Well, it’s over. The 2013 winegrowing season in Sonoma. Actually, it’s been over for weeks. Through climate change or the luck of the weather draw or something, we had one of the earliest — and fastest — seasons on record. That’s not exactly a good thing, but not necessarily a bad thing. At least in the short term. In any case, if you drive the length and breadth of Sonoma County, I doubt you’ll see a single grape on a single vine. Even late harvest Zinfandel which is usually the last thing hanging out in the field. What you’ll see instead are fields of turning leaves starting to show golden, red or even brown and dropping away. And there is a reason for the color change, which I’ll get to later.
But first, for the uninitiated, let me tell you how it used to be:
Starting around late August, but certainly no later than early September, all the early ripening grapes reached proper ripeness and were harvested. For us in Sonoma Valley, it all usually started with the Pinot grapes for Champagne over at Gloria Ferrer in the Carneros. Then, depending on the microclimates of other areas of the county, various other red grapes were harvested in staggered intervals through September and October. Finally, nothing is hanging but old vine Zinfandels which could be picked as late as early November.
Thanks, Mother Nature, it was a good system. Especially as you could stagger out your harvesting and processing — which can get complicated. When we were still in the excruciatingly amateur phase of our vineyard, it was only way the two of us — with the occasional help of Cousin John — could possibly handle even our small acreage. First our Cinsault would ripen. Not a problem, we only have a few rows and the three of us could handle it on our own. Then our longer ripening Rhone varietals — Mourvedre and Grenache — would start to ripen on slightly staggered schedules. As a small vineyard, we have to compete with the big growers for the picking crews. What we usually ended up doing was convincing a crew, say from B.R.Cohn, to swing by our place and pick our pitiful little vineyard on their lunch hour for some extra cash. In the winemaking world, we’re chump change. Finally, toward the middle to end of October, our Cabernet would ripen. But since half the valley had been picked, it would be a little easier to get a crew in. It was a balancing act, but it always seemed to work, even though there isn’t much flexibility between when a grape is ready and when it needs to be picked.
Fast-forward to this year. Now imagine that every grape in the Valley — actually every grape from Paso Robles to the Russian River to Napa — came ripe in the same two week period early in the season. That’s pretty much what happened. There are a lot of theories, most having to do with a season that was extremely hot. Not to mention that it wasn’t just hot in the day but warm at night. If you haven’t been here, one of the amazing things about Sonoma weather is that we can have a 101 degree day, followed by a night in the 50s. So, if you average out a day’s temperatures, you can see why we still have a long slow ripening season. So anyway, it happened early this year and it happened fast.
Fighting for picking crews was only one of the issues. There were barrels, processing equipment and other things that can be used three times over in a harvest for a different wave of grapes coming in. Well, not if they all come in at the same time! Some vintners were grumbling that if they’d invested this year in oak barrels instead of grapes, they would have made out better. If you had empty barrels, you could practically name your price for them this year.
I say vintners were grumbling. But not too much. Surprisingly, this is shaping up to be one of the best and most bountiful harvests in at least seven years. And with predictions of worldwide wine shortage, we’re ready!
And winemakers are talking about taking November vacations. When does that ever happen?
Oh, and I promised to tell you about those turning grape leaves. See, a vine has two main things to worry about: its fruit and its roots. As long as there is fruit, the vine pumps all its energy into ripening that fruit and sustaining the leaves that providing food for fruit. But as soon as you pick the fruit, the vine turns its attention to storing food in its roots. That’s food the vine will need come spring to fuel rapid leaf development, hopefully in time for those leaves to start manufacturing fuel for fruit. No fruit, no need for leaves. So if you are lucky enough to be in Sonoma during harvest, you can almost see harvested vineyards turn from green to gold and red overnight.