April 24-April 30, 2009
a Sip of Water, Say it and Spray It,
Jack Frost Sipping at Your Rose'?
It's week six of ‘Year in the Vineyard', and the vineyard is growing and thriving. The weather turned cold again, the vines are having a hard time exchanging potassium from the cold soil, so the vines have turned back to a slightly creamy yellow-green color. But that's likely to change soon! Another heat wave is forecast for next week and the warm weather will likely persist for much of early and mid-May. As the ground warms, the nutrients will flow to the leaves and fruit, and we expect to see another spurt of growth and an overall greening of the vineyard tissues.
We are supposed to see up to an inch of rainfall this weekend, which is fantastic. Every inch of rain saves us thousands of dollars in electricity (from not having to pump groundwater), and rainwater is much better for the vines than the stuff we pump from the ground.
A lot is going on here at Clos Pepe, so let's just launch right into our normal format-some pictures and descriptions of how we make wine week by week.
Coming in From the Cold? I may be risking punishment from the Weather Gawds, but according to our weather forecaster, we may be finished with the 2009 frost season. The idea of sleeping through the night for an entire week seems quite sexy-enveloped in warmness without the midnight calls: "There is a temperature alarm at station 9-9-9-9." We'll keep the alarm on for another month or so to be safe, but it does appear there will be a normal and healthy crop of fruit at Clos Pepe for the 2009 vintage. I'm ordering extra barrels to be ready. Why it Matters: To break even on our farming, we need between 1.5 and 2.0 tons of fruit per acre of vines. Last year frost destroyed most of our crop, and we ended up with an average of around .5 tons per acre. That type of crop yield is not financially sustainable-and of course we have been anxious about frost after last year's devastation. Each ton of fruit will make just over 2 full, finished barrels of wine, between 50 and 60 cases.
Filling the Gaps: Replanting Grapevines. Grapevines are very hardy plants and can live up to a few hundred years in perfect conditions. (The oldest producing grapevine in the world is 220 years old, and lives in England.) Most vineyards are replanted once per generation, or about once every forty years or so. Vines will produce fabulous fruit in very small quantities as they grow venerable in age, but to keep a good commercial crop load, most vineyard owners start replanting small sections of the vineyard when the crop starts shrinking, usually between 30-50 years into the vineyard's life. But there's plenty of things that can cause a single vine to die in the vineyard. Why it Matters: Gophers might nibble the tap root until it is severed, a tractor tire may get too close and snap the vine. Virus might rear its ugly head in a section. Every year we replant a few hundred vines out of 40,000 to keep the vineyard in constant production. Late April and early May is a great time to plant-the soil is warming, the subsoil is still moist and the vine has a full Spring and Summer to grow.
Grapevines are planted in the following way:
• We only use dormant grapevines-grapevines that are ‘green growing' never do so well in the cold climate of the Santa Rita Hills in my experience. Dormant vines acclimate themselves better, and are easier to handle in the field. Dormant grapevines arrive from cold storage in a dormant, woody state and wake up slowly as they are put into the vineyard and warm up.
• Remove the old vine and as much of the root system as possible-as the leftover roots can be a source of virus, pest insects or root rot.
• Dig a hole about two feet deep next to a vineyard stake, at the spot where the previous vine died.
• Trim the roots of the new vine a half inch or so. This guarantees the root-ends are fresh and ready to grow.
• Dip the trimmed roots into a solution of Mycchorizae fungus. These fungi affix themselves to the roots and grow in a symbiotic relationship with the vine. With healthy populations of Mycchorizae on the roots, the vines will uptake nutrients far more efficiently. This is yet another way we attempt to work with nature to build vineyard health holistically. A healthy vine starts at the roots, and efficient uptake means we need to apply less fertilizer to get our target vigor.
• Drop the vine in the hole and make sure the roots spread out evenly before backfilling.
• Before re-compacting the soil with a cut-off hoe, we saturate the soil with clean water to give the vine a drink as it wakes up. Water also helps eliminate air gaps in the soil.
• Mound loose soil over the vine to keep it from drying out in the sun. The shoots will start to poke out of the soil mound in a few weeks.
Preparing for the Heat-A cool drink for the vines. As the weather is supposed to heat up for a few weeks after the rain this weekend, we're putting down 5 gallons of water per vine to cover us in case the rain doesn't come. Some vineyards will wait much longer to start irrigation, but with only 8" of rainfall for the whole (2009) year and the holes dug for replants looking pretty dry, I want the vines to use the heat to grow and thrive. Why it Matters: The heat will dry the soil out, so we plan to wet it down a bit before the heatwave arrives. We will also begin fertilizing through the drip system soon, so having a moist soil profile will help the fertilizer move deeper into the soil profile where it can be used by the vines most efficiently.
I Love the Smell of Sulfur in the Morning...It Smells like... Mildew Dying: This week we applied 5 lb./acre of Thiolux wettable sulfur (certified organic product) to the vineyard. We also mixed in about 2 lb/acre of Kocide copper. The sulfur is to keep the vines free from mildew, and the copper will knock out early shoot blight (botrytis), as well as giving the vines a bit of extra protection from frost damage. We only spray early in the morning or late at night, as we don't want the strong afternoon winds to cause the materials to drift onto the highway or other non-target areas. A good dousing of wettable sulfur lasts about 10 days here in the Santa Rita Hills, so we'll spray again the second week of May. Why it Matters: Once you can see mildew or blight in the vineyard, it's too late. Mildew gains a foothold in the vineyard while its invisible to the human eye, so we watch the weather and spray when we have a number of days in a row that are perfect for mildew sporulation. Mildew loves temperatures between 70-85 degrees. Mildew attacks leaves, fruit and even the fleshy shoots-it disables the leaves ability to ripen fruit and can crack the skins of the grapes and make them useless for wine production. Tests in Australia show that 2% of mildewed fruit is enough to make a wine taste funny. Jokes are funny, but pinot noir and chardonnay should taste clean, bright and fruity.
And to Top it all Off: I went into the winery this morning and topped all of our barrels up. Why it Matters: We top the barrels every two weeks to keep the wine from being in contact with air in the barrels, which can make the wine turn slowly into vinegar. Barrels that are clean and topped are absolutely necessary for quality production. To top barrels we:
1. Remove all the bungs from the bungholes...yes that's the correct terminology, and you know you've been in the wine biz a while when the word bung no longer makes you titter.
2. Shine a flashlight into the barrel and add wine until the meniscus is just beginning to connect with the bottom of the bung hole.
3. Spray SO2 water on the bung, the bung hole and the visible surface of the wine.
4. Replace the bung and spray around the bung and on any stained parts of the barrel with S02 water.
5. Rinse down the barrels and the winery floor if necessary.
This weekend I will be chairing the Pinot Noir panel at the Riverside International Wine Competition. I'll be tasting through almost 300 wines from Friday to Sunday and getting paid to do it! I'll make sure to come back next week with a favorite or two. Until then, enjoy the Spring and make sure to travel the world in a wine glass every night!
Wine of the Week: Beckmen Grenache, 2007, Whole Cluster/Alban Clone. 35% of this wine was fermented whole-cluster, which means that the stems were included in 35% of the fermentation. The other 65% of the fruit was destemmed and fermented separately. To me, whole-cluster is like cheating at poker: if you can tell it happened, you weren't careful enough. I found the stem-inclusion in this wine deft and sexy-no green or herbal character, just a bit of extra mouthfeel and chewiness. Aromatics are restrained and varietally true: grapey with a hint of spice and floral notes. A deft approach, walking that thin line between restraint and full-bore ripeness. Amazing sweet black cherry that persists from the mid-palate through a long finish. Good tannic grip joins the saturated fruit to make the wine beautifully persistent. Delicious, bright and grippy. Lay down at least 2-3 if you can stand it, and I would propose 3-6 years for full maturity.