Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Cerro Prieto Summer 2013...The Heater

Good Lord almighty, it is hot. "Hot, damn hot", as Roosvelt T. Roosvelt said in response to Robin Williams question of "How the weather was up in DaNang?" in Good Morning, Vietnam. Well, that pretty well sums it up here, too, in that the week of June 25 thru July 1 almost wiped us out. The 24th started out warm, a tolerable 106. Next day was 112, followed by nites no cooler than 60 and 5 days of 116. You all already know we basically dry farm our vineyard, except for when we fertigate thru the lines in spring. We run 2 hours of water first, then inject N, P, K or rarely one of the minor needed(according to petiole analysis...a stem of the leaf we use just for this task). Then we run another 3 hours of water per vine to wash out the lines and dilute the Nitrogen, Phosphorous, or Potassium. That's it. No more water after, unless...well, 116 degrees qualifies. We ended up watering every vine with 5-8 gallons of water every other day until the temps dropped into tolerable range.

In baseball, the "heater" is usually the high hard one, travelling somewhere between 95-100 mph. It is known by hitters as something to be dreaded. Well, we had the "heater" here, and we dreaded it, but it was no fastball. It was sheer misery. The third day of the "heater", I was out changing valves in our top Cab bloc, Cerro Teresa. In no more than 5 minutes I was done; I figured I was just getting old. My early days, I was an unrepentant desert rat , camping, hiking, hunting and fishing thruout Baja's 1000 mile desert. I have hunted doves along the Rio Colorado, sitting in the water and shooting birds while in the river. Temperatures were 120 degrees, according to our truck thermometers. It was hot but I could stand it...and being in  the river sure helped. But this heat last just melted me. Anyway, to finish the story, I came back to the house in the ATV, drank a Gatorade and then took another with me just for good luck. As an afterthought, I threw the L.L. Bean thermometer in the back of the ATV...just for grins. When I got back to the valve, I finished cleaning it, turned it on and barely was able to get out of the vineyard. I was whipped. A quick look at the thermometer stunned me...129 degrees. Right where the valve in that bloc 5 Cabernet is, happens to be the apex of Cerro Teresa. There is no topsoil there, only hard, bright white limestone. It turns out the top of the bloc cooks up much like a cement road and in addition to the heat, radiates up another dose of "the heater" at 12 degrees more than the temps off the mountain top...a mere 117.
 Great weather for blue Agave

It was a lesson well learned, but one I had never thought about before. I inherently knew that bloc 5, as well as all our other mountain blocs are solid limestone. But I never realized that in the "BIG HEAT", it acted much as cement does, and just radiates more heat upwards. I had been half in panic mode anyway, looking at that 117 degrees. But until that day, I had no idea that inside the vineyard in melting heat, that the temperature was indeed, another 12 degrees higher. The good news is we (the vines and I) survived it. But I don't know if a 7th day of over 116 would have torched our vineyard or not. I did reflect on those poor guys who truly dry farm. They have no drip lines to their vines, instead carrying water by cart to the vines in the first two yrs. After that they truly do dry farm. I wouldn't want to know what heat like this did to those true dry farmed vineyards, that had no auxiliary water available.  Someone asked me if our grapes were okay and I laughed. "Grapes? Hell, I wasn't worried about our grapes, I was worried about losing our vines." Back 4 years ago, we had a day in May that touched 119. It was a one day affair preceded by half a dozen days in the 110-112 range. We again had watered before the heat hit and managed to do well. Three weeks later, I happened to be doing gopher control in bloc 5 and came upon a mature Cab vine, 4" in diameter, that had burst apart...much like if you heated up a balloon, and it just popped. The pictures are unbelievable. I guess this time we got enough water on prior to the worst heat so that the vine temps didn't exceed the point where they literally burst apart. A final note and that is that the nites during this period only got down to 60 degrees, so there literally was little cooling off at nite. You will recall that one of the mind-blowing things about our vineyard is the day/nite temperature differential, usually 70 to 80 degrees. Typically when it is 105 in the daytime, it gets down to 35 at nite...and sometimes lower. That cooling makes for terrific stresses on our grapes, one of the reasons they are so jam packed with flavor. But unquestionably, that didn't happen this past week.
 Vine split apart at 117 degrees

Vineyard notes all bring good news. The fruit set was spectacular, with only a bit of shatter in the Merlot( that means some clusters have spaces where the fruit didn't set due to high winds, rain, or some other etiology). We will still have our marvelous Merlot, just not quite as much. All other varietals did splendidly thru bloom and set. If we have a problem it is too much fruit, which has to be thinned down to 2.5 tons/acre or about 5 lbs/vine, and that job is currently underway...and that is a really good problem to have, especially after 3 previous yrs of 40% decrease in grape tonnage production. Remember, we WANT to keep our yields low....roughly 1.5 to 2.5 tons/acre. The last 4 yrs we have been working with 3/4 ton/acre to 1.5 tons/acre. Not enough to make a vineyard worthwhile running. Anyway, this year is a different story and all grape farmers, vintners and anyone else connected with the wine industry....well, it makes us all happy. Much more important than quantity, however, is the quality...and that is absolutely superb. Again, I don't want to get ahead of myself and jinx us with a 120 knot wind whipping thru the vineyard. But so far, all things point to an outstanding harvest, probably as good or maybe even better than all time supreme year.
 Caza taking advantage of one of our guests

Outside the vineyard the poison oak has not only turned red, it has lost 95% of its leaves....something that normally happens in the fall. Here, though, the poison oak has turned AND lost its leaves. Some say that portends an early harvest but my money is on this dad-burned heat. Unfortunately, we have added some "unwanteds " to the vineyard periphery, ground squirrels. We have a bad enough time with the gophers which eat up lots of time in trapping. Now we have ground squirrels that make massive burrows under the vines and it necessitates more time taken out to trap or kill them. I had some snares out, all around the squirrels' main entry hole but... ended up snaring a skunk. The story is a disaster, my snare is lost forever, and one of my buddies took a picture of me dragging the dead skunk on a 20 foot rope behind my pickup thru the vineyard, up and over vineyard roads, and depositing the carcass in the burn pile in the valley below our home.  I thought about trying to salvage the snare, but the road I dragged skunk and snare across smelled like  skunk forever. I kinda gave up on the snare after that. But there was a silver lining in all this fiasco, when our friends, the turkey vultures sat down below and had a fine meal of dragged skunk with dust and dirt mixed in. Our two home birds(born 10 yrs ago just below our home on the forest's edge) were joined for dinner by no less than 15-20 other vultures. Man, you talk about halitosis....that must have one been rough meal to get down.

There are more pleasant things, however, and they have to do with wine. Just a synopsis of what our wines have garnered over the past several years. We really have released just 9 wines, of which 8 have been rated. Altho you can find this list under the header "Boutique wines", here is a quick summary to date:

2006 Merlot   San Diego Intl Gold medal (3300 entries); Critics Challenge Intl Gold medal

2006 Paso Bordo(85% Cab/15% Syrah)    92 pts Wine Enthusiast

2007 Merlot  91 pts Wine Enthusiast/ Chef Magazine "One of California's 10 marvelous  Merlots"/ 805 Living Magazine "One of California's 12 best wines under $50"

2007 Paso Bordo    LA Intl Gold Medal / 91 pts

2008 Merlot  Intl Bronze Medal NY Intl and SF Intl (5300 & 4500 entries)

2008 Paso Bordo  Intl Silver Medal   SF and San Diego Intl(4500 & 3300 entries)

2009 Syrah (85% Syrah/ 15% Cab)   90 pts Wine Enthusiast   " As rich and hedonistic as anything in California. Like drinking an elixir of milk chocolate & blackberry jam, sprinkled with cinnamon & black pepper and infused with vanilla bean" .  Wow, now there is a review to frame on the wall. I liked it, actually loved it, but would never have been able to come up with a review like that.

2009 Pinot Noir   SF Chronicle  Gold Medal  (Largest American wine competition in the world, and that is saying something).

 Don't know if this list of wines qualifies as  outstanding or superb or not, but my gut tells me it probably would. Now when we get reviewed (and it is favorable, of course), the wine flies off the shelf. We are now out of ,our have just a few bottles of both '06s, both 07s, both '08s, and both 09s. Our two 2010 Syrahs just officially released are superb (ok, awesome and huge), dark monster body, rich deep plum, blackberry, cherry, and a touch of strawberry. Our 2009 Cabernet (Paso Bordo) is big blackberry, hint of cherry, and touch of plum, with dusky oak. The few cases of our 2010 Sauv Blanc that remain are pear and green apple on the nose, pear, green apple and hint of citrus on the palate, and an extra late finish of white peach or apricot.

For our wine club members, probably the two 2010 Syrahs and the 2009 Paso Bordo will be sent this fall. Those who purchased the 2010 inexpensively 6 months ago got a great deal and folks, it is ready to drink. One caveat: as good and rich as this 2010 Syrah is, it is getting better by the week. I have been drinking it for awhile now, and it is ready. But trust me when I say it is getting better weekly. In barrel these were the best two wines I have made, and I will not be surprised to see these two Syrahs end up twice, maybe 3X as good as they are now, 6-12 months out. We are serving the '10 El Bordo Syrah tonite with ribeye. Yum.



  1. Larry

    We've had a surge in ground squirrels here (Thousand Oaks, CA) this year as well. Have had some luck live-trapping (17 total this season) using either "Squirrelinator" or "Black Fox" traps, baited with peanut butter cookies (evidently other baits work too).

    The entry doors are too small for skunks. Using a wildlife video camera I discovered some squirrels can escape from the Squirrelinator. Modifying the entry door to resemble the Black Fox worked well.

    Also found the smarter (trap shy) squirrels opt out - possibly going to reproduce a smarter brood. Moving the traps or baiting around them catches some of the intelligentsia.

  2. Kim, many thanks. In this business, anybody that has ANYTHING that works with these God-awful pests...well, we try it all. Right now, wife and best friend Teresa, is out buying boxes of peanut butter cookies. Of all our squirrlinator traps out we have these fine recipes.

    Recleaned oats with three clusters of green grapes.

    Sweet feed(rolled barley with honey), barley, and yes, 3 clusters of green grapes.

    Re-cleaned oats with no veggies.

    Barley with green grapes

    Barley with re-cleaned oats, no veggies.

    Additionally, we pulled all our traps that had cracked corn and some bird seed. It all disappeared, and undoubtedly, was due to field mice. As soon as the peanut butter cookies arrive, they are going out to all traps for dessert.

    Kim, many thanks, and will give you a follow-up if successful. I have heard that rotating the menu is a good ploy, but your other suggestion of moving the traps from time to time is excellent also.