Joe’s Winemaking Notes: June 2016

Vineyard Notes

Good conditions (and results!) during bloom.

The weather in Sonoma County was a bit unsettled for about a week in mid-May, just as the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at our estate vineyard was in the midst of bloom. This created some anxiety for us, as the grape flowers are notoriously sensitive to weather conditions. Too much heat or wind, cold temperatures, and any rainfall can reduce the percentage of flowers that pollinate. No pollination means no seeds will develop, as that flower becomes a grape.

The infertile grapes will either fall from the cluster as “shot berries” or remain tiny, not swelling up with juice. This second possible result is what we saw in 2015, across many varieties and regions of California. Called “Hens and Chicks” clusters, they have big fertile berries (hens) on the same cluster as tiny seedless berries (chicks). They were widespread and gave us low yields, with some unwanted variability at harvest. The upside is that we had extreme concentration of color and flavor in those 2015 wines!

Early signs from our vineyard suggest that pollination was quite successful this year. We have very few shot berries, with the fertile berries on every cluster already beginning to increase in size. Much can still happen between now and September, but we have the potential for a healthy harvest. Yet, when I hear of severe frost and hail decimating the vineyards of Burgundy, I know not to start counting those hens and chicks yet!

As far as the rest of Sonoma County goes, I’ve heard varying reports on bloom conditions and vine vigor. It’s still early, but we’re hoping for good feedback from our growers in Green Valley, Russian River Valley, and the other appellations.

Our vines are showing extremely vigorous growth this Spring! Here’s a photo from one block of our Pinot Noir. The shoots have already reached far above the top trellis wire, and show no signs of slowing. Alvaro Zamora, our vineyard manager, will have quite a job in 2016 taming these vigorous vines!

Alvaro’s also completing the vineyard “leaf pulling” process. This is done to expose one side of the developing clusters to light and airflow. The side we want to expose faces the rising sun in the east, which allows the morning sun to dry the dew from the berries. Doing this limits the risk of mildew and Botrytis bunch rot. So why don’t we leaf pull on both sides? Sun exposure can also be detrimental to grape quality, if it directly falls on the clusters during afternoon hours. This is when humidity is low and temperature is high. Sunburn can result and damage grape skins, which then requires the removal of the burnt fruit. The pictures below showcase the east and west sides of the same grapevine after leaf pulling.

(Pictured below: west side – no leaf pulling)

(Pictured below: east side – leaf pulling)

Field Trip

In late May, I was traveling in Minnesota and had an opportunity to visit two wineries located in the southeast part of that state. My alma mater is the University of Minnesota, where I graduated from the College of Agriculture. It was great to be back in one of my home states! As a student, I remember checking out a few wineries in the early 1990’s, when the local wine industry was just getting established. The most impactful memory I have was seeing plantings of Vitis vinifera grapes (the classic European winegrape species) planted at a steep angle to the ground. This was to allow extreme post-harvest pruning and burying of the vine trunk over the winter, to protect buds from winter kill!

The wineries I visited this year had planted only modern hybrid grape species, specially selected for cold hardiness (to minus 30°F in some cases), resistance to mildew and bunch rot, and proper ripening in this cold climate. These hybrid grapes are selected over many genetic crossings, to carry the best hardiness of the native grapevines; yet, to have the flavor and yield characteristics of the vinifera wines (Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc.) that we love. Many of the varieties were developed nearby, at the University of Minnesota horticultural research farm in Chanhassen.

Here is a photo of one of these hybrids (Frontenac Gris, which makes a lovely rosé).

Photo was taken on May 29 – Compare the growth to our vines pictured above!

Goings On In The Cellar

We’ve emptied many of our 2015 vintage wine barrels already, particularly for our 2015 Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blends. Now we must make our final notes and assign judgment on our many barrel trials. As mentioned in an earlier Winemaker Notes, we purchased 45 different types of barrels for our 2015 wines, many on an experimental basis. Some of these experiments worked out very well (such as a “high tannin” barrel) while others were less beneficial to our wines (“low aroma,” American oak). As we commit a lot of resources to winemaking with in these barrels, we have a pretty simple requirement: the marriage of wine and oak must make the wine better!

In 2016, we’ll continue experimenting with new barrel types and make new connections between our beautiful Green Valley of Russian River Valley grapes and the handiwork by coopers, from around the world.

Other projects include identifying the barrels of wine that will form our 2015 single vineyard Pinot Noirs, for our Estate and Gunsalus Vineyard. We’ll gently rack these wines to tank, and then return to puncheons (132 gallon barrels) for slow development, until bottling late this year.