If 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.
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.
So over the course of the morning, we shifted ONE TON of grapes TWICE. Believe me, that is a lot of grapes.
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.
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.
Must have ben that dog saliva that threw your numbers off! They were out ther licking those grapes, doing their own testing…Cousin John might appreciate THAT method! (I’m liking Cousin John…) PS I’m curious as to what kind of wages and benefits you provide for your grape pickers? How does that work with them working for so many different wineries?
A few of the largest wineries have full time on-staff crew. Most rely on seasonal labor. Much of that labor is here on special short-time agricultural visas — which allows them to be paid less than minimum wage and without benefits. (Without those visas and conditions, American agriculture would collapse or we’d pay 4 times as much for food.) These workers go from site to site finding day work. We have a contract with a local vineyard manager who comes out about four times a year to inspect, trim and do any maintenance needed on the vines. Although they have year ’round staff, they’ve got relationships with a core group of seasonal workers going back 20 years, so they can pull together large seasonal picking crews for some of their bigger clients (including Benziger and B.R. Cohn). For a client as small as we are, she just offers the work to any of her seasonal workers who want to do it before a “real” job or during lunch hour as an extra earner. Since the standard rate of pay is “by the ton”, a small job like ours has to pay what is considered a premium by-the-hour rate. They earn every dollar of it.
Sonoma County is one of the few agricultural areas I know of that really understands that our economy is built on the backs of these workers. One of our most well funded charities is the La Luz Center which hosts clean, well appointed temporary housing, legal help, English lessons and general outreach and services to our migrant workers.
I always laugh when I hear people screaming about “Mexicans coming to take our jobs”. Those that I come in contact with (who are here legally, by the way) work harder than anyone I know at jobs no Americans will do. I’m sure I would have heard about it if groups of unemployed White people were banging on the gates of local wineries and farms demanding to be given ag jobs.
Great news on the grenache. Cousin John is an interesting person who could drive one around the bend on occasion. I have friends like that. Never underestimate the lengths to which they might go to prove a point! Winemaking tips from tapestries. Of course.
Reminds me of the wine issues with Galileo’s stock while he was suffering his most unfortunate, although hospitable,incarceration.
I must try to replace one of my favorite cries of exclamation/disbelief of “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” to that of “Jesus, Juan, and Noe”! Those dudes got it on.
Whew what a lot of work
My colleagues were stunned when I stepped in as dishwaasher last Saturday. It’s another hard job that no white American would ever take. It’s also cool that Sonomans understand the value of the work these people do.
How long before you can judge the fruits of all this labor and is there anyway I can help with that?
This is fascinating. All’s well that ends well – and how fortuitous to be able to hire such able bodied helpers to save you for more important physical tasks like blogging 😉
Well, that turned out all right. Now I’m waiting, fascinated, to see how the wine turns out. What an impressive amount of work, too.
When I worked at a garden nursery I could lift a few large water logged of bark before back pain. The Mexican staff members could do the same work all day long and never complained. Your wine story is really interesting. Never knew so much labor was involved to create delicious wine.
I am always amazed at how much hard work goes into a vineyard and wine-making operation. Weather can be heart-breaking and the work is definitely difficult.
I imagine you give your hired workers great respect.