Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oh Lordy, it rained...and then rained somemore

Typically we get a generous inch, maybe two, of rain between end of harvest (Oct 31st) and the new year....just enough to set the seed on the steep hillsides and get a root system going before the downpour that follows between February and April. The purpose of germinating hillside seeds before the big rains is to S.O.T....save our topsoil. If the big rains come and seeds have not germinated setting early root systems, then the severe slopes of many of our mountainside vineyards gets washed away. Looking at a road cut between two of our Cabernet blocs, it is readily apparent that our entire steeply sloped vineyard has barely a foot of topsoil covering a solid limestone mountain. Loss of any of our precious soil is an invitation for disastrous erosion, most of which flows down our slopes, and then flowing on down via rivulets and ditches to the Salinas River. The Salinas, swiftly flowing and strong in midst of big rains, usually dries up in the hot summers, yet remains one of the biggest northerly flowing underground rivers in the U.S.,  ultimately emptying into Monterey Bay some 130 miles away. If one wanted to merely find some of the Paso's best topsoil, he would have to go no further than the Salinas River, a mere 4 miles from here.

In the early years here we lightly disked the steepest slopes and then used a seed drill to plant cover crop. Early on, after a particularly heavy winter rain, the wisdom of light disking and seed drilling was abruptly challenged when we noticed that any disturbance of the sparse topsoil, (eg, with a seed drill or disc), enabled the heavy rains to literally wash entire hillsides away, leaving incredibly eroded rows, some  8 feet deep. Rebuild of a steep row costs around $5000 per 100 feet, and an entire row lost can be horrendously expensive. Hence, in the last 9 yrs (one yr after I bought a new disc), we stopped using it. Now we seed by hand on hillsides steeper than 70 degrees, and then immediately put out dozens of bales of hay, broken apart and spread by hand over the entire seeded area. Expensive? Yeah. Time consuming? Yup. Necessary? Unquestionably. Now our erosion losses are kept to a bare minimum, but this yr, immediately post harvest, it began raining and darn near never quit. Not torrential rains, but just steady, London-fog-type-blowing mists, light, but seemingly lasting forever. After Thanksgiving we had a 60 hour rain, never letting up but just doing barely more than misting. During that 2 and a half day period, we got 6 inches of rain, and I never saw a drop...just massive, grey, blowing mists. How it could possibly have dumped 6 inches of rain is beyond me, but it was in the true sense of the word, a farmer's rain...enough to germinate seeds, but not cause erosion. The problem? Well, it never stopped raining long enough to get the seeds hand casted, nor the hay spread out on top of it.

Finally, sometime after we hit the 10 inch mark, we got a 4 day respite, during which time we hand seeded and spread out 12 dozen bales of protective straw. Normally we use a bale per twenty vines, or 100 feet. This year we put it on heavier, in that even with the misty rains we already had the start of erosion in 4 of our steepest rows. We were ready for it, but the prolonged rains kept us off the hillsides until after some initial erosion had already occurred. Good news is that it was superficial, but bad news is we still will have some row rebuilds to do. Cost? On blocs of 3 and 3.3 acres we put out $1000 of straw and racked up some $1400 of labor to spread the straw. Expensive, yes, but without having done that we would have lost massive amounts of topsoil in the torrential rains that followed. Moral of story? Simple. Spend a little money to save a lot. Also, as good stewards of the land, it is the thing anyone who cares about the land wants to do...be a good shepard...or in this case, be a good caretaker of the magical land which grows such spectacular grapes.

How silly to devote so many words to so simple a subject, some may say. In truth, this is but one of the many unseen things that goes into that great wine of which wine drinkers notice only the subtle cherry, blackberry, cassis, strawberry and plum flavors. I mention this to remind you wine aficionados that the next glass of wine you taste is not just the beautiful flavors in wine this favored land produces, but that there is much, much more to the story. Another way of saying this is that altho mundane, it is a rite of winter to block up the flail mower and replace dull or worn blades. With as much limestone as we have, we go thru hundreds of dollars of blades in a single yr. And winter is the one time we have time to do this bothersome task. Other off season jobs are tuning tractors, ATVs (all 6 wheel drive), redoing brake linings on all vehicles, and , of course, an early start on oil change, spark plugs, and filters. Obviously we do this during the year, but winter is a good time to check for loose treads on the crawler tractor as well as lost bolts, screws, handles, springs, or any other thing that might be lost during the ongoing vibration of continuous tractor use.

Exciting? Thought provoking? Enjoyable? Nah, to any of the former. But they all are essential to having good, dependable machinery to carry out the growing season's chores. So next time you raise a glass, go ahead and appreciate the bouquet. Enjoy the magnificent flavors imparted to our grapes by our world class soils. But also remember the "other " things that went into this wine...drudgery, painstaking, nit-picking, and yes, boring chores that are essential...but not very glamorous...when one thinks of the wonderful life a grape farmer and vintner leads. Yes there are those highs when some magazine rates our wines in the 90+ category. But there are also the other times, chronicled above that go into the growing and making of that fabulous wine. In the cold, gloomy, and dank months of winter, grape growers are keenly aware of the
"other side" of winegrape growing  and wine making. It is like everything else in life. Sure there are the glamorous, rewarding, and fun times. But that is counterbalanced by the small, unseen, but oh-so-necessary mundane things that go into winemaking.

Someone...no, many someones, have asked me where we make our wines. The answer is in the vineyard where all wines start and are grown. But if one takes short cuts in the pre-winemaking stages, one can expect a product of inferior, or at the very least, of lesser quality. Cerro Prieto's wines start and come from the vineyard... the nuts and boring bolts of which are described above. There's a thought for you the next time you pour a glass of our signature Paso Bordo(Cab/Syrah), or of our 91 point Merlot. That didn't just happen. It was well thought out and prepared for in cold barns changing out flail mower blades, or during the hand seeding of steep slopes while broadcasting seed in the cold winter...or in the simple but back-breaking work of putting out dozens of bales of hay on steep slippery slopes. All that goes into the quest for the perfect wine. We feel we have produced the perfect grape. Now we seek the perfect wine. In the meantime you will just have to be satisfied with our 91 and 92 point wines...not perfect, but dang close.

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