UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT:
We Can’t Go On Meeting this Way
Here we go again. I no sooner get the Viognier tucked away in its barrels, ready to ferment, and heave a big sigh of relief, looking forward to a weekend at Pt. Reyes with Cornelia to do some bicycling, some napping, some eating and drinking wine, maybe play my guitar a little, when I get a message Thursday morning as I step from the shower, from… can you guess? Yep. Paso Robles.
It seems the sugar in the Syrah there (same grower as the Viognier: two separate vineyard blocks) is higher than they expected. A lot higher. As I’m listening, I’m thinking: last I heard it was about 19 and one half, just a day or two back. What could it possibly be now? Maybe 22? “In the front block” says the message, “we’re showing 24.2%, and in the rear block we got 25.1.” Instantly, I feel every muscle fiber in my body clench. This is spooky. It’s STILL only the middle of August. I know Syrah is the next to ripen after Viognier, but there’s usually a break in between. I was thinking another six or seven days.
In 15 minutes or so, I’d gotten all my affairs in order (no sense in overreacting) and was on my way down 880, flying low.
I’ve acquired, over the last 15 years, a certain reputation for seeking out wine grapes in every remote place imaginable within the confines of the State of California. I’ve got a fruit source toward the north end of Ukiah valley, some two and a half hours north from Berkeley, if the traffic is light. I get all kinds of stuff up in El Dorado County, 2-3 hours east. I’ve gotten grapes from Livermore Valley, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Knight’s Valley, the San Joaquin Delta, Northern Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles, Fiddletown, Shenandoah Valley, Cambria (later this year), the Sonoma Coast (next year), not to mention the Columbia River Gorge and the Wahluke Slope in Washington State (and God only knows where else). I think the picture in people’s minds is of someone maybe part detective, part Johnny Appleseed, part water dowser, part hobo, part truffle pig. All I can say is: DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME! Maybe if this drive to Paso didn’t go through Fremont and Milpitas I’d find all this ramblin’ around more glamorous.
I made good time, though, better than my last trip. When I arrived, it was a bit cooler than it had been last Saturday, and the wind was strong, again. I stopped first in the front block of Syrah, closest to the house. It’s planted to a clone of Syrah I’ve never encountered before, and it was definitely behaving in a different manner than I’m used to. When grapes reach elevated sugar levels, they’ve usually softened to the touch — these felt quite hard. There was plenty of sweetness in tasting the fruit, but very little juice in the grapes. Then, too, there were grapes that weren’t so sweet, with skins still rough in tannins, and even some grapes that weren’t fully colored. Some of this unevenness is no doubt attributable to this being the first season of fruit production at this site. After ten minutes or so, I felt fairly certain I wanted to wait a few days before picking. I wandered across the driveway, and started tasting grapes in another section of Syrah, planted to a clone I knew. It was four or five days in ripeness behind the one I’d just left, and everything about it made sense to me. This was baffling.
The owner drove up in the mule ( a kind of narrow, all-terrain vehicle for hauling vineyard equipment) and we chatted as we headed to the back side of the property. I tried to communicate my incredulity, but then again, this was his first harvest, so everything was brand new to him.
The block we now went to see had become, over the past few nights, a nocturnal feeding ground for a pack of wild pigs. They’d left quite a trail; Aaron, the vineyard foreman, would be out hunting this night. (There was already an air cannon in the field, to discourage starlings. Ground squirrels had also been observed feasting on grapes here.)
The grapes in this block were the same mysterious clone as the first block I’d checked. It seemed to me that this block, too, needed a few days more. I really felt out on a limb here; it felt a bit like trying to play the banjo based on knowing how to pick the guitar. The thing with winegrapes is, you can only pick them once.
So we made a plan to pick Monday (before I drove down, I’d gotten everything in place to pick Friday, but was fortunate to be able, at this early stage of the season, to change the plan on short notice.) and I headed back to Berkeley, by way of Villa Creek Cafe, where I drank a nice cold pint of Pilsener Urquell, while watching the sky above Paso Robles’ western hills. As I gazed and began to relax a bit, I was struck by the appearance of a lone, wispy cloud, driven by the famed Templeton Gap winds. You know how clouds can dance and change shape before your eyes, especially on a breezy afternoon (in the midst of a tall, cool one). At one point the cloud had taken on an utterly convincing likeness of Lauren Bacall. My jaw dropped open, as she winked at me and whispered “Hey, there, friend, do you come here often?”