Another Napa Valley Cabernet season begins! During the first week of April the vines at Dyer Vineyard started what we call “budbreak.” This means the buds began to push out leaves- the beginnings of shoots that will bear this years crop. Since the last post we have had a little over 4” of additional rain, and we can once again hear the gurgling of Diamond Creek. While this doesn’t end the drought for much of California, it is great timing for the Napa Valley. The vines now have the ground moisture they need to grow their normal one-meter shoots by the end of May. With water still an issue this season, it also helps that at Dyer Vineyard we selected a rootstock that is capable of going very deep to pull moisture that will remain a long time around the volcanic rocks that make up our site.
Over the next few weeks any further storms will be welcomed but the bigger issue now is the need to be vigilant for any frost events that commonly follow the late season storm fronts that drop down from the north. Our Diamond Mountain site offers protection from most of these, as cold air tends to settle on the floor of the Napa Valley, leaving the hillsides a little warmer. However, once in a while the colder air is deeper to the extent it reaches our vineyard. Frost is made of crystals that can damage the tissue in the young shoots—our method of protecting them is to activate a sprinkler system that shoots a small spray right down the vine row. This prevents frost from forming on the vines. Even if the temperature falls below freezing, and ice forms on the shoots, they are protected against frost. Yes, this is counter-intuitive (and perhaps a subject for another posting)!
As you may have heard or noticed, the weather this year in Napa Valley was just plain weird. Here on Diamond Mountain we had a late, wet spring, then "the Summer That Never Happened"- more foggy mornings with a few hours of afternoon sun. Verasion was late and green thinning challenging and we dropped about 20% of the fruit in the hopes that ripening would beat winter. Just before Labor Day we were convinced that it would take a miracle (in the form of a nice stretch of late season heat) and we got it in spades! In the last week of September and into October we had a heat wave with temperatures spiking to 113 in parts of the valley. In our location, on the west side of the valley and off the valley floor, our temperatures stayed in the 90s- great for ripening with just a little sunburn on the western facing side of the vines. We still had a ways to go and it wasn't until Oct 21 that we had the flavors, squishy skins, and brown seeds that said "pick me" Timely, as the next day it started to rain and we had 5 inches in our rain gauge before it stopped.
A new wrinkle (and we use that word ironically because the hot days just before harvest did wrinkle some skins, both ours and the grapes) is that for the first time we benefited from a new piece of equipment with the grand name: Le Trier. This sits just after the destemmer and is basically a vibrating table with slots. The grape clusters have already been sorted for flawed clusters, but the LT takes sorting down to the berry level- if there are raisins they get a shake down and fall thru the slots and shot berries and pieces of stem called jacks are also removed. Expensive but worth it. As the berries fall off the table on their way to the fermentor, they look like a cascade of blueberries... no MOG, as we say.
Now that it's all safely in the tank and we taste the early results we're thinking this could be one of our best vintages- deeply colored, bright fruits and spice aromas. Something to be thankful for.
I suppose every field has its controversies. Two that we hear about quite often in wine production are alcohol level and the hundred point scale. I will address them together as I believe they are closely linked. Over the last decade or so we have seen alcohol levels in table wine creep up. Levels of 15%, 16%, even 17% are not uncommon. It used to be that 14% was considered high, with most wines in the 12 to 13% range. What happened?
At the time we entered the wine business, in the early 70’s the models for “great wines” were relatively few. The very top ones had long track records, and were considered classics. We tasted Bordeaux and Burgundies, as well as Napa Valley Cabernets, that were structured “classically” and appreciated for their ageability. How did we learn about them? We read books about wine, written by well-known authors, and met individuals with lots of expertise to share, often with deep cellars as well. These wines became our models and we turned to them again and again, and wished to emulate them in our winemaking efforts.
In the 90’s things began to change. There was a huge amount of new wealth created by the high tech industry. The surge in disposable income brought in lots of new wine consumers, and lots of wine brands were created. Without a background in wine knowledge and faced with overwhelming choices, many consumers were looking for direction in order to appear wine knowledgeable. In an increasingly complex world, our particular culture became enamored with ratings, lists, and authorities. We had nightly top ten lists. We demanded that sports teams have playoffs such that we could proclaim “were number 1” and the athletes were excused from any standard of behavior as long as they won. We no longer required much actual knowledge from experts (just being on television seemed to ensure that an opinion demanded attention) or smarts from leaders (this is to be a politically neutral zone but it is amazing the extent of risks we are willing to take on based on pundits’ analyses identifying “bad guys vs. good guys).” Reasoning became less important than choosing sides. Staged dramas were called “reality shows.” Magical thinking became more acceptable than critical thinking.
Into this milieu steps the 100 point scale. Perfect for the culture at this point in time. The sports writer or lawyer becomes the wine expert. Who’s number 1?. What’s the top 100? Conversation overheard in a wine shop at the end of the decade: I wanted 97’s, you sent me 95’s. Talking about vintage? No, points.
Faced with a hundred wines in a day to taste, how is the poor expert going to function? This isn’t arty, ain’t no discussion (he’s got no time for that now). Forget about finesse and subtlety, we are in a rush to judgment. Hedonistic is the way to go…gobs of it!
And so it goes like this: grapes picked too soon are lean, restrained, tight, and in some varieties a bit “green.” Then they soften up and show what they have: varietal characters for sure, hopefully regional or site specific ones. Beyond that they go pruney, then raisin-y. In former times, we might have erred on the green side, reluctant to ever sacrifice the regionality or the characters of site. In this new reality show, green may be cool for energy, but not in the rocket juice, where it will just have to be voted out. Ageabilty? That is so yesterday. In the old paradigm desiccated grapes of a certain brix were called Amorone, in the new paradigm they are called “numba one”.
How do we deal with these phenomena? First of all, we don’t subscribe to the bigger is better style of winemaking. We stick to our guns in valuing balance and finesse. We consider that vineyard sites that give age ability are national or better said, planetary treasures. We feel we have such a site, in fact our wines tell us that. While we don’t get too fussed about wines made in the gaudy style garnering the big points, we do feel that there should be room for a range of styles, and don’t appreciate the narrow focus on the part of some reviewers. (A famous pianist we met said “the crickets are always with us” in reference to the pundits of his world). We have generally taken a pass on sending our wines in for review, but on occasion have yielded to direct requests. Results have generally been favorable and solid, about what we would expect in making wines of restraint and balance (note that the reviewers generally ignore the age-ability question, only rating wines on release, which some winemakers have found to be a rather easy thing to “game.”
Vintage 2010... Is May the new February?
Yes, Al, we know the difference between weather and climate- and we'll talk about that another time. But for now, it continues to rain in Napa Valley and daytime temperatures have been averaging 15 degrees below normal all this month. So far the vines look pretty happy. Knock on wood, we have dodged the bullet for frost- we have had to get up only two nights for frost protection (after the terrible frost damage in April 08, even here at 600 feet on Diamond Mountain, we installed "pulsaters" that shoot a tiny spray of water down the vine row to protect the tender shoots from frost burn, even if the water freezes on the leaves).
Rainfall totals are really not that high, just a bit over normal, but the storms keep coming through, not big ones, but abnormal for this time of year. The snow pack in the Sierra was 143% of normal at the end of April and is now 167%. Not so much because of additional snowfall, but because it is not melting as it would in a normal year.
We are supposed to get warm weather after Memorial Day, maybe even above normal temperatures. That will make the snow pack melt really fast- so we are thinking about going toYosemite (after we declare frost season over), to see the falls which may have the most spectacular volume in years! And maybe a side trip to forage for the Morel mushrooms that should be popping up in response to the rain.
Back to the vines- so far the cold, wet weather is not a big problem. We have been treating the vineyard with sulfur every 10 days to prevent mildew and botrytis. We moved in early to do our shoot thinning (no more than 15 shoots/meter) to make sure there is plenty of air movement and light getting into the canopy. The vine vigor is ok- but the concern is excessive growth. We don't want the vines to grow too fast or they develop long internodes (bushy vines that shade the fruit excessively can lead to green flavors and interfere with fruitfullness in the next season). Our loose, volcanic, gravely soil acts like a flowerpot and we count on the soil drying out quickly once the rain does finally stop, so the vines won't push too hard.
But the weeds (excuse me, the cover crop) are really punching it. We have already made one pass to knock them down... now it's time to do it again. The picture is of Dawnine in the vineyard... "Hey! she forgot the weed-whacker!"
Harvest at Dyer Vineyard was successfully concluded on Monday, Oct 26th.
A trouble free and relatively mild growing season with few days topping 90, let alone 100, came to a screeching halt when 4 in of rain fell on Oct 12, followed by 5 days of high humidity threatened the vineyards with botrytis and mold infections. We pulled leaves from the fruit zone to help dry out the clusters and finally picked the Cab Franc at Dyer and some of the Cabernet on Sunday 10/18. The next week turned fine and we were able to gain a little more ripeness before harvesting the balance of the vineyard on Oct 26. This was a year when ripeness can't be measured by sugar accumulation...
Below is a weekly blow by blow of the harvest as reported district by district in the local paper.
09/07 Ideal growing conditions
09/14 After the Rain
09/21 Growers worry about heat spikes
09/28 Harvest begins in earnest
10/05 Cabernet being picked in most districts
10/12 Some Cabernet growers wait for rain to subside
10/19 Drying out remaining grapes
10/26 Harvest at DYER!!!
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