Another Year in the Vineyard, Week 20 with Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe

Another Year in the Vineyard, Week #20

July 23-29, 2010

With Wes Hagen, VM/WM Clos Pepe

The Vintage Tiptoes Forward:

cluster week 20

At dinner the other night I ran into my first interns, Ariel and Angela Lavie from Lavie Vineyards.  We hadn’t touched base for a while, so we chatted for a while.  Ariel was echoing the sentiments of a lot of winemakers I’ve talked to lately, and a sentiment I hear many years around this time:  ‘Will it get warm enough to ripen the pinot noir this year?’

It has been really cool.  Summer’s been in effect for over a month, and the warmest day I can remember was about 77 degrees, and most days have topped out in the low to mid 70’s, with a few days not even breaking 70 degrees at all.  There are days that my wife never takes off her heavy jacket.  In the Santa Rita Hills the vintages are almost always cool in July and the beginning of August, and are punctuated by Santa Ana wind conditions in September and October that rapidly accelerate the ripening of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  I have great faith that Nature knows what its doing and the vintage will fall into the natural perfection it always does.  The grapes are changing color, the leaves are still green and healthy, there’s plenty of sunshine to move ripening forward, and the berries are so small that they won’t need quite as much heat and sun to get a good deal of sugar inside them.

So I’m not worried.  September is clearly the warmest month in the Santa Rita Hills, and October usually stays pretty warm during the daylight hours, and very cold at night.  I’ve seen sixty degree diurnal shifts at Clos Pepe in early October: freezing at 30 degrees in the early morning before the sun comes up (just warm enough that the vines don’t get scorched), and 90 degrees in the early afternoon—too warm for harvest in my world.  And there’s never a doubt in my mind that we will see that hot weather arrive in waves—that the fruit will ripen up slowly and methodically, and then get that last little bump of sugar right when we need it.

canopy #20

We’re less than 5% veraison here at the vineyard, meaning mess than 5% of the fruit has started to show a softening and color change.  Having 95% of the vineyard showing hard, green berries at the onset of August is not in itself a bad thing—cool years mean slow, methodical ripening that tends to make dark, rich and expressive wines.  And as I mentioned earlier, these amazingly tiny berries won’t need much heat to get ripe—especially with all the sun the vines have been receiving.  Maximum ripening/photosynthesis occurs at 87 degrees, and we haven’t come close to seeing that type of warm weather yet—but I expect we’ll get a nice heat spell in August (or 2 or 3), and then be ready to start testing fruit for Brix (sugar) and pH (rough measure of acidity, but really a measure of hydrogen ion acitivity), get the fermenters clean, the barrels and equipment ready.  My guess is the first pinot will come in around the 2nd or 3rd week or September.

The French are Coming!  The French are Coming!

While that clarion call won’t strike fear into many militaries, we’re all excited around here for the arrival of our intern, Adrien Gautherin, a 7th generation French winemaker.  I am leaving to pick him up in only three hours, and while I’m not looking forward to slogging through LA traffic during evening hours, I am excited to drive him to a taco truck and In n’ Out for his baptism into California wine culture.  I don’t know what I have to offer a French winemaker as far as technique and craft, but I do plan on learning everything I can about Chablisienne winemaking.  Not to say I’ll use that information, but I hope to store it into my wine lexicon and allow it to…well…ferment.   Adrien and I have been chatting through FaceBook, and it sounds like we’re going to get along great.  Or at least I tell him he’s going to be putting up bird nets all next week.

Bird Nets:


The bird nets are going up in the vineyard, which is a hot, dusty job.  I put bird nets up my first week at Babcock in 1996, and have been avoiding the task ever since.  The problem that week was my stupidity.  I was in my 20’s and loved to take my shirt off to get a tan while I was working, even though the Babcock management told me that was verboten.  So I applied nets shirtless for half a day, and the nylon webbing rubbed and put abrasions on my chest that, aided by a bit of sunburn and all the dust and grime on the nets, kept me in an itchy rash for weeks to come.  I have made it a rule to keep a long-sleeved shirt on while working in the vineyard ever since.

Netted Row #20

The crew will be applying about 40 linear miles of bird nets (and tying them up on the bottom) over the next three weeks.  Then we will apply one last spray (through the nets), and wait for the grapes to ripen.

How to Speak at a Wine Dinner:

We have been very lucky to sell out our last few winemaking dinners in the Los Angeles area, and I am very thankful that we have so many supporters down there.  I’ve been fine tuning my schtick during these events, and I finally have it down to the point where I have a few pointers to share. 

  • Nineteen out of twenty diners at a winemakers’ dinner are not wine geeks, but most winemakers present information as if they were.  I recommend avoiding speeches focused on production:  barrels, yeasts, malolcatic fermentation are not that interesting to most people, and you can always talk to those interested in these details personally. 
  • What people are there for is flavor, romance, ritual and authenticity.  They want to hear stories.  Stories of passion, hardship, humor—that’s what seems to keep people attentive and laughing.  Even Jesus knew this about a crowd.  Don’t bore diners with laws or threats.  Just tell them some stories, and if you go to a wedding without any booze, work your magic with the man upstairs to turn some water into Palestinian Pinot. 
  • Wine drinkers want to drink wine made by people they find interesting, passionate and crafty. Diners want to feel like they’re in Italy or France, soaking up romance and listening to short (under 5 minutes) narratives in between courses that tell a story of a wine, a vintage, a family’s passion. 
  • It’s very easy to decide what subjects are compelling:  if the crowd quiets to hear your story, you’ve got some game.  If you have to wait 5 minutes for enough silence to start speaking, and then the murmur continues half way through your descriptions…tweak the program.  Speak clearly, speak passionately and respect the fact that the real reason that they are at table is to enjoy your wine and their friends, not necessarily your sales pitch.