4:48 a.m. and the fog is silently oozing thru the open windows. It has a barely perceptible smell, perhaps, just perhaps, a smell of the salt ocean. You know the smell when you get near the ocean...well, that is a bit of what I sense here. I have given up my early morn chores, as the fog is so intense and thick that I couldn't see behind our 6X6 ATV well enough to back out of the garage.
5:10 a.m. and the fog has somehow managed to get thicker. First light is approaching and it is literally impossible for me to see our back deck, just 3 feet away. Normally the westerly winds come up at daybreak and the fog begins a rolling motion, typically blown inland. Not this morning. This is impenetrable dense sightless fog. There's London fog, there's California Central Valley Tule fog, and then there is this Cerro Prieto fog.
5:15 a.m. first light is well underway, and the fog has now just become a grey white mass. No early vineyard work today. By 10 a.m. it will be bright and sunny, maybe 70 degrees, en route to a beautiful day into the high 90s and maybe will top 100. Such have been the days for much of the last month of Spring, and now into summer. Last yr at this time we were in the midst of the Cold, Dark, Wet. It was a bummer yr for red winegrapes, with mildew wiping out hundreds of vineyards, statewide. Altho we were spared that by paying close attention to early mildew spraying, we were not spared the loss of half our crop to hail, late June freezes, and mighty windstorms in the midst of bloom. The average temps of last yr in mid summer were in the low 60s. We had a brief 8 days of temps in the 90s in late May, followed by 2 hailstorms, 2 June rains, and lows in the 30s each nite. It was in a word, catastrophic.
Fast forward to June 19th, 2012, and the weather and climate the Templeton Gap is known for has returned. We are blessed with hot, hot days from the Paso highs and low, low temps from the westerly Templeton Gap breezes. Which brings us to "la brisa", roughly translated as "marine air". In early spring, March thru April, we had the early morning fog disappear and in its place la brisa came in. Essentially it is wet, damp, air that literally hangs over the hills, valleys, and beyond, keeping the temperature in the mid 60s on a brite sunny day. It is what gives the Templeton Gap the cold component to match the extremely hot Paso Robles days. In effect, it is like growing grapes in Denver, or Vail. Hot, hot days, and cold, cold nites.
Terroir is used to describe the climate, soil, and southern facing of a vineyard. The southern facing is easy. The soil here is easier...solid limestone mountains into which we have planted our big Reds...both Rhones and Bordeauxs. The climate is that found in very few places on Earth, and certainly none I have ever visited. Even though we live here, it is still hard to believe that our 100 degree days can be followed by 33 degree nites. Right here at Cerro Prieto, our temp swings are frequently 70 to 75 degrees, day to nite. It is exquisite for growing premium red winegrapes. And that is what we have as a backdrop to our nationally and internationally known wines. It is the why of big flavorful Reds, altho choosing to have an extremely low crop load is essential also. Summing up the yr so far, we are on course for a record in quality of harvest. Below are the clusters of our 5 varietals:
Syrah in the center, Cab to the left, a sketchy Merlot to the right, Sauv Blanc in the lower left and Pinot Noir in the lower right.
Syrah is 6" in length, long tapered, with elongated grapes, and the largest of all grapes. At veraison, when green grapes turn to red, the Syrah cluster will be 9" long and weigh .4 to .5 lbs.
Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of grapes(for all the different flavors it can give ....blackberry, cherry, plum, raspberry, blueberry, strawberry to name a few)....will be another 2" in length, or about 6-7 ", and will have an elongate triangle shape. It will weigh in at .31 lbs/cluster
Merlot, looking like it has been hit by dump truck, shows "aces and spaces", ie, more than half the flowers of bloom were knocked off by a late May hailstorm, which I witnessed while 3 feet from the vines. Beautiful day, nice and warm, and suddenly a dark shadow fell over the bloc and temps dropped 40 degrees in less than a minute. A few sprinkles of rain, and a hailstorm bounced pencil eraser sized pieces of ice off my head....and into the Merlot flowers in bloom. It was brutally cold, and soon the darkness covered the entire vineyard. Fortunately the Merlot was the last to go thru bloom, so only it was affected. All 4 other varietals had already set their fruit. I was some 400 yards from the ATV so ducked under the vines for protection. Twenty minutes later it was still hailing. Watching flowers getting pounded by ice balls hurtling down at 40 mph, was a fascinating...but horrifying experience. Sheltered by the vine I had no choice but to wait it out in shorts and no shirt. Hat was in the ATV. Twenty minutes later it was over...literally for the Merlot. It is amazing that as many grapes set as is. Still and all, when the cluster fills in, those Merlot grapes that had completed bloom will still turn into a fine cluster, albeit only 50% of its normal weight. Cluster length will be 7-8", perhaps a bit more, but number of grapes will be half of normal. Those that made it had completed bloom BEFORE the hailstorm. Average bloom takes 10-14 days, so about half of blooms were already done. With so few grapes/cluster you can bank on one thing: those that remain will be massive in flavor and bouquet(yes, our grapes DO have a bouquet for a brief day or two, which is when we harvest on flavor.).
Sauv Blanc were well thru bloom and the uniform fatter-triangle-than-Cab will be only 5-6" in length, and as seen, will have its full complement of grapes/cluster.
Pinot Noir, also went thru bloom 3 weeks earlier, in cooler weather, but without a hailstorm nor without 60 mph gusts. In your hand they look like little "hand grenades", fitting the closed hand perfectly. Figure weight at .2 lbs/cluster. Once thru bloom, the only other things we worry about are "cooker" days(over 110 degrees) and mildew which can be set up by damp mornings and mild days.
To date we are on track to follow the banner years of 2006-2009....cold nites, hot days. Hence, my forecast for 2012 is for a premium year for big Reds, and an excellent yr for Pinot and Sauv Blanc in our Very Cold Valley Vineyard. Statewide I would expect the same. Whereas we lost some of our Merlot, others may have lost whatever grape was in bloom when the hailstorm struck. Same would apply to those hit by 60+ mph gusts, or late, late rains. The above clusters were actually pulled some 12 days ago, so by now all are closing in on doubling in weight, rapidly attaining the size they will have when they undergo verasion(except for Sauv Blanc obviously...but they turn to a golden green). It is amazing just how much weight and size these grapes can put on once they get to this size.
10:30 a.m. and it is a brilliant sunny day, no wind(it comes up around 1 p.m.), and the grapes are growing like crazy. Vineyard chores still include finishing up arranging the canes to vertical positions, removing remaining "laterals", and cutting away any weeds near the vines. In some places the vines have grown so vigorously that we have to take down the movable "catch" wires that we use to support the canes, so that we can rearrange the canes that have grown semi-horizontally instead of vertically. In all a wonderful day in the vineyard, and all is well with the world.
A few notes about our wines, about which we frequently get emailed. Our '08 Cab(Paso Bordo Reserve...with the 4% Merlot in it) has become one of our wine tasters favorites. It has just been rated, merely an International Bronze. But what a Bronze, in that their were 5300 entries at the NY Intl Wine Competition. Our other favorite the '09 Syrah, also won the Intl Bronze at the NY Intl Wine Comp, again amongst 5300 entries. Usually we are disappointed with anything less than an Intl Gold. But here with thousands of entries we feel blessed with our two Intl medals...regardless of color. Our final wine, the '08 Merlot, received the Silver Intl Medal at the Monterey Intl. All in all, a great haul, and for a tiny 300 case/yr winery, we exceeded all expectations.
Many have asked about our 2010 Syrah which I have said will be our best wine to date, regardless of awards or ratings. It is sensational, and I had planned to blend it all, 12 barrels with a barrel of our '09 Cab which I had held back. The '10 Cab was just horrid and I did not make any. Chip Parr, a friend from medical school days, some 45 yrs ago, visited last week, and turned out to have a wonderful palate. I tried the different blends out on him and blinded, we decided that instead of 6 barrels of 14% Cab in the Syrah and 6 barrels 100% Syrah, the better blend was 7% Cab in 6 barrels of Syrah and 6 barrels 100%. The surprise was that the '09 Cab was just drop dead superb...so a half barrel of that is going to be made into a stand alone Cab...all 13 cases of it. Yes, it is a pain to put up only 13 cases of a wine, but the remainder is long ago blended with 15% '09 Syrah in our 2009 Paso Bordo, our signature wine.
So we have some extraordinary wines in the pipeline, and once bottled(hopefully in 6 weeks)---it takes that long to get bottles, corks, foils and labels (approved)---and with luck we will be able to release these beauties before the end of the year. The wines we have available now, all either Intl rated or 90+ wines, are dwindling by the day. Only the '06 Merlot(3 btls) and the '06 Paso Bordo(2 cases) are almost gone. Everything else we have in sufficient amounts to last the year. I do think our '09 Syrah will be gone by late fall, however. We have a heckuva replacement as it turns out.