UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT:
Rainy Day, Man
This has seemed like a difficult year to gauge ripeness. I hear reports, from everyone I know who makes wine, of high sugars, most often concurrent with high acid levels in the grapes, and low pHs.(Usually, as ripening proceeds, the heat that pushes sugar levels higher also serves to lower acidity. pH tends to move most significantly when the grapes actually pass physiological maturity.) Back down at ground level, that might mean that when I walk through the Syrah blocks at Parmelee-Hill that produce grapes for us, I can taste lots of grapes that, while quite sweet, will still have, beneath that sugar, a big dose of tartness (not in and of itself a bad thing — what’s more important is whether the flavors seem green, or unripe). Even at the point when the grapes were picked, I could still find quite a few green seeds, though the flavors seemed really good in nearly all the fruit. So, it’s been tougher, much tougher than normal, this year, to decide the best moment to pick.
But decide one must, and we brought in all 12.1 tons Thursday the 5th. The people that work for Steve Hill really seem to take some pride in their work, and these grapes were exceptionally clean and easy to sort through. I don’t know how many grapes there were in those 12 tons, but most every one of them passed through my hands, and it only took a few hours — less time than the 3 and 1/2 tons of Grenache I complained so much about. When the Syrah from Durell came in 9 days later, the Parmelee-Hill was at the peak of its fermentative activity, and from where I stood in the hopper on the 14th, sorting that fruit, my nostrils were bombarded with the sweet, smoky ham-smell that fermenting Syrah gives off — a good sign, from my perspective — that smell is almost a trademark of the grape, particularly from that site.
Those 9 days took some getting through. I knew I’d need to get up to Sonoma to check the Durell fruit fairly soon after the Parmelee-Hill grapes arrived; there have been years when they’ve ripened almost simultaneously. The weather was nice, but moving toward the cool end of the spectrum, and there was a change imminent, pointing toward rain. Steve Hill was anxious to get some picking lined up since so much fruit was still hanging (for so many wineries), and he’d never be able to pick it all the day before that imminent rain finally showed up.
I drove up on Saturday, the 7th. It was breezy and none too warm, or bright. The kind of weather that tends to make you feel like it’s getting late, and it’s time to tarp the firewood, buy that weather-stripping you’ve been meaning to get, pick the last tomatoes. Get the car tuned up. Patch your raincoat. Whatever you do to get ready. I had two blocks of Syrah to check at Durell. One is on a terraced slope, rather steep. From the top, on a clear day there’s a marvelous, full view east and south to Mt. Diablo, that’s really lovely. The ground in the Terrace is red, rocky clay-loam, and the wine can, in the best years, be truly brilliant. It’s quite good in almost all the other years. Today the fruit tasted like it was getting there, but could really use another 5 days. Still some signs of greenness here and there, in both flavors and tannins. It was pretty clear that the next five days would not provide ideal conditions, but, unless the weather got pretty disastrously nasty, the fruit could benefit from the extra hang-time, even with a bit of rain. In any case, it was definitely too early to pick, if really good wine was the objective.
Looking downslope, Parmelee Hill Vineyard
Sonoma County, California
Gateway to Durell Ranch
Sonoma County, California
Syrah at Durell Ranch
Sonoma County, California
The other block, just to the north on a slightly different exposure, was more perplexing. The soil in this section starts, at the top of the hill, with the very same red, rocky clay-loam, but as it descends, the color and nature of the clay changes to a cobbly grey adobe, the kind of soil prevalent on so much of the valley floor in Sonoma and over in Napa as well. These vines behave differently on different soils, and in this particular case I think the rootstocks are an issue. To make a long story short, the vines on part of this second block (which I’ve referred to now for 8 or 9 years as Raccoon Hill, because the first time I visited at harvest to check for ripeness, I noticed a lot of clusters with the bottom grapes missing, and a certain amount of raccoon scat in the vicinity) have a tendency to want to shut down early, and timing theharvest to optimize flavor is exceedingly tricky. (This kind of problem is one of the legacies of pyhlloxera, which, itself was a legacy of the monoculture of the AXR1 rootstock in California.) When I visited on the 7th, the relative ripeness at Raccoon Hill seemed to be all over the board, and there were lots of grapes beginning to soften up (usually a sign of ripening) but still alarmingly short in the flavor department. I worried some that physiological maturity may have arrived, and that the possibility of rain in this block could have a nightmarish outcome. Still, it made no sense to think of picking yet, either. I called Steve Hill later that day, and told him I wanted to wait out the weather.
Sunday the 8th I drove to the foothills to look at Mourvèdre grapes at Izay vineyard near the town of Lotus, a little north and west of Placerville. This is the third year in production for the vineyard and for the first two the quality has seemed pretty promising. The vineyard is in an area that can get pretty hot now and then and this year there were a couple of gargantuan heat spikes that caused some of the fruit to raisin as if it thought it was Zinfandel. That, itself, was discouraging, but now the bees were getting pretty active in the grapes, as well, so the growers were becoming increasingly uncomfortable about how this growing season was going to turn out. (Me, too.) And there was that imminent rain.
Rain during harvest is always depressing. You feel so completely helpless and powerless, and even if it’s early enough in the season so that the effect may not be too dramatic, it’s agonizing waiting for it to end, and for the sun to reappear, for the wind to blow, for the temperatures to rise and drive off the sense of the season dying on the vine. But when it comes just at the point when the grapes are poised at the brink of maturity, one feels stricken, and it takes a lot of getting used to.
It started raining off and on in Berkeley Monday morning. It started raining at Izay just as they wrapped up picking that afternoon. They’d picked the ripest sections, and tried to get only the fruit in the best condition, and they tarped it and stuck it in cold storage overnight. We took the grapes in Tuesday and I was worried, because they’d sat overnight in humid conditions. Not ideal, but what I sorted into the destemmer seemed pretty sound, and the smell and taste of what’s in the fermenter is appropriate and encouraging.
It rained off and on through Wednesday evening. Steve Hill called Wednesday to ask if I’d come up to Durell on Thursday to decide when I wanted the Syrah, indicating that more inclement weather was due in on Sunday. I was already planning on a Thursday visit to take bunch samples and see what the statistics could tell me, though I was much more concerned about what my eyes and hands and palate would say.
I get pretty attached to the places my grapes come from, and I’ve loved the time I’ve spent at Durell. Part of that is the long and satisfying friendship that has developed between myself and Steve Hill, over the last 14 years. Much of it is just the land itself, where the company has often been provided by bluejays, jackrabbits, deer, raccoons, a Great Blue Heron, now and then. Lizards, red-tail hawks, turkey vultures, crows, the late afternoon sunlight, the wind, the magnificent live oaks, the fragrant bay laurels. The grapevines…oops, sorry, I was daydreaming. I was surprised to find, when I made the trip to Durell, that there had been only about a third of an inch of rain, and that it’s impact had been negligible to nonexistent. The vines may have been slightly refreshed by it. Things seemed in pretty good shape; if anything the flavors in the fruit were more pleasing than they’d been the previous Saturday. (But then, again, I’d said I thought they needed another five days, hadn’t I?) I filled a bucket with bunches from Raccoon Hill, and filled one from the Terrace as well, and returned to Berkeley to check out the numbers. Brix around 24 and 1/2, pH between 3.5 and 3.6, TA .56-.58. I got Steve Hill on the phone right away, and we arranged to pick Saturday the 14th. (I asked for the 13th, and was told that it was impossible because it would take too long to get ready. A reasonable explanation. But I wonder if maybe picking on Friday the 13th just sounded a little too unlucky. You never know.)
So, now it’s the 17th, the Durell and Parmelee-Hill Syrahs are in the fermenters, as is the Izay Mourvèdre, and I have only Syrah from Fenaughty, (and enough Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County to make 100 cases or so of rosé) left to bring in. C’mon, legs! Don’t fail me now; I can smell the finish line…