(Another) Year in the Vineyard, Week #3 with Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe

(Another) Year in the Vineyard, Week #3

3/25/10 to 4/1/10

Nature Makes Fools of Us All

A Tough Week at the Clos as Nature Shows Her Chilly Hand

(Don’t Forget All Photos Can Be Moused Over for More Info!)

 april flowers

(As lovely as it would be, there are no ‘April Fools’ jokes in this week’s installment.)

Amid exciting news and a great day in the winery, we suffered a tough morning on the Clos on Monday morning, the 29th of March.  Temperatures were forecast in the low 40’s, but a rare convergence of climatic factors combined to produce a fairly devastating frost.  Daytime temperatures at the Clos reached 82 degrees at 2 pm here at Clos Pepe—shorts weather so beautiful that we enjoyed a lovely afternoon basking in the warmth of the Santa Ynez Valley—visiting Chanda’s horse, having a nibble in Los Olivos, feeling momentarily safe from the chilly presence of Spring frosts.

The frost alarm rang at 3:00 am, and I went out into the vineyard and fired up all available protections.  I felt a bit odd, though, and while I usually take a slug of liquor and head back to bed, I stayed up a few hours and watched the temperature drop dangerously low.  I finally went back to bed and couldn’t get to sleep, but the hours wore on and I finally got up as the sun came out.  Even though our instruments didn’t see such crazy lows, our neighbor’s temperature logger measured 26 degrees at the lowest part of our shared fence.  We saw a 56 degree temperature shift in 15 hours.  At first the vines looked like they had weathered the cold, but as the day warmed, many of the shoots in the lowest part of the fields began to brown and wilt, and within 24 hours we could see that much of the Wente Chardonnay, a good deal of the Dijon 76 Chardonnay, and even some of the pinot noir in the ‘swale’ in front of our little house had been burned by the wicked, bitchy hand of Mother Nature.

frost damage

It’s a sickening feeling seeing those tiny, delicate shoots burned back as we drive in an out of the property.  Even though nature is what nature is, and we can only fight back so hard, it does strike me with a deep sense of grief and helplessness when crop is lost.  This is, of course, a tough business and any loss can take a break even year into the red.

On the bright side, the event was in no way as brutal as the 2008 frosts.  The hillside vineyards are leafing out beautifully, and most of the pinot noir is unaffected, and we still will be able to make some Chardonnay this year.  The toughest part for me is the walk up to Steve’s office, telling him we got burned, and the email/phone calls to the producers letting them know that they won’t be receiving as much fruit this year as they had hoped.  If the vintage is a wave, and I’m trying to surf it with some sense of style, I feel like I was wiped out on a sharp reef and the whole thing was captured on YouTube, bloody scrapes and all.

shoot #3

The up-all-night depression has faded into a sense of acceptance and a new drive to secure and make safe the fruit that was spared.  Out of every tragedy comes the teachable moment, and there’s a few here that I’ve been coaxing from my head over the last 72 hours. 

  • What I have learned about frost.  Clear skies + a low dew point help the process of radiation frost.  Dew point is the temperature that water vapor condenses in the atmosphere and forms water beads.  This process releases some heat and keeps frost from forming if the dew point is relatively warm: say in the low 40’s or high 30’s.  But when the dew point is below freezing, like it was for a few hours on Monday morning, there is no protection against a hard frost developing.  The wind turning from the coast to blowing in from inland (an east wind instead of west) was the final coffin nail that caused the hard freeze.  Objects (such as your car hood, windshield, or a young grapevine shoot) become colder than the surrounding air as the cold, open skies suck heat away from the earth.  Frost pockets develop as the cold air runs downhill like water.  When the frost pocket rises to the level of the vines’ shoots, they burn if they are under 32 degrees for more than a few hours.  With a marine layer in place, we are safe from a frost event.  So when we go to sleep under foggy skies, that’s usually a good indication that the alarm won’t go off and we’ll get some nice, uninterrupted sleep.  Tonight is supposed to be another cold night, in the mid 30’s, and we expect to have the fans running and the sprinkler sprinkling the moment temps drop to 38 degrees.  The frost fans will blow the lowest, coldest air into the sky, hopefully to be replaced by slightly warmer air from higher in the atmosphere.  The sprinklers are a stopgap for the coldest nights.  If temps go below freezing, the young shoots will be encased in ice to keep them at 32 degrees—the formation of the ice around the clusters will actually insulate them and protect them against sub freezing temperatures.  Think of it like an igloo to an Eskimo.
  • You can’t change what you can’t change.  I’m finding that a ‘be here now’ mentality is really helping me cope with the loss of crop.  I am obviously passionate and driven to produce the best winegrapes that we can here at Clos Pepe, and feel a greater responsibility because this is a family business and our future success or failure largely depends on my managerial decisions.  If eternity stretches on in THIS moment, and nature is wholly in charge, I can try to craft each moment to my liking, but I can’t be disappointed when nature decides to juke when I jibe and freeze when I wish it wouldn’t.  Sounds like an easy revelation, but it always takes me a few days to go from disbelief to self blame to acceptance.
  • The same extreme weather conditions that freeze our fruit every few years is what makes Clos Pepe so special.  There is an undeniable truth in viticulture:  the greatest fruit in the world is produced in climates where grapes struggle to ripen every year.  You may not know that Clos Pepe used to be half Chardonnay and half Pinot Noir, and that we grafted over 10 acres of Chardonnay in 2000-2001 when we found that Chardonnay really didn’t get ripe on the areas adjacent to Highway 246 and the pond on the property.  It was a struggle to get the Chardonnay to get over 22 brix and over 3.0 pH—great for those who like a lean, intensely acidic chardonnay (like me), but a slightly difficult sell year in and year out.  It may surprise you to learn that Pinot Noir ripens earlier than Chardonnay in a normal year, so swapping out the Chard for the Pinot has enabled us to get better ripeness out of that section (this is also a section that traditionally be frost prone).  The intense cold and persistent winds and cool temperatures makes this one of the slowest ripening pinot blocks in CA.  We’ve seen numbers in late October that would stun even the most veteran winemakers.  A winemaker that buys fruit from us and likes it quite ripe sent us back numbers beyond belief in 2007:  27.1 Brix (almost 17% potential alcohol if the must was not watered back) with 3.18 pH and almost 8 grams of acid.  That level of acid structure would make most Sauvignon Blancs seem flabby.  The wine turned out great after a bit of fiddling in the cellar, and garnered mid-90’s scores from national magazines, which doesn’t mean much in my book, but sure does sell some wine.  The take home message is clear though.  Extreme sites produce wines of distinct character and ‘somewhereness’.  I’d use the word ‘terroir’, but I don’t know what the hell it means.  Bottom line: no other wine region that I know of has entire growing seasons with less than 2000 degree days.  Degree days measures the sum of heat produced between budbreak and harvest, and without getting too geeky, trust me that under 2000 is really, really cold.  In fact, UC Davis Growing Region 1 (for winegrapes) is defined as less than 2500 degree days. (For example, 2007 showed 1985 degree days at Clos Pepe).

Other happenings this week:

I’m super stoked to report that my love letter to the Santa Rita Hills will be published THIS SUNDAY, April 4, 2010 in the LA Times Magazine under the title: ‘Transverse Transcendence’.  Although I’ve been writing for a national magazine (WineMaker) for more than ten years, this is a huge moment for my writing career, and I get a little giddy thinking about the 3 million+ readers that are expected to peruse my prose.  I may be getting another gig with the Times soon according to my editor, so I’m very excited.

Our sheep are round with lambs and should start lambing any time now.  Chanda sets her alarm to wake up at midnight, 2 and 5 to do a ewe-check, which makes frost patrol almost easy in comparison.  We hope to see 3-5 lambs on the ground in April.  I will, of course, forward (cute) photos as they arrive.

Preggers sheepies

I renewed my permit with the Ag. Commish last week, and now am legal to apply materials in the vineyard.  We laid down some copper sulfate as early as the vines could take a spray (as soon as budbreak was finished), and that copper will destroy the ice-nucleating bacteria that can cause frost damage.  The copper is supposed to ‘buy’ us a couple extra degrees in frost protection, and the next spray will also use a number of organic nutrients to build the vines’ frost defenses from the inside out.

Making sure we have water for frost control, we had to replace about 1000 feet of aluminum wire with copper wire between the PG&E transformer and our pump station, as we had intermittent power issues at the pump station last week.  The wiring is solid once again, and I can sleep a little better knowing that the sprinklers are ready to go if I need them again.

Yesterday was a full day at the winery, we worked hard enough hat it almost felt like harvest or bottling.  We rearranged the entire facility from top to bottom, and thanks to Jeremy and Chanda’s mad spatial skills (I didn’t get those genes), we managed to get all 88 barrels unstacked and single high on the floor of the winery.  We also racked our 2009 Axis Mundi Syrah of the lees (they were just a touch stinky, and now the wine is showing much cleaner, fruitier and purer), cleaned out the barrels with ozone water, and then refilled the barrels.  We started with 13 barrels, and ended with 12 very clean, almost sediment-free barrels.  We also racked a barrel of Chardonnay and a barrel of Pinot Noir into our separate topping tanks, so we now have good, sound wines to top each of the three types of barrels with the appropriate wines.  (Haters take note:  we do NOT put Syrah in our Pinot Noir here in the Santa Rita Hills).  The entire winery, all barrels and tanks, was then tidied, swept and finally ozonated and it hasn’t looked quite this trick since after harvest.  We’ll be showing off the shiny, clean winery on April 18th, 2010 from 11 am – 3 pm, and tyou are invited to come in and taste and nibble as my guest.  Just mention the blog and we’ll waive your tasting fee and that of your guests.  Note that this is the day after Vintner’s Festival, which makes it an awesome time to come up and experience many wineries and many wines over that special weekend.

Upcoming Wine Dinners with Clos Pepe and Wes Hagen (come and join us if you’re nearby!): 

Buona Tavola, a fabulous Italian restaurant in San Luis Obispo on Saturday, April 24th.  Local folks, let’s have dinner together and allow the wine and food carry you away. Menu highlights will include:  2007 CPE PN with Papardelle Cinqueterre- Wide ribbon pasta with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, sea scallops. house cured salmon, a diced braised garden vegetable medley, white wine and lighty creamy saffron sauce.   2006 CPE Pinot with Petto d’Anatra al Porto-  Muscovy duck breast pan seared and oven  roasted, finished with a port wine reduction sauce.  Please call for a reservation right away to guarantee seating: (805) 545-8000

Bradley Ogden’s Root 246.  Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 in Solvang: Chef Johnny Church and I are going to put our collective heads together over some Irish Whiskey and knock this menu out of the park.  From the man who brought you foie-stuffed Eber Skeebers with huckleberry preserves and a foie-topped burger with a half lobster tail, we expect to experiment to find the perfect small plates to match our wines harmoniously.  It will be a busy night, so get your rez now if you’ll be in the area. (805) 686-8681.