UPDATE: VINTAGE TWO-TRIPLENAUGHT:
Is It September Yet?
A big part of harvest is about waiting, and the hope is, usually, that there is time to wait, because there is so much to do. The first two loads of fruit we brought in sneaked up on us, and we were fortunate that they didn’t come mid-harvest, when all hell has broken loose. When it had become apparent that the Paso Robles Syrah would come a week or more sooner than I’d hoped, I went to Troy, the grower, and told him I needed to find out exactly where each of the remaining varieties is in its ripening curve, so that I could prepare, since I’d felt so unprepared for the Syrah and Viognier (I’m preparing now, as well, to bottle up a large portion of our 1999 wines next week, so there’s a lot of concern about timing. The days the bottling truck is here are days we can’t process any just-picked grapes.).
After getting several sets of readings on the Roussanne, Grenache, and Mourvèdre still on the vine, I planned yet another trip to Paso Robles. Eric Theise, who built our website and did almost all the vineyard photography featured on it, said he’d come along for the photo-op, and offered to help with the driving, a most welcome offer, given my already-described nagging spinal maladies.
I set out at dawn’s early light on Tuesday the 29th (I can’t believe it’s still August!) to pick up Eric near his place in San Francisco. I managed, somehow, to get through rush hour traffic more quickly than I’d anticipated, and had nearly a half hour to kill when I arrived at our appointed meeting place, far up on Market St., almost to the top of the hill. So I lay in the back seat of the van with my feet up, staring up at the grey sky, watching the passing fog/clouds. (No sign of Lauren Bacall this morning, sorry to report) and I couldn’t escape the feeling that what I was seeing looked more like rain clouds than fog.
After I spotted Eric at 8:15, we headed south in what seemed like a lot of traffic, but moved quickly down the peninsula, and through Santa Clara Valley. Heading over the grade between Gilroy and Prunedale the dark sky began to drop some rain on us. It passed before we got to Salinas, but the sky heading south from there looked really dark, and there were considerable large strands of fog/clouds hanging on the Santa Lucia hills. The Pinnacles were invisible for the clouds. We began to see lightning. By Soledad it was pouring. We stopped at a Best Western trying to find an indoor pay phone to call Troy to see if it was raining in Paso. (If it was, our trip would, for the greatest part, be wasted.) They didn’t have a pay phone. More lightning, putting out the electricity. This was getting pretty spooky. We stopped at a gas station around King City, and failed to make contact with Troy, leaving a message on his machine. No choice but to keep going.
By Camp Roberts we were out of it, (the rain, I mean) and in Paso, it was bright and muggy. After a quick lunch at le Petit Marcel (Paso is getting pretty sophisticated these days), we drove out to the ranch to check out the fruit.
First stop, along the driveway, was Roussanne. It’s planted across the top of a north/south ridge, and covers between 4 and 5 acres. I’ve never worked with Roussanne before, so I’m back on another steep learning curve. I walked a couple of rows on the east side of the ridge, tasting grapes. Most of the fruit seemed very firm at this point, much more than the varieties I’m really familiar with do, when they’re approaching ripeness. So it was surprising to taste some developed flavors in many of the grapes. And, of course, as with the Syrah clone I’d been puzzled by, I wondered if I could rely on what I’d always thought of as the parameters for determining ripeness. The only possible response is to pay really close attention to what your senses tell you.
I worked my way over to the west side of the block, on to terraced rows, where Troy had said he’d thought things were farther along. I think it’s true, and I began to wonder whether it wouldn’t be smart to sample the east and west sides separately, to see how sigificant the differences might be. On the east side of a hill, the time of day when the sun light is most direct (and intense) is in the morning, when the day is coolest. On the west side, the sun light is most direct at about the time when the daily temperature peaks. So, in theory, at least there ought to be a discernible difference in the way the grapes ripen on either side, and therefore, in the relative level and quality of ripeness between the two. So, in a season of waiting, I am eagerly awaiting a report that tells me whether my intuition is correct, and perhaps something about what it means, in terms of picking decisions.
From the Roussanne to the Grenache and the Mourvèdre involves a trip around the corral and a chance to say hello to a couple of beautiful horses, and a sweet pony, which also means a chance to be distracted from the fatigue from the driving, and the pressure of the crush. These wonderful creatures seem so eager for contact, and it’s very hard to explain to them why you can’t stay and keep them company, and feed them carrots and sugar lumps, because you’ve got to go assess the Grenache.
There are two clones of Grenache to look at, on two different rootstocks, planted on a very large, steep hill, so there is a lot of assessing to be done. Since the top of the hill tends to be warmer than the bottom, it’s not surprising to discover that the Grenache on the upper half of the hill is riper than the Grenache below. Since there are two different clones and two different rootstocks, and the rows are planted across the slopes, the combinations (clone 1/rootstock a, clone 2/rootstock a, clone two rootstock b, clone 1/rootstock b ) show gradations of ripeness that seem to be aligned with elevation on the slope. The only conclusion to be drawn, yet, is that THIS YEAR position on the slope, vis a vis elevation, is the most meaningful piece of information. Remember (I keep telling myself), this is the first time out of the chute for the vineyard, and EVEN IF THE WEATHER IS IDENTICAL next year, the results will probably be different.
It’s comforting to discover that the Mourvèdre has considerably farther to go than the Grenache, though the pH is a bit higher. (The little bit of Counoise planted in the vineyard is way behind. AND it’s still August.)
Troy’s two yellow labs have been keeping me company all this time. They’re sweet dogs — quite plump, very energetic (they frequently seem to fire their afterburners in pursuit of something — Jackrabbits?). But it’s hot and muggy now, and their breathing in concert is heavy, and loud. I worry about them getting dehydrated, yet by the time I get back out of the vineyard and up to the house where we’re parked, they’re there, rested and ready to go at the drop of a hat.
When we left the Rozet ranch, it was a little surprising how warm it seemed. As mentioned before, it was muggy, but it had been relatively cool when we got to Paso Robles. But now, for the moment it felt like a steam bath.
We were headed next, however, toward the coast, and by the time we got to North Green Valley Rd., it felt almost like one of those mild NOVEMBER afternoons you can only find in California. The problem with that, of course, is that it WAS only August (like I’ve been saying ), and this cool weather felt weird.
The Bassetti vineyard, where we now were, is only a couple of miles from the ocean. The Spring comes early here, and there’s little frost, but the growing season temperatures are on the mild-to-cool side, so ripening, in all but the most torrid years, tends to be really slow.
Suzie and Ellis Bassetti are terrific people who operate a ranch that grows herbs and flowers that they dry to produce decorative wreaths. And they have this utterly magnificent 5 acre knoll that just seemed to beg to be planted to Syrah. So it was done, in 1998.
So, here we were, to check out the relative ripeness of the Syrah, in the first year of production. The grapes that are there (there are, sad to say, a lot of grapes missing, having been eaten by birds) have marvelous flavors developing, and still seem to need another couple of weeks before they’re ready. So at this point, the main concern is going to be — will there be any grapes LEFT? Having gone through a similar struggle with our Higher Ground vineyard, I feel horrible for Ellis and Suzie to have to deal with this painful situation.
So finally we end up back in Paso, at Villa Creek. As I sip from the ritual pint of Pilsener, my entire body vibrates from the miles we’ve covered, and know we have yet to cover.