The first sign of life in the vineyard makes such a contrasting visual – the tiny, tender bits of pinky-green new growth emerging from the gnarled, woody vine. But, that makes it official – we have bud break! We noticed it early this week and, by now, all of the vines are noticeably leafing out. We’ve got nice, warm weather to urge them on, too!
If you’ve visited the valley recently, you may have noticed bud break on the valley floor in late March and early April. The vines have an internal clock but a number of things can influence them to either get up and get going or hit the snooze button – the variety, weather conditions, the site, vineyard practices…
Here at Dyer, we tend to bud out later than most. Being on the west side, Diamond Mountain spends the last hours of the afternoon in shadow, so the soils are slow to warm up. Warm soil is a pretty good alarm clock. Plus, we prune as late as we can, which delays the onset of the growing season.
Most years, it’s to our advantage if the vines push out a little late. We’re at risk for frost until mid May and the late start shortens our frost season.
The frost is the most dangerous to valley-floor vineyards. A clear, warm spring day warms up the soil, and the heat is released in the cold, cloudless night that follows. Unless there’s a good wind, it creates an inversion layer, trapping the cold air in the vineyard. The coldest air likes to settle into the low spots, like water, and if the temperature drops below freezing, damage begins.
So, here on the mountain, we’re lucky that we don’t have to worry as much as some of our friends on the valley floor. But, we have take care with a section of the vineyard with a little swale that catches the cold air. We saw serious damage in the persistently frosty spring of 2008 and a small amount of damage in 2005.
There were some freezing nights earlier this month, we did a sort of fire drill for frost in the wee hours. The vines were still dormant, so we didn’t have to worry, and it was a great way to make sure our frost-protection system is ready for the challenge when and if it comes. We use micro sprinklers in the swale area, and the icy coating keeps the buds insulated at 32 degrees.
Valley-floor growers can use sprinklers, too, if they have enough water. Many of them use the large propellers you see all over the place when you visit the valley. The fans mix the warm air, above, with the cold air that’s settling. Some growers use the old-fashioned smudge pots - little heaters - like the ones youl see in citrus orchards.
The only downside to a relatively late start to the growing season is that it can push the harvest back, which increases the chance of getting caught in the rain before all the crop is in. We’ve had to battle with rain in mid-October these last few vintages.
But let’s not worry about that now… Most years we have beautiful weather right through October, which means through harvest, and why not be optimistic that we’ll return to our normal weather pattern in 2012?
The weather is certainly gorgeous now! Temperatures in the 80s and more of the same predicted. And so begins the 2012 vintage at Dyer Vineyards! Cheers!
If the vines look like they’re dead, not to worry. Any day now, we can expect to see these sleepy vines begin to wake up and greet the 2012 growing season.
We finished up pruning a few weeks ago. Our vineyard is small enough that we have the luxury of waiting until the last minute to prune, which has a couple of benefits:
- One, it delays the onset of the growing season, which reduces the number of days we’re at risk for frost damage (damage begins when it drops below 32 F.; we’re not out of danger until mid to late May).
- Two, if the sap has started running when we prune, any spores for utypa fungus, also very descriptively known as “dead arm,” ooze out with the sap when we make the cut.
There are as many ways to train a vine as there are people to do it. If you don’t train them at all, they spread out on the ground, which is just as damaging for the clusters as it is to un-staked tomatoes in the garden.
We have our vines trained up into what’s known as bi-lateral cordon . See the two horizontal, woody shoots that make the vine look like a “T”? Those are permanent. And, we use what’s known as vertical shoot positioning. In the background of the photo, you can see kind of wild looking vines with long, vertical shoots. That’s last year’s growth that we hadn’t pruned, yet, when this photo was taken. The shoots were tucked into trellis wires, as they got longer, to make them grow vertically, rather than sprawling all over the place. The vertical positioning maximizes light exposure to the leaf surface and the clusters, which aids in maturation and heightens fruity flavors. So, that’s what these vines looked like before we pruned them.
We “spur prune” the vines. Notice the small protrusions in the cordon on the pruned vines? Those are called spurs, which is all that’s left of those long shoots after we finished pruning. They’re kind of hard to see, but you might notice the two little bumps on the spur closest to the camera. Those are buds, or growing points. The pinkie-green growth I described emerges from the buds on each on each spur and then grows like crazy.
The theory is that for each bud, we get one new shoot. And, each shoot produces 1-3 clusters. Of course, the vines don’t know the rules, so we’ll spend time later this month thinning out excess shoots. Crowding exacerbates mildew problems. And, if the vine has too many clusters to ripen, it’s hard to get enough sugar and flavor can become diluted.
By May, we’ll have a nice, green wall of leaves on each vine, reaching at least the top trellis wire. In late May they’ll flower and set the crop, after which we’ll make cluster counts and do any necessary cluster thinning. The shoots may need to be topped, or hedged, by then, too, to keep the green growth in balance with the number of clusters.
It’s way too soon to make any predictions for the 2012 vintage. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed and assume that it’s going to be terrific! Cheers!
Sometimes I think the biggest reason Bill and I bottle magnums (1.5-Liter bottles) is for fund raisers! We get a lot of pleasure from participating in quite a few: Auction Napa Valley, Triangle Wine Festival in North Carolina (Frankie Lemmon Foundation), Sun Valley Food and Wine Festival (Sun Valley Art Center), Taos Winter Wine Festival (Taos Land Trust) - and we often donate wine for lots in local school foundations, the Napa Valley Land Trust, the local Music Boosters…
Most schools, hospitals and museums have some form of auxiliary foundation that raises money to sustain them and, as you might guess, in this part of the world, wine has become an important part of the mix. In fact, wine plays a bigger and bigger role in fundraising all over the country.
Recently, online auctions have been a way for those of us lucky enough to live in wine country to open up these opportunities to a wider audience. Of course, many, many wines, some of them unique, go on the auction block, but the locals also offer up special tours, lunches and behind the scenes access to the folks who make the Napa Valley such a special place.
For Bill and me, donating wine is great, but it’s even more rewarding to be active in local non profits.
Which leads me to my motive for writing this now.
I’m the current President of the Board for the Calistoga Family Center, and it’s close to my heart. We live and work in Calistoga and it’s our local family resource center and go-to place for Calistogans to access basic social services as well as programs designed for parents and children, language acquisition and literacy programs and self sufficiency and financial success to name a few.
NV360, one of these online auctions, is a benefit for the Calistoga Family Center and is scheduled to run very soon: from March 30 - April 2. Donors have been very generous, so it presents a great opportunity for you to purchase some truly wonderful wines, Napa Valley experiences or other items – even some original art pieces - and feel extra good about it!
Dyer wines are included in two lots:
And, you'll enjoy checking out the other auction lots.
I hope these exceptional lots will inspire you to participate! Register to Bid
Of course, we won’t stop you if you prefer to donate cash.
Remember to mark your calendar for March 30th - April 2! Cheers!
Since my last post the wines have come through primary (alcoholic) fermentation very nicely. We’ve since moved the wine into barrels for malolactic fermentation (MLF) and aging.
Malolactic what? It’s really a conversion - it converts the tart malic acid (think tart, green apples) to the softer lactic acid (the milk acid). For white wine, putting the wine through MLF is a stylistic choice: When your Chardonnay has a buttery nose and/or flavor and a rich, almost oily texture, it’s most likely due to MLF. For Riesling, most would say MLF is a disaster!
For reds, it’s standard operating procedure for the sake of stability – we shudder to think of you opening a bottle of Dyer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon that’s hazy and spritzy due to spontaneous MLF in the bottle! And, it also has a rounding effect that’s very attractive. We like to do the MLF in barrels rather than in the fermentation tank because it has a nice way of integrating the oak flavors with the fruit.
We prefer the subtle flavor contribution of French oak barrels, about 33-50% of them new. You might think of them as tea bags - they give up their flavor with use. We’re not looking for a lot of oak flavor – we want the fruit to shine through and have found that the mix of new and once-used barrels strikes the right balance for us. In the right measure the wood can support the wine, kind of like the frame on a picture. It shouldn’t distract you from the art but it’s important that it be there.
Believe it or not, within the world of French oak and French coopers (barrel builders) we have still more variables to work with. One of the key factors in selecting the wood is the width of the grain because wood with a tight grain, our preference, imparts its flavor and tannins more slowly than loose-grained wood. With the firm tannins that are characteristic to Diamond Mountain we select barrels that will allow the wine to evolve and will contribute a bit of oak flavor without imparting extra tannin.
Another factor to consider is the level of toasting – how dark the barrels are inside. They’re bent into shape around a fire pot and then spend a little extra time there to be toasted. As they get progressively darker, a “heavy toast” barrel being quite dark and smoky, it influences the flavor imparted by the barrel ranging from fresh coconut to espresso! We prefer barrels with a light to medium toast – a subtle approach that supports the middle palate without drawing too much attention to the wood.
And, while it may look like one cooper does much the same thing as another, a delightful fact of life is that the flavors imparted are unique to each cooper. Even though we are a tiny customer for these coopers we enjoy the added layers of complexity we gain by aging the wine in three different barrels and blending the different lots together later.
And, so our 2011 vintage is put to bed, so to speak, although it won’t be sleeping. MLF should be complete very soon. Over the coming months the color will mature from grape-juice purple to the familiar ruby shade you expect. The primary, grapey flavors will evolve into something much more elegant and wine-like as they slowly knit themselves together and the texture will gradually round out and soften. It’s an amazing process - stay tuned…
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