Alan Baker
October 21, 2015 | Alan Baker

The New Normal

Holy cow, what a year! After much hand-wringing and head-scratching we were able to get all the grapes in, and while volume is down we have incredible color and intensity this year. More on that in a bit.

Thanks to a very early budbreak and a warm summer, we started picking Pinot on Aug. 14 — the earliest we have ever picked fruit — and as a result we wrapped up early as well. For comparison, while this year we finished picking Pinot on Sept. 8, in 2011 we didn’t even start picking until Sept. 22.

This change is directly attributable to rising temperatures and the ongoing drought. When the soil is wet, the vines know it’s still winter even when temperatures warm a bit. But the combination of a dry root zone and a warm January/February tricked the vines into thinking it was spring, and they took off. The longer we’re in the business, the better we get about not freaking out over variables that are out of our control, but I do tend to fixate on the next thing that can possibly go wrong. With vines growing in February, our thoughts turned to frost, assuming we'd get whacked — but, miracle of miracles, we saw no frost anywhere.

The next big event we watch for is bloom, which was the defining event for wine grapes this season across most of California. Bloom started, then we cooled way down and got some rain, which interrupted the bloom. As a result, we saw lots of shatter (grape clusters with fewer pollinated berries); berries that were pollinated were also sometimes pollinated weeks apart. Our cluster count was fine, but the amount of fruit per vine was way down and the berries were smaller. Some vineyards saw such poor fruit set they decided not even to pick what little was there. We fared better than most; all told, we were down 20 percent across all varieties. The picture below shows an extreme example of shatter in the Greenwood Ridge Riesling. It wasn't all like this but it illustrates the shatter issue.

The shatter was a problem, but more important was that long delay in bloom. As we started to see fruit reach maturity, it was clear that we had very curious conditions to deal with: Walking the vines, we’d see clusters with near-ripe fruit alongside berries that were not even fully colored up, sometimes within the same cluster.

Because we work in a co-op environment, it was pretty interesting to see all of us winemakers trying to figure out what to do. Do we make multiple passes? No way could the crew distinguish the ripe-enough fruit from the fruit that looked good but was still underripe. Pull the trigger on harvest and get some decent fruit but get crazy high acids and green tannins from the rest? Wait it out and try to split the difference, with some fruit a little riper than we might ideally want but with a portion slightly behind?

The decisions varied by vineyard — and often block by block within vineyards — but what became clear early on was that the smaller crop, smaller berries and variation in the fruit gave us intense wines with a lot of color. The Pinots in particular are deep ruby in color; they’re already vibrant and lush on the palate even though they’ve only been in barrel for a month. I think these will be wines bursting with fruit, but we also have great acidity thanks to the fruit that was lagging a bit behind.

The Starscape Gewürztraminer developed its golden color and wonderful aromas very early this year. The fruit set was light but more consistent than the Pinot, so we were able to let it hang and grab it at the perfect moment. I'm still waiting to see how the acid level resolves, but it seems very zippy at this point (just after fermentation).

The Greenwood Ridge Riesling crop was significantly reduced, but Frank and Alan Green were kind enough to carve off some of their take to limit our pain. We’re only off 20 percent, but the vineyard was easily 50 percent off normal. The Riesling is bubbling along slowly at about 56 degrees F, and is just now reaching the end of fermentation, in a textbook ferment with lovely aromatics and fun peach and black-tea aromas.

The last fruit we pulled in was the Sangiovese. The Upton Vineyard is further inland and saw a much more consistent fruit set, so crop load was only off about 10 percent — but berry size was small and the resulting wine is pretty intense. The Uptons managed to limit the critter damage that has lowered our yield in years past, so we should have enough to meet demand for this Cartograph Circle–only wine.

Looking back, it feels like we had two harvests in a single year. All the Pinot and Gewürz was in the winery by Sept. 8, and the Riesling and Sangiovese didn't come in until the end of September. It was odd to have most everything pressed and in barrel while I was still making vineyard visits. We’re coming to realize that there really is no “normal” anymore.

Even with all the curve balls, we have a lot to be grateful for. We had the help of a great crew in our tasting room, and an outstanding crew and set of interns at Punchdown Cellars where we make our wine.

I have to thank Serena for keeping it all organized and being the most productive person I've ever met. Even though we were on the tractor sorting overnights and mornings, organizing a release schedule and club pickup parties, shipping dozens and dozens of boxes of wine and keeping up with visitors in the tasting room, we always had a good meal coming out of the freezer, and even a little time to catch our breath while sipping wine in the garden.

We feel really lucky to have your support so we can continue to build this business we’re so proud of.





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