grapes in the back of the ATVIf I were a betting person, I would have bet against this harvest. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong. We even had a dark night of the winemaker’s soul, when we considered just not harvesting the Grenache and chalking it up to a total loss. But we went ahead and harvested, crushed and sent the grapes to primary fermentation. And are we glad we did! Now we think this Grenache may be even better than last year’s. How did we wrest victory from the jaws of defeat? Read on, my friends.

So now, backing up to what went wrong. First of all, this year’s crazy weather including the Spring that never came. It rained and rained and stayed cold well into June. And July wasn’t that warm either. All over Sonoma, grapes were lagging in ripeness at least four weeks behind normal. We all prayed for a hot spell.

Didn’t someone say “Be careful what you wish for?” August had a full couple of weeks of unrelenting 100 plus degree heat. Then we got an even longer heat spell in September. With heat so fierce many vines around the valley just shut down. And fruit burned on the vine. For once, being a tiny producer worked in our favor. All the big growers snag the crews. We pull together a crew from the guys who want to make a little change on their lunch hour or before their real job. But with Sonoma and Napa panicking, no worker could be spared and we never got anyone to cut back our vine canopy. The happy result: we had lots of foliage to shield our grapes.

Unfortunately, I counteracted that rare stroke of luck by slacking off on testing the sugars until Friday when I was shocked to find the BRIX level of our grapes had skyrocketed. With the Grenache reading an astounding 28 BRIX, we were looking at grapes that were set to produce wine with a whopping 16 to 18% alcohol. All in a year when our master plan was to pick early at a lower BRIX to get a lower alcohol, more French, wine. This is the point where we contemplated calling this a loss.

Still we had Cousin John on board for the crush and we managed to get a crew of three to pick first thing Saturday morning — so we decided to take the chance.

Jesus and Juan harvest the Cinsault.

Our first stroke of luck today was getting Jesus, Juan and Noe before they went to their "real" job harvesting 30 acres for B.R. Cohn.

Noe harvests our cinsault

Can you imagine the kind of worker who does this backbreaking work to earn a little extra cash BEFORE he goes to his day job of back-breaking work?

I should qualify “backbreaking”. The work was backbreaking the year Andy and I harvested the Cinsault. It took us nearly four hours and almost killed us — and we’d only planted a row and a half of Cinsault. Jesus, Juan and Noe picked it in under two hours and that included picking seven rows of  Grenache as well! Now I’ve been promoted — or demoted — to grape transport. I shuttle back and forth between vineyard and crush pad bringing down the full bins of picked grapes. Hey, we also serve who only drive the ATV!

Which brings me to our harvest mystery of the day. The Cinsault is a prolific producer of big fat grapes — whereas most wine grapes are tiny berries. But we were still knocked back on our heels when the aforementioned one and a half rows of Cinsault produced nearly half a ton of grapes — the same quantity we got from the seven rows of Grenache.

As we realized Juan, Jesus and Noe had just picked ONE TON of grapes we had that brief moment of relief that we didn’t have to pick it.

That moment ended quickly when we remembered that we had to drop the grapes, handful by handful, into the crusher/destemmer.

Then dump those crushed grapes, bin by bin, into the primary fermentation vat.

So over the course of the morning, we shifted ONE TON of grapes TWICE. Believe me, that is a lot of grapes.

Cousin John at the crush

Good thing Cousin John showed up to help.

You remember Cousin John — Mr. Natural, champion of native yeast, proponent of Old Skool winemaking. As in with techniques from a hundred years ago. Well, Cousin John is now working back even farther than that. When we offered to process his share of the Grenache harvest using our glycol chiller, he declined. Cousin John don’t need no glycol chiller. Cousin John explained that he was once in a Paris museum where he saw a Medieval Burgundian tapestry that illustrated winemaking from the 1500s. You guessed it, that’s the methodology Cousin John will be using to process his Grenache Rosé. Good luck, Cousin John.

And speaking of luck, I promised to tell you how ours changed. It all happened in Dr. FrankenWine’s lab once Andy and John started doing more sophisticated testing than I was able to do in the field.

Seems, in the lab, testing for specific gravity and acidity, John and Andy were able to determine that the Grenache was not a mind-numbing 28 BRIX, but 25.5. Perfect, and close to the ripeness at which we'd planned to pick.

Based on the new readings and the taste of the just crushed juice, we now have high hopes for producing a fruity, not overly alcoholic wine.

Pictures of today’s harvest here.

NOTE: Cousin John came up with the punny title of today’s post. And he said I could use it. No charge.