Quite understandably, the question I’m most often asked at this time of year is “how’s the harvest?” As I’ve grown as a winemaker and as a person, I’ve really moved away from thinking about specific fine details of the wines at this stage- I’m just starting to know them. Aside from the process of managing fermentations, what I tend to focus on this time of year is the emotion of the harvest. By that, I mean how does Mother Nature treat us? What is her mood and how does she express it? And what do the wines say as a result?
Every year, Nature places her stamp on the vintage. Whether it’s a hot year (2002, 2003), a cold year (2011), a year with a huge crop (2012), a year with a small crop (2010), she always has her say. But challenges aren’t always the emotion; some years, the weather is simply ideal, and Nature stamps the whole vintage with a nurturing feel; it’s a very real thing to connect with, and the best part of the journey. In such years (like 2007, 2015, 2016) the connection I feel to the earth, through the emotion of the vintage, is beyond explanation.
We work pretty hard to prepare for crush. Since my return to cycling last November, I was in better shape for a harvest than I think I’ve ever been, and felt very prepared. Emotionally, the year was feeling much like 2015 and 2016, except the grapes weren’t going to be picked as early as those years, so we had a little extra time, which was nice. The labor pool was challenging; we weren’t sure if there would be enough picking crews, and I literally didn’t have interns confirmed until late August, but despite those uncertainties, we felt on track.
And that was the precise moment Mother Nature decided to remind us that she can change it all in a heartbeat; and dropped the mother of all heat waves on us. When I say “heat wave”, these were the highest temperatures ever recorded around here, and for multiple days. The string of 100+ degree days that were projected (and we were at 113 and above) seemed to stretch out forever in the forecasts.
It wasn’t just “hot” either, it was an incredibly heavy, oppressive heat, which I have little to compare to other than the desert, but even that feels different. No matter, sugars skyrocketed. It was so hot that grapes didn’t raisin, so much as they seemed to just lose moisture on a cellular level.
This led to the only place it could: total pandemonium. We usually start with a couple small picks from two small places, and then it’s a week or more before anything else comes in. It works out great, and always gives us a chance to get everyone dialed in. Not this year. We picked those two places, and four other vineyards, all on the first day, which itself was a solid two weeks earlier than I had expected. Other vineyards, that days earlier I thought were two or three weeks out, were ready for picking “tomorrow”. We had barely gotten the winery ready and we were just flat-out slammed; long days back to back to back, with no respite in sight.
Was there an emotion to the early part of harvest? Yeah- it was like Mother Nature was swinging a steel hammer, and connecting. It was a relentless pounding that reverberated through us like it feels in a steel mill when a huge machine relentlessly pounds metal to shape it. That was the emotion. Winemakers would see each other and there’d be no small talk, just a painful shake of the head and move on.
And then, when it just had to end, it did. The heat broke, and after a bit of rain (leading to speculation on my part as to whether a volcano would erupt before the locusts would arrive), the weather changed to a more moderate pattern, things slowed to a most civilized pace, and it was just absolutely glorious in the vineyard and in the winery. It ended up being a very compressed, but very wonderful harvest.
It’s funny; in a way it’s somewhat difficult to remember how hard it was just a few weeks ago, because even with that start, it was an amazing experience. The onslaught of heat made everyone come together and the interns turned out to be two of the best we’ve ever had. Wayne, who you know from our Tasting Room, jumped in to help, and my son worked a few days before leaving for college. Growers and winemakers took care of each other as they could; we were all getting pounded, and we all pulled together. And, as I tasted the fermenting wines, I was struck by their personalities, even the earliest picks.
Over the years, I have come to fully embrace the fact that as a winemaker I only do one significant thing, and that’s to call the picking date. As I drove back one morning from a vineyard check, I realized that I hadn’t called a single pick so far - Nature had called them all. At first, that kind of irked me, it’s my one job. Then I realized Nature had reminded me in a big way that I only get to do my job if she lets me; and that sometimes when she does it for me, fabulous wines can ensue, which was a different version of her annual reminder to stay within myself and to remember I don’t know it all, if I know anything at all.
As it turns out, I’m a bit captivated by the 2017s; if there’s a common theme, it’s that for wines so young, they all seem to share a real sense of purpose. Wherever they go, it won’t be me steering them- they already know it for themselves. I keep asking myself how those personalities came from that experience, but perhaps, akin to having been forged in heat, they are just more resilient, or something like that. Perhaps I will be as well; I experienced a harvest like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I hope to be a better winemaker as a result.
So how is the 2017 harvest coming along? In all honesty, it’s been absolutely brutal, and it’s been absolutely incredible. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.