We recently sent out an e-mail to our mailing list customers informing them we will not be releasing a 2011 vintage from our vineyard, and instead are offering an older vintage (2005) from our library for the holidays. This is after 15 consecutive annual releases--here is the story behind our “missing vintage.”
We have often referred to the late ripening aspect of Dyer Vineyard as a positive attribute—longer hang time, slower ripening in the shorter and cooler days of October, avoiding the heat spikes that earlier in the season can lead to dehydration, high brix, and excessive alcohol. Our site is northeast facing, and partially sheltered from the afternoon sun by the ridge of the Mayacamas range to the southwest. In 2011 an early October storm brought in four inches of rain, and subsequent humid weather caused botrytis to start in many clusters before the final stages of ripening could occur. We dropped fruit, picked clusters selectively and have never had more people on the sorting table. We picked the brains of some of our Oregon colleagues who routinely deal with botrytis-affected fruit—this is something Napa Valley Cabernet producers normally don’t have to deal with. In fact this is the only time in 40 years we have seen botrytis in Cabernet. For those not familiar with botrytis, it is a grey mold that can affect many fruits, and most people have seen it growing on fruit held too long. It is considered a positive attribute in some white wines—referred to as the “noble rot” responsible for concentrating and sweetening desert wines such as Sauterne and Trockenbeerenauslese. But in red wines it makes the pigment very unstable, resulting in lighter colored wines.
We gave the wine plenty of time to develop, taking it through the normal two years of barrel aging. We found that it benefited from a higher percentage of new French oak, so we purchased some more new barrels. Being optimistic types, we felt it was showing better each time we tasted it. But the “drop dead” decision time was the point at which we had to order bottling supplies—bottles, corks, and foils. We had to admit at that point it was not up to our usual standards. We used a wine broker to sell the wine in bulk to another producer who was able to blend it with other wine.
It is important to us to point out that our decision not to bottle does not reflect on the decision by other wineries to bottle Cabernet from this vintage. The concept of terroir includes a focus on all aspects of a vineyard site—in this case the amount of rain, the subsequent fog, and the timing of these weather events versus the stage of ripening were very specific to our site. This is also a reminder of the inherent risk in single vineyard designated wines—it is truly “letting it all hang out.”
Our 2014 Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon is close to finishing its fermentation and will be transferred from its tank to oak barrels within days. Already it is beginning to reveal the character and personality of our nineteenth vintage. It is showing abundant color, intensity and concentration-- it is going to be fun to watch this one evolve in the barrel. After 3 very lean harvests (2008 through 2010), and a 2011 harvest that didn’t meet our standards (not bottled, but rather sold in the negociant channels), our last three have been back to normal size. This was the earliest harvest in years, marked by a dry winter, a warm spring with sufficient rainfall for the grapes to reach the top of the trellis (and no frost). The summer was warm, but not hot--there were only a few days of temperature over 100 degrees. Hand harvesting began at 4:00am on September 22, finished up by 7:30, and the grapes were sorted, de-stemmed, and in the fermentation tank by mid afternoon. Normally we would be sending out to our mailing list an announcement of our next release right about now. But since we are skipping the 2011 vintage, we are working on an alternative plan to offer some of our library wines. So start thinking about which vintage from 2004 to 2006 might be your favorite, as there will be an opportunity to restock your cellar.
In our 40 years in Napa Valley we had never seen the hills brown or Diamond Creek, the creek that drains our watershed, dry in January- but that was the case just before the season began. We had plans in place to reduce the crop at Dyer Vineyard just to keep the vines alive when 20+ inches of rain in February and March greened up the hillsides and brought up the mustard. With the soils saturated at just the right moment, we had a good bloom and set, so much so there was a lot of shoot and cluster thinning required to keep the crop size in balance.
Though the rainfall was still only around 40% of normal, the vines reached down for available soil moisture, and as we approach the end of August, they don’t look too thirsty in spite of the drought conditions. So far we have given them minimal irrigation—less than 10 gallons per vine so far, which is “almost” dry farming. Way back when we planted the vineyard, we selected a rootstock (1103P) that goes deep and that decision stood us in good stead this season. There have been a few hot days, but these were mostly in the early and mid season, when the berries are small and green. They are not so susceptible to heat damage at that stage. We run a few degrees cooler up here on the hillside than on the valley floor. Our maximum temperature so far has been 102 degrees. There have been lots of foggy mornings in mid and late August. One day last week the sun never came out at all. One model for climate change is that a warming ocean will bring more fog to our coastal valleys. That may sound counter-intuitive (more on that in a future post) but certainly is what we’ve seen in the last couple of years. While predictions for an early harvest seemed verified by start up dates for sparkling wine and Sauvignon Blanc, we may be closer to normal for hillside Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I believe slower ripening can make for more intense flavors. I am glad to see the forecast continuing to call for foggy mornings and mild afternoons.
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)!
How is the drought in California affecting our vineyard? Right now the vines are still dormant, so they are not requiring any moisture. But the buds are swelling, making us hasten to finish pruning, and in a matter of the vines will leaf out. Then they will certainly require sufficient ground moisture to rapidly grow their shoots to about 1 meter in length in 7 or 8 weeks—will they have enough water?
Back in January our situation looked quite bleak. We had received less than 2 inches of rain during the season to that point. The hills were brown. The cover crops was stunted in some areas, and even none existent in others, where seeds had failed to germinate. It seemed like Napa Valley was in dire straits (note that when we registered our LLC with the State of California it was as Dyer Straights Wine Company LLC—an attempt at humor with the bureaucracy, and perhaps a hope that Mark Knofler would like a case occasionally—Mark where are you? But we were not anticipating such extreme drought.
But in the first week of February the skies opened and we received 9” of rain. Suddenly we could hear the roar of Diamond Creek (the stream between our vineyard and the famous Diamond Creek Winery). Another 5 inches came our way late in the month. Everyone in Napa Valley was buzzing about how quickly the hills became green again, and remarked about the mustard plants blooming afterall. We are still only about 40% of normal rainfall, but what we received was well timed, filling the soil profile just weeks before budbreak
For sure the State of California as a whole is in (OK) dire straits with the drought. The large reservoirs in The State Water Project average around a third full, and the snow pack in the Sierra is less than 30% of normal. We are hearing that farmers in the Central Valley may only get water allocations for orchards and vineyards (to ensure survival of these permanent crops) but row crops will not be supported—so we may all be in dire straits when it comes to food prices in the coming year. But here in Napa Valley, and throughout the North Coast we are cautiously optimistic. We will need to adopt drought strategies (more about that later) but every year has its own challenge. After all, its never “money for nothing” and the chicks aren’t exactly free.
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