I Can’t Help It If I’m Lucky
In March of this year, after nearly three weeks of unseasonably hot weather, during which time the temperatures in Berkeley averaged more than 85 degrees Fahrenheit (and the wine country, pretty much throughout the state, experienced temperatures in the mid to upper 90s), I had a dream in which one of my growers said to me: “I’m probably going to start picking next week.” Now, when I’m dreaming, it’s my sense that the “ground,” that is to say the assumptions by which I attempt to orient my self, can be pretty shaky, and it took me awhile, in this dream, to figure out the meaning of what this grower was telling me. “My God!” was my first response; “you’re picking already? It’s so early! It’s not even really Fall yet!” That didn’t seem to quite capture it. I tried again; “It’s not even Summer, yet!” And again; “It’s not even Spring yet! Jesus! The vines haven’t even started growing yet!” At last, the “ground” had come into focus. The vines began to grow (not dreaming anymore) three weeks earlier than normal, and it was pretty much a dead certainty that the harvest would, indeed, be a very early one.
Yet we’ve been extremely fortunate that the Spring, and, especially, the Summer were mild and even. As the weeks and weeks of cool, foggy days in Berkeley rolled by I kept exhorting the Weather Gods to let it continue.
Then I went on vacation (see Organolepticians #52). It was only a ten day getaway, but I was able to comfortably sink into the landscape sufficiently that I felt restored when we set out for home. On our way back to Berkeley August 9th, I picked up a phone message indicating that the Viognier grapes at the Rozet Vineyard had tested at 24.5 degrees Brix, and urging me to come ASAP to take a look.
So when we arrived at the house, and got the van unloaded, I headed at once down to the winery to wash out bins for hauling grapes. At eight the next morning I picked up a rental truck, which, by nine-thirty, I’d equipped with eight of the clean bins. When I’d strapped and tied them down securely, I headed down to Paso Robles, where I’d booked a room for the night. And on Wednesday morning the 11th, I left Rozet at 9:30am with around two tons of Viognier on board (leaving half the bins behind for the Syrah that would be coming next.).
Over the last five years, by the end of September I’d usually written, for the Organolepticians, at least two or three accounts detailing the events of harvest up to that point, but it’s all been so compressed, and so relentless this year, that I’ve barely had time to remember which foot to put down next. And it’s unusual not to have a break of up to 5-10 days at some point early in harvest, during which I’ve been able to get a feel for what will be coming next, and in which order, and how soon. 2004, though, seems to be the year of constant motion, and no rest for the weary.
We are trying out some new fruit sources this year, which immediately creates some uncertainty. But mainly, it’s just a really odd year, one that stands out in a steady procession of 10 odd years. (The last year that felt like one I’d comfortably describe as normal was 1994.) But, as anomalous as it’s been, I’d have to say that I continue to be astonished at how magnificent the grapes of 2004 seem to be.
I have come, over the course of 32 years in the wine business and 20 harvests at Edmunds St. John, to be devoted to wines that can dance effortlessly between the poles of intensity and grace, power and elegance, rusticity and refinement, comfort and surprise. Most vintages, most often, the grapes in California seem to lend themselves more to the intensity, power, rusticity, and comfort end of things. There are always exceptions, but never before so many.
Seemingly one can always find grapes that give wines with plenty of flavor and intensity, whose expression is as direct and as powerful as your first view of Half Dome. Less often can you find the grapes that produce wines that tantalize, in the manner of a Frederick Law Olmsted landscape, where each view is not only compelling, but which compels one forward by the promise of yet another wonderful surprise just up around the next curve. Those are the kinds of grapes I treasure, and they’re just the kind of grapes I’ve kept finding in my fermenters this year!
They’re coming in at moderate sugar levels, with everything in great balance. Pinot Gris ripe and flavorful at under 22 degrees Brix, with mouth watering acidity. Grenache at 24.5 with tremendous color, great articulation of flavor, and profound aromatic depth. Viognier with haunting perfume of apricots and lavender. The grapes of Bacchus’ dreams.
It’s hard to know, since I work with many younger vineyards, whether this is just a feature of the vintage, or whether this might be the year the vines “turn the corner,” and begin to really strut their stuff. Whatever the explanation, I believe 2004 will be a year to be reckoned with.
It’s also been true that, as steady as the flow of this harvest has been, I’ve never had to worry about running out of fermenter space; even when it seemed that everything was trying to get ripe at once, I’ve had capacity to spare.
Now, as October begins, my fermenters are mostly empty, and nearly all the fruit is in. There’s some tasty stuff settling in for the long snooze in barrel, as the Northern Hemisphere tilts away from the Sun, and the year begins to run out of gas. There’s so much work to be done. Give me just a few more days!