Monday, September 17, 2012

Cerro Prieto 2012 Harvest...the long wait

4 a.m. this morning at the thermometer by the vineyard well: 42 degrees...and this is in the Very Cold Valley Vineyard, located at the foot of the mountain where it gets...really cold...perfect for Pinot and Sauv Blanc, even tho the Paso AVA is known for its heat and high temperatures. Our adjacent Mountain Vineyard temps were 60 degrees, an 18 degree differential that remains constant thruout the growing season.

But a  not so subtle change has occurred this yr, in which is our daily 60-70 degree temperature split day/nite has disappeared...First time...ever. What we have had for the past 37 days and counting, has been temps in the 103-112 range, with a few 115s thrown in, which drop to 65-70 degrees at nite. On the days when it got to only 100, it was 60 that nite. To some that sounds amazing, but to us, we have come to expect that 5:30 p.m. fog that routinely blows in from the coast, via the Templeton Gap. We are currently getting only 40 degree temp swings, but when you normally have 60-70 degree swings, it has made for some hair curling times. Stressing grapes with 60-70 degree temp swings brings out the best in moutain grape flavors, and is notable in our wines. With daytime temps well over 100, a mere 40 degree temp swing does not cool off the pulp temperatures in grapes. At 10 p.m., core temps of grapes remains in the 90s. With the severe heat beginning in mid morning, the grapes once again heat up, never attaining the cooling we normally expect.

The heat here has actually been worse than in the Central Valley which produces primarily table grapes, and for those, the hotter the better. Valley heat never really "cools off" in the evenings. With premium redwine grapes, the issue of scorching, or "burning up" grapes has been a daily concern. For the last 6 years we have essentially dry farmed, except on days exceding 105, when we put 3 gallons of water on each vine. To not do so risks the health of the vine, not to mention "cooking off" the grapes. Since our 3 mountain vineyards are planted in solid limestone, when it is 105 degrees outside, in the middle of the vineyard it is 10 degrees hotter, due to reflected heat from the limestone. And when it is 112 outside...well you do the math on inside the vineyard. It is unbearably hot...hence the need for nightime cooling.

In any event, the long wait for harvest has been seemingly much longer than times past. Our Pinot went thru veraison 2 months ago, and has been looking ready to harvest since August. Grapes are tasty, dark purple, but still have not attained the flavors we normally achieve. There have been signs of ripening:
    Lignification---the canes going from green fiber to a beautiful dark red-brown mahogany wood
    Leaf changes---with leaves turning from green to yellow and red-orange in basilar leaves

    Seed changes---seeds go from green to dark mahogany brown; these need more time

    Sauv Blanc---green grapes change to subtle greenish-brown; birds got the brown ones

Flavor, the ultimate goal before harvest, does not appear until the above changes have been noted. Pinot is virtually there, and Sauv Blanc the same. That is great timing in that it should freeze tomorrow, the 16th of September.

5 a.m., and the magnificent Orion the Hunter constellation is so bright I can find my way back up the mountain without lights. Gemini, the twins, is just above Orion, is not as bright, but  equally spectacular on this moonless night. Checking a few temps in the la Teresa bloc of Cabernet, shows temps exactly 60 degrees, the normal 18 degree differential from the Cold Valley Vineyard. Done with early morning chores, it is so beautiful out that I linger for first light and then the spectacular early morning dawn breaking over la Teresa bloc.

Yes, it is scene worthy of a canvas, but I am content to just sit here and just absorb it as the entire eastern sky goes thru its retinue of magical wondrous colors. It gives me time to think about the agony nature puts us through, waiting on ripening, hoping that:

no early hard frost comes to the Cold Valley Vineyard

rains stay away until harvest is over

winter freezes don't materialize early in mountain vineyards

birds and other pests don't steal our crop

There are many other lesser worries, but I shan't bore you with those. What generally takes 2 months to happen, once grapes turn purple (veraison), seems like endless time to those wishing ripeness to come, and flavor to be even better than last year. Based on numbers, TA, pH, and Brix(sugar content), we could have harvested some time ago. But we harvest on flavor, and for that one waits...painfully...but one waits. Growing grapes is one thing. Harvesting premium redwine grapes on flavor is entirely different. For that a grower/vintner has to have tons of patience, above average tolerance for hoping no interceding disasters befall the crop, and needs to taste thousands of grapes daily to know when the grapes are finally perfect for harvest. Thousands of tons of grapes will be harvested by the time we harvest. That is the way with mountain vineyards. But the payoff in flavor and quality is well worth it. It is, however, the long wait.

Post script: Sept. 17, and the Very Cold Valley Vineyard was 32 degrees at 4 a.m. Mother Nature is right on track. Full of magnificent flavors, both Pinot and Sauv Blanc are ready for harvest.


  1. Larry

    Looks that you're selling your vineyard?


  2. Kim, we are selling 15 of our 20 acres plus an addtional 26 acres of unplanted/ forested land. As you know from reading my blogs, I make only 300 cases/yr, and need less than five acres to do that. We are selling 97% of our grapes to the high end wineries, and I am ready to just take care of the 5 acres I need for our wines. After some years, it grows tiresome selling grapes to folks that may or may not do them justice. We will still have more grapes than I can use on our 5 acres of Cab,syrah, pinot and Sauv blanc. We aren't changing anything, and have desired to stay small from the outset. This just removes 15 acres of vines that I won't have to worry over once sold. We will be the same old knock 'em dead vineyard/winery, albeit growing grapes just for us, not others.

  3. ps: As an aside, I would suggest checking out the Feb issue of Wine Enthusiast, and noting the featured 2009 Syrah (el Bordo reserve)90 pts
    Wine Enthusiast...and the write up pretty well tells it all. Check it out.

  4. Thanks Larry

    Your vineyard, location, and approach are inspirational. If I had it to do over, I would like to have combined practice with viticulture (I am a periodontist in Thousand Oaks).

    Hope to make it up your way soon!


  5. I appreciate your comments Kim, but until you have tried our wines,(by apptmt only, and well in advance), you cannot truly appreciate what this spectacular vineyard can produce. We wish the 100s of others who follow us would comment also.

  6. Does your terrior (heat)and approach entail a trade-off between flavor and high alcohol? ie, the longer ripening for flavor to develop should increase brix.

    We'll try our best to schedule a visit in the future.

  7. Kim, rather than answering your question as asked, let's first define "terroir". Essentially, terroir is used to describe a vineyard, and has to do with:
    1)Southern exposure(ie, vineyard faces South)

    For soil, the worse the better, with limitations. A solid limestone soil is the one most preferable for premium red winegrapes. Drainage is non-pareil, and Cab, Merlot, Syrah, all love it. The poorer the soil, the more stress is placed upon the grapes. The more stress, the more flavors are enhanced.

    For climate, the larger the day/nite temperature swings, the more stress is placed upon the grapes. Our mountain vineyard usually has day/nite temp splits of 70 degrees with some days 80+ degree splits. The solid limestone soil and massive temp splits make this vineyard, one of the very best places in the world in which to grow world class premium red winegrapes.

    As for high alcohol levels(typically 16.5 to 17.9%),yes, that is directly proportional to waiting for the flavor window to come in, instead of harvesting on numbers: eg:
    pH 3.5, TA .7, and Brix 24.5. Bordeaux, with a much milder climate, and temp swings half to a third of what we experience, is relatively cool compared to here, plus their growing season is shorter. A typical Bordeaux harvest is as noted above. Large commercial operations here in CA also typically harvest of numbers, not flavor. It would be virtually impossible for a large volume winery to harvest on flavor, as they may have 2000 tons up to 200,000 tons...or more... to harvest. Harvesting on flavor just can't be done with huge volumes. .

    The trade off is this: while we taste hundreds, if not thousands of grapes daily, waiting for the flavors to come in, the sugar content drifts upwards daily, as we merrily taste our grapes. The higher the sugar content, the higher the alcohol level,as primary fermentation is sugar converted to alcohol. So it is not so much a trade off between flavor and high alcohol, it is a desire to harvest on flavor... and while so doing, the sugar content(Brix) continues to drift upward. Hence, harvesting on flavor in the mountains, or elsewhere, means the sugar, and therefore, alcohol content, is going to go up.

    We aren't trading off flavor for high alcohols. We are waiting for flavors to come in ,and while waiting, the sugar(alcohol) content drifts upward. Key is, that if you can harvest on flavor, and the flavors are indeed, spectacular, you can then trap that flavor in your wines...and we do.