It’s been a scary few weeks for grape growers in Sonoma and Napa Counties, what with two long-lasting, drenching and unseasonable storms hitting us at the end of growing season. The problem with late season rain on vineyards is that, just when you are trying to get the grapes to concentrate their flavors (most of us have turned off irrigation for the last month or so), a sudden downpour causes the grapes to swell with water. The best case result: watery, less concentrated juice. Worst case result: the grapes swell so suddenly they burst, inviting mold and insects. Faithful readers will already know that we did a panic harvest of the Grenache and Mourvedre, finishing just hours before the last huge rainstorm hit us. Luckily the Cinsault was already in primary fermentation. The Cabernet was nowhere near ripe enough to harvest. And even with rain threatening, if the grapes aren’t ripe — well picking is useless. But we’ve been advised that Cabernet grapes are tough as old boots. Barring precipitation of Biblical magnitude — we’re talking frogs, toads and bearded prophets throwing burning bushes — Cabernet can take anything. Never willing to accept such things just on a say-so, I went into the vineyards to assess the damage.

Actually, my first step was to bring out the Big Guns. Not that I actually wanted to stop rain. In semi-arid areas like California, where we’ve been known to have seven year droughts, you never pray for rain to stop. But you might want it redirected somewhere else, such as the Sierras, where the snowpack really determines our water situation. So again, the Big Guns. That means the Kachinas. I put them out, faced them to the rain and made my request. Next day the skies cleared. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Behold the power of the Kachina. This is Eagle Dancer from the Four Corners area of the Southwest.

Behold the power of the Kachina. This is Eagle Dancer from the Four Corners area of the Southwest.

So out into the vineyards. And yes, there was damage. Not as much as I had expected. And most of it concentrated at the end of the rows.

Heres a bunch with some burst grapes. You can see the wasp already on the job.

Here's a bunch with some burst grapes. You can see the wasp already on the job.

Whew! Look at this wasp food fight.

Whew! Look at this wasp food fight.

So next step: walk the vineyard, row by row, gathering a berry from almost every vine, and putting them in a ziplock bag.

Grape ripeness can vary so wildly throughout a vineyard, and even throughout a row, that you really need a representative berry from almost every bunch to get a real sample.

Grape ripeness can vary so wildly throughout a vineyard, and even throughout a row, that you really need a representative berry from almost every vine to get a real sample.

Then smoosh with the fist.

Then smoosh with the fist.

And mash with the foot.

And mash with the foot.

You need enough juice to do your battery of tests.

You need enough juice to do your battery of tests.

So here’s the good news: the pH is at 3.66 which is pretty close to the acceptable level. The Specific Gravity is 1100 which is just about where you want to think about picking the grapes. And the all important BRIX level is 23. Cabernet is typically picked at anywhere between 25 to 29 BRIX. So what our readings tell us is that our Cabernet is just getting ripe enough that, given the current weather report, we should be able to get it dried out and ripened a bit more then picked before the next expected rainstorm. We’re estimating next week around Thursday for the harvest. Given some warmer weather — hopefully at least a few days in the 80s — and we should be able to salvage this.

John the Baptist took a few damaged bunches home to his horticulturist wife. She diagnosed them with a certain kind of mold with a long Latin name. John couldn’t remember what it was. Thanks, John, but it doesn’t matter the name. There is NO mold that is a good thing for wine grapes. The trick is going to be to harvest only the undamaged grapes and let the rest just stay on the vines for the birds and the wasps. Explaining that to the Mexican crews should put a good strain on my first year Spanish.

And in a final positive note, at least from Oscar’s perspective, the rains didn’t wash away the latest baby deer carcass he buried somewhere in the vineyard. In fact, he thinks it improved the flavor.

But just to be safe, Oscar dragged it into the living loft of the barn and hid it under the bed. Nice one, Oscar.

But just to be safe, Oscar dragged it into the living loft of the barn and hid it under the bed. Nice one, Oscar.

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