(Another) Year in the Vineyard, Week #12 with Wes Hagen

Year in the Vineyard, by Wes Hagen VM/WM Clos Pepe

Week #12: May 28- June 3, 2010

Budi-Licious Cuisine, The White Horse, the Green Tractor, Fruit and Frogs


My day has started a bit slowly.  My normal 6:30 – 7:00 am cup of coffee was delayed until 8:15 today, a fairly rare occurrence.  Last night was our friend Michelle Abiad’s (soon to be Jeremy Ball’s wife)birthday dinner celebration at the Ballard Inn—a restaurant where she worked for many years as a server.  Chef Budi Kazali made this a special homecoming for her.  We threw ourselves upon his mercy for the evening, and he came up with a six course tasting menu (not counting amuse or 2 desserts) that knocked us into a culinary and wine-infused fugue.

It was one of those dinners that seems like a dream the next morning.  Dishes like a black cod topped with a fried cod liver were gloriously balanced between flavor, richness and texture.  The seared foie gras with port-soaked cherries alongside apple-smoked bacon-wrapped quail was a revelation with a 1998 Clos de Vougeot so generously offered by Steve Pepe from his cellar.  We ate hamachi, scallops with pork belly, cod with fried liver, all with a 2001 Clos Pepe Estate Chardonnay.  Then quail and foie, a duck dish that was crisp on the skin and rare in the middle (drool), and then a few lamb chops that topped us off with a nice Harrison Clarke Grenache from Ballard Canyon.  The matching of wines and food (4 hours, three bottles) was spectacular, we were all in a fine, fine mood, and Budi and the staff made us feel like conquering Vikings.  If you have the chance, grab someone you love and head over to the Ballard Inn for dinner.  There’s a few Michelin stars waiting for this place if the world is fair.

So I guess the point was that I struggled to wake up early this morning after sleeping off a fine dining coma.   So much richness, so much butter, so much foie and bacon.  I really should eat nothing but fruit and vegetables for a few days.  But I finally did drag my slightly lazy ass out of bed this morning, got through my email and my phone messages, and now I’m sipping coffee and chewing on an apple, trying to structure the week’s vineyard work into a format that will be instructive and entertaining.  Here we go!

47 cheval

The owners of the Clos, Steve and Cathy Pepe, are currently gearing up for a Fine and Rare Wine Auction to benefit St. Mark’s Church in Los Olivos.  Steve has generously offered a few bottles of rare, old Port wine, a 1990 Lafite Rothschild, and other rare bottles have been rolling in as well.  Brooks Firestone, who also attends the church, dropped the bomb on the valley, when he reached deep into his cellar (also his father’s cellar) and produced a 1947 Cheval Blanc, which many critics have called the greatest wine ever produced.  It currently sells at auction for about $5000.  He also produced Chateau Petrus from 1947 and 1963, as well as some other wines that would be considered absolute jewels if not for the company of that 1947 ‘White Horse’ from Bordeaux.  I helped the cause yesterday by photographing the entire collection of 15 bottles that will form the heart of the auction, and if you’d like to see the whole lineup, it’s on my FaceBook page, under Wes Hagen.  I couldn’t help but include a pic of the 1947 CB here, though.  The auction will occur in Los Olivos on August 1, 2010, from 4-7 pm.  Tickets to attend are $100, and those interested in attending can get details from [email protected] or [email protected] .

The crew has been continuing through the vineyard on their shoot positioning and shoot removal runs.  They will finish the first pass this week, and then we’ll go back and fine tune the leaf-pulling as flowering and fruit set complete.  We also plan to give the vineyard a spray of fungicide next Monday through Wednesday, which is sorely needed as we’ve held off on all sprays during the flowering period.  Getting blasted with the spray rig isn’t good for flowering and the delicate business of clusters pollinating.  But after the berries are freshly swelling after setting, they need a good blast of fungicide to stay clean and mildew free, especially as the temperatures have been warming up to that perfect mildew-growth window of 72-82 degrees.  We had a few warm days last week, and the temperature outside right now: 11:30 am, Thursday June 3rd is a perfect 73 degrees at the (warm) bottom of the property.  Maximum photosynthetic efficiency is reached at 87 degrees F for a grapevine, and at 85 degrees a grapevine with adequate water and nutrients can easily grow its shoots three inches or more in a single day.

Our current intern, Tony Mendez, is out doing spot fertilization in the vineyard.  He’s giving a bit of added nutrient to vines that are lagging behind and to the baby (replant) vines that have yet to develop a trunk system.  Vines are replanted due to gopher damage, virus, a tractor knocking them about, or another mishap.  Tony’s getting good exercise until the golf cart is fixed and ready to speed him through the task in a shady and relaxed, mechanized style.

Kimco before

Our vineyard foreman, Cesar Corona, is back on the tractor using our Kimco Machine to knock vines out of the vine row mechanically, so we don’t have to use herbicide (Roundup) or seed sterilant.  We believe keeping herbicide out of the vineyard keeps the soil in our vine row healthier, with greater microbial activity.  So Cesar drives down each side of the vine row (72 linear miles in all) at about 3 mph, manually swinging a rotating head in and around the vines to decimate and beat the weeds to death, and to stir the soil, fluffing it for better water penetration.  It’s a cultural practice that costs a lot of extra money and time, but we’re committed to doing what we think makes the soil healthier and the wine true to its pedigree.

Kimco after

As far as the cycle of vine growth this week, I mentioned that we’re finishing up the flowering and fruit set portion of the vintage, and you can see some pictures of how the clusters are changing.  The tiny little berries are finally starting to swell a bit, and over the next few weeks they will start accumulating sugar and the berries will grow until the clusters ‘close’.  It’s vital at this juncture that the fruit be clean and mildew-free as the bunches fill out, so we’ll give them a nice fungicide spray next week.  The material that we plan to use is very low-impact, and the crew can be back working on the sprayed vines after 24 hours, which is the shortest ‘re-entry interval’ of any fungicide.

week 12 shatter

As the clusters of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ‘set’ after their ovaries have been fertilized by the tiny whitish-yellow flowers that emerge at cap-fall, we can judge how well the clusters have been fertilized by putting our hand under the cluster and giving it a few sharp slaps on the top of the clusters, watching carefully for how many berries fall into the waiting hand.  Those berries have ‘shattered’—they were not fertilized, and for the lack of a better term, have been aborted.  A little bit of shatter is expected, and will even improve wine quality: opening up some space on the cluster for sun –and helping the cluster to avoid being too tight and large.  I like to see three to ten berries fall off a cluster at the end of set—more than 20 does tend to bum me out, and I have seen years where nearly half the berries fall off.  For how cool, grey and windy it was during flowering this year, I am happily surprised how well our vines managed to fertilize themselves.  Maybe they are adapting and mutating year by year to the difficult, cool, windy conditions in Spring.


pacific tree frog at the clos

As I was walking back from a short meeting with the crew this morning, and snapping some shots for this blog, I spotted this little Pacific Tree Frog on a bucket in the shade by our Bocce court.  It was a happy reminder that amphibians such as frogs and the California Tiger Salamander (a Federally endangered species that also shares this property with us) are an indicator species for a highly healthy ecosystem and diverse, clean environment.  I snapped a shot of him not only because he was a handsome little critter, but also to congratulate Clos Pepe, Steve and Cathy  Pepe, and perhaps even myself, that what we do here as farmers does impact the environment and the future, and this little croaker brought it home for me today.  I also had to snap a shot of Gaius, as he came to the fence line to make sure I wasn’t going to mess with his lambs.  The coyotes still haven’t come to the fence line like they used to, and I’m wondering if they’ve moved camp to an area not being protected by 100 lb.+ of deep-woofing mastiff.  All is well in the vineyard, in my tummy and with the world.  Now I just need a Laker win in Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs tonight to make the planets align and Boston worry.

Gaius 12