Harvest Tapers Off
"Have you picked yet?" asked my friend John Rodrigues when he called me yesterday. His hobby vineyard is about a mile west of mine in the cool-climate region (and possible future AVA) known as the Petaluma Gap. Even though we both grow the "early ripening" varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, we know that by the time we harvest, so has just about everyone else on the North Coast of California. I picked over a week ago and John harvested his grapes during the past week. Thanks to mild, warm weather the last few weeks, we both achieved good sugar levels (not always the case where it's cool). Yield was down substantially from the last two years of bumper crops, but we are looking forward to fully ripe flavors in our finished wines.
A view of my vineyard on harvest day before the nets came off.
The signs are all around us that harvest is winding down in our piece of wine country. We see it throughout the natural environment, among the commercial winegrowers, and very clearly in our own community of home winemakers. All throughout the region, seasonal pumpkin patches and corn mazes are opening for business. Every year, it seems the last of the grapes overlap with the pumpkin harvest for a week or two. Even though the days remain warm, we have begun having the chilly nights and foggy mornings for which we are famous. (You know, the back label on the Sonoma County wine bottle that says, "warm sunny days and cool foggy nights." That's us, alright.) As I walk around my back yard or across the parking lot at work, fall leaves crunch underfoot. The change of seasons is in full swing.
Driving along the country lanes that wind through the vineyards or on one of the two freeways in Sonoma County, the signs of harvest wrapping up are equally clear. The bird nets that went on many vineyards a couple of months ago are now gone. In red grape vineyards, the fruit that before was visible from the road is now absent (it's harder to see white grapes from a distance). The vine leaves themselves are turning golden, orange, and brown just like the trees. Secondary signs show up, too. The clusters of cars and pickup trucks parked at the edge of a vineyard before dawn by the picking crews are no longer seen. The flatbed semi trucks running up and down the highway stacked with grape bins are thinning out and going back to whatever hauling they do when there aren't grapes to be gathered up and taken to wineries. I particularly notice the disappearance of the small-scale makeshift transporters. Those are people with small flatbed trucks or utility trailers carrying anywhere from one to a dozen half-ton macro bins full of just-picked grapes. A few weeks ago it seemed that any vehicle that could haul grapes did haul grapes — not so much anymore. Even the air smells different as the pervasive aromas of fruit, fermentation, and (occasionally) vinegar fade away.
In the home winemaking world, I see a shift in the business at The Beverage People. Our four rental crusher/stemmers have been solidly booked on weekends — and some weekdays — for over a month. Now, one of the four sat all day Saturday at the store waiting until someone without a reservation came and got it in the last half hour we were open. Meanwhile, the six basket presses that we rent are having their moment in the sun. While some have been in use since the beginning of harvest to press white juice, they have shifted to pressing red wine in a big way. Now as the crushers wait, the presses go out at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, we can see an obvious shift in the balance of products that we are selling, too. The previous rush on yeast has slowed to a trickle. Malolactic bacteria sales are active, but also beginning to decline. We find ourselves talking about barrels, aging, and adding sulfites.
And that leads me back to my own fermentations. A couple of weeks ago, we pressed the Cabernet, Malbec, and Syrah that I wrote about in my last blog entry.
Mariko Wilkinson presses Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon.
I started malolactic fermentation on all those wines and made sure the room they were in was staying above 70° F. Then, on Sunday a bit over a week ago, friends and family joined us to pick and press my homegrown Chardonnay.
My friends AJ Churchill and Linda Duenas helped crush my homegrown Chardonnay.
We went on to pick part of the Pinot Noir, crush and destem it, and start the fermentations. We finished up the Pinot Noir on Monday morning and had everything cleaned up in time for the small Monday crew to go out for brunch at a local diner. The Pinot has been fermenting away in three 32-gallon bins since then and the Chardonnay has been bubbling in a stainless steel tank. I expect to press the Pinot next Sunday and inoculate it and the Chardonnay for malolactic fermentation at that time.
Today, I tested the Cabernet for malic acid and found it to be 27.4 mg/L (ppm). Since I was looking for a number under 30 ppm, it's done! While we are moving everything around on Sunday, we will rack the Cab into a hectoliter (26-gallon) barrel and rack everything else into clean carboys. The Chardonnay, currently in the tank, will rack to glass demijohns. The newly pressed Pinot will take over the tank. Once malolactic fermentation is done on those wines, everything gets to start its long winter nap in the cellar. Harvest tapers off.