The Vintage from Hell

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smThe week was going pretty well for awhile. We were able to harvest our Merlot, which looked very good despite all the problems with the weather this year, on Thursday morning. It was harvested mechanically, and the whole thing went well and quickly. Many find mechanically harvesting too industrial in concept, but it sure does do a good and quick job of getting the grapes off the vine and to the winery.

Friday morning we returned to the vineyard to harvest our Petite Sirah. Unlike the Merlot, this grape, because of its trellis system, couldn’t be mechanically harvested. So we had arranged for a couple of crews of hand-pickers and got going around daybreak at 7 a.m. Since rain was in the forecast, everyone was anxious to bring in their grapes before the weekend, leading to a shortage of crews. So we got started with one full and one short crew.

It wasn’t a pretty day, being gray and overcast, but it was perfectly acceptable picking weather. At least for a few hours. And then the rains came. Not a downpour, just an on-again, off-again, drizzle, occasionally turning into a real though light rain for a few minutes, then stopping altogether for awhile, and then starting up again.

For someone standing out in the clear, the rain wasn’t that big a deal. But for those working on the vines, it was a major problem. The vines get wet, and those working in them get wet as well. By mid-day, the crew had had enough of the miserable conditions, and was ready to take off. We coaxed them to stay long enough to complete a truck-full of grapes, and then they were gone.

The day wasn’t a total waste. We harvested almost half the grapes in the field. While we intended to get the whole field picked, when Mother Nature has other ideas, all you can do is deal with the situation as best as you can.

Also on the plus side, we were able to do a pretty good job of picking the best fruit. As I’ve noted over the last few months, raisining has been a major problem this year. Since pickers get paid by weight, their natural tendency is to pick everything they can, raisined or not.

To make sure we get only what we wanted, we go through the fields with the pickers, examine what goes into each picking bin, and throw out what we don’t want. Once the pickers saw what should be rejected, they were very good about taking only the good bunches. They weren’t perfect, and we did end up throwing out some of what they picked, but by and large, they did an excellent job. I invite anyone wrapped up in the romance of winemaking to spend a few minutes tossing aside raisined bunches to cure them of that romantic hogwash forever.

And, finally, apart from the rain, things proceeded reasonably well. It’s always a little stressful on harvest day, as a lot of things need to all be in the right place at the right time. In our situation, the winery was delivering the macrobins that would be used to collect the grapes literally minutes before the picking was to start. A flat tire and everything comes grinding to a halt. At least there were no flat tires, or lost trucks driving around Suisun Valley trying to find us.

We’d done a few crop estimates prior to the picking, and they indicated we were going to be quite a bit off our normal yields. But once the picking started, they gave the lie to our estimates, as the yields, even after leaving lots of raisined grapes on the vine, were better than we expected. Not high, by any means, but at least not terribly low. We seem to be getting 4 ½ to 5 tons to the acre, which is better than we expected, and not that far off normal for that vineyard.

We wanted to see if we could resume the harvest on Saturday morning, but the winery nixed that idea. They’re battling to crush what’s already been harvested. Too bad for us, as I’m writing this on Saturday morning looking out my window at a rain-free day. But the rains are predicted to come later today and tomorrow, so we’ll not be able to finish up until Tuesday at the earliest. So far we’ve been lucky that last week’s rain didn’t result in a flare-up of botrytis, but there’s always concern that with the next rain we won’t be so lucky, particularly with a grape like Petite Sirah that is prone to rot.

This vintage has been horrible in almost every imaginable way. The amazing thing is that despite all that, the quality of the grapes looks to be pretty good. I have no doubt that our grapes will make good wine. But getting from here to there this year has been a whole lot more difficult than in most years.

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3 Responses to “The Vintage from Hell”

  1. Arthur says:

    I had the pleasure of picking grapes in that very kind of on-off drizzle and muddy slopes. I guess having grown up in eastern Europe and going out to the fields to help pick potatoes, beets and other vegetables or bring in grain by hand (not every one could afford or had land big enough for a combine) on a regular basis eliminated any romantic pre-conceptions.

  2. Sean O'Keefe says:

    It’s refreshing to hear an accurate account of harvest while so many blogs are spinning “it’s the year from hell, but let’s pretend we’re Bordeaux minus the sunburn!”

  3. Tina Riniker says:

    I think your blog is excellent I found it on Google. Definetely will return again! I am very exsiting about learning newstuffCheers, Whitney

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