by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)The skies are clear. It’s 78 degrees out. I do a berry sample. The brix are 25, the pH is 3.45. The juice I squeeze out of the berries is very pretty medium red. The seeds are all yellow and brown, not a green seed to be found. No pulp sticks to the seeds. The skins are soft but not mushy. The 10-day weather forecast is sunny and clear, with temperatures hovering between 75 and 80.
It’s the perfect harvest.
And, like most perfect things, it never really happens. It’s a fantasy.
As I write this, the rain has finally stopped. With luck, we’ll get sun and, even more important, wind, to dry out the clusters. Nothing like a little rain while the grapes are ripening to throw a monkey wrench into things. A perfect grape cluster except for the fact that it’s covered in mold isn’t an appealing sight. But that’s what rain can do.
And that berry sample, it never happens either. Invariably something is off. The juice a little lighter than I’d like. The brix a little low (or high), the pH not what you really want it to be. The seeds may be mostly brown and yellow, but there’s always some green from the berries that are lagging behind. The skins are maybe a little softer than the other grape parameters would predict.
So deciding when to harvest is always something of a compromise. I just did a berry sampling of some merlot, and it was really pretty good in one sense. But it really didn’t matter since the rain is dictating that that fruit should come in. When you balance the possibility that the grapes will get even better (low considering they seem to be pretty good right now) against the possibility that they will get worse (rot at worst, but even going from ripe to overripe is bad enough), it’s a no-brainer.
But even without rain, it’s still a compromise. The berry sample produced a brix of 24.4, pretty much perfect. pH is 3.58, which is really higher than I like (meaning the acidity is lower than I’d like), so leaving them out will move them even further out of where I want to be acidity-wise (since the acid levels decline over time). The juice is a medium to light pink. I really would like to see more color, but it’s good enough. There’s still some pulp sticking to the seeds. Not what I would most like to see, but, again, it’s not that big of a deal when balanced against the possible downside of leaving them out for longer. At least the flavors seem to have come along considerably from my last sample, when there was still a lot of greenness.
So if there were no rain, whether to pick or not wouldn’t be a clear, no questions asked, proposition. If I could keep the brix and acids where they are and get a little more juice color, without getting any prune or raisin flavors, that would be my choice. But the berries don’t stop maturing when, on any one parameter, they reach optimum. They go beyond optimum to suboptimum and eventually to just plain bad. So you need to make a choice. Here, the rain made that choice an easy one. Even without the fear of rot, though, I would bring these grapes in now rather than wait.
In fact, even though imperfect, this berry sample is probably about as good as it gets. The good thing is that here in California as long as your grapes don’t suffer some serious problem (i.e., don’t ripen fully), the fact that they aren’t perfect in every regard doesn’t really effect the ability to make really good wine. And there’s no one day that is the perfect day to harvest—there’s more like a window where, if you pick in the early part of it, you get one style (more acidic, lighter, more elegant) and if you pick later you get another style (more concentrated, lusher), but both styles are perfectly good wines. But as for that perfect combination of everything going right at exactly the right time—well, that never happens.