-to-back within 4 days of each other, picking selectively to salvage the ripe berries before the mold could continue to grow. With judicious sorting, we were able to bring in just a little less than normal tonnage and better-than-hoped for quality, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Now, two weeks later, the Cabernets are finishing fermenting and will soon be be racked into their new French oak barrels – or homes for the next 1 ½ years.
Throughout the Napa Valley, almost all the grapes are now off the vines and an air of calmness (read exhaustion) prevails . . . time to put all the fears and worries – real or imagined – of the 2011 vintage to bed!