Joe’s Winemaking Notes: November 2017

END OF HARVEST
Harvest 2017 concluded with our Green Valley Cool Climate Syrah, picked at Dutton Ranch’s Cherry Ridge Road Vineyard, in the western fringes of the appellation. Always the capstone to our harvest, this occupies a special place in our hearts, as we close out the vintage. This year’s date for harvesting the Syrah was the fourth of October. That put the final picking day one calendar day earlier than the close of 2016’s harvest. Considering that we started picking one week later than 2016, this shows how compressed the harvest window was. Everything seemed to be ripening at the same time, in 2017!

Syrah at Dutton Ranch’s Cherry Ridge Road Vineyard
Syrah at Dutton Ranch’s Cherry Ridge Road Vineyard

Overall, we experienced a small downturn in harvest yields, with our estate Chardonnay down about 20 percent from average, and Pinot Noir was a little below par for a “normal” year. For our contract vineyards in the greater Russian River Valley, we saw quite a bit of variability in yield, with some spots coming up quite short compared to projections.

These low yields were good for us, but may not be the best sign for others. While small yields are often trumpeted in high priced areas of the wine world, you can under crop a vineyard just as you can over crop it. This may lead to shorter hang times on the vine, higher sugar levels (with their accompanying high alcohols), and loss of vitality in the wines. Every vineyard has a proper balance, determined over many years of farming the site. When you see appellation-wide losses in yield, much potential might have been left unrealized.

The fermentation proceeded along well in 2017, causing few headaches, as they were converted from grapes into wine. Even our Zinfandels, which are notoriously sluggish at the end of fermentation, were dry before the end of October. This term “dry” can be a confusing one, with different meanings for still and sparkling wines. In this case, it means that all grape sugars have been fermented into alcohol, making the wine less likely to be attacked by spoilage yeasts, during the barrel aging process.

Our crew at the end of harvest 2017
Our crew at the end of harvest 2017

A few wines still need to be “barreled down,” or transferred from tanks to 59-gallon barrels; but, the vast majority are already residing in the appropriate barrels. More on that next month, when resident cooper Ed Morris makes a return to these pages.

WINE COUNTRY FIRESTORM
I started off last month’s Winemakers Notes with the following phrase, “It’s been a chaotic month,” referring to the ups and downs of weather conditions in September. Well, I had no idea what true chaos looked like. As October ends, everyone, in the wine-producing appellations of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties, understands how fragile we are in the face of nature’s fury. In the very early morning hours of Monday, October 9, I was awakened by the sound of a patio umbrella falling over, on our deck. We were aware of the forecasted high winds for overnight and had spent a restless night listening to the trees groaning near our house. It was an unusually warm evening, without the signature cooling, Pacific Ocean breezes that I often discuss, when announcing the virtues of the Russian River Valley. But 2017 had made us more accustomed to warm evening conditions like that.

What I didn’t know that night, as I lifted up the umbrella and secured it from the wind, is that only 10 miles away, firestorms had erupted in the hills to the north and west of Santa Rosa. A small wildfire had ignited outside Calistoga, in the northwest corner of Napa County, and it raced through the canyon that separates it from Sonoma County. It is estimated that the fire, driven by winds as high as 74 miles per hour, was covering the length of a football field every three seconds. Many residents in the path of the fire had no time to prepare, were awakened by neighbors, and just fled to their cars. The fires ravaged many parts of Santa Rosa, along with the towns of Glen Ellen, Kenwood, and numerous populated areas of rural Sonoma County.

View of the fires from the winery
View of the fires from the winery

Over the next 24 hours, we were able to confirm that employees of Ron Rubin Winery, and their families, were safe. Yet not all had escaped the ravages of the fires. Several were displaced for the better part of a week. Most distressing, Michele Gendall, our production assistant, who was home on maternity leave with her first child, barely escaped from her family’s ranch in Sonoma Valley. The ranch, however, was destroyed in its entirety, along with the accumulated treasures of several generations.

The fires, which also spread over three neighboring counties, would continue for over two weeks before being fully contained. Nearly 7,000 homes were destroyed, and at least 41 lives were lost. If you would like to help with the recovery in Sonoma County, please visit www.redwoodcu.org/NorthBayFireRelief. This is a fund that will distribute 100 percent of donations, to fire victim relief. You can also help by enjoying Sonoma County wines and making plans for your next visit to our wine country. We remain Sonoma County Strong!

VINTAGE QUALITY
We returned to the winery, a few days after the start of the fires, and shared stories about the fires’ impacts on our lives. While it took over a week for some of our team members to be allowed to return to their homes, all were eager to have some normalcy in our routines, again. We were also excited to get back to the wines, which we had really labored to produce the previous six weeks.


How our estate vineyard looks today

I’m happy to report that our wines are showing great intensity and refinement. I had concerns about the summer heat pushing the harvest dates forward, to a point a bit too early in the year; but, the wines are showing a ripe character that puts this concern to rest. The early signs are of a potent year, with broad and balanced tannin structure, expressive fruit aromas and flavors, and acidity that will set these wines up for long ageability. With the myriad challenges offered by the 2017 vintage, it’s extremely rewarding to find that our efforts resulted in such wine gems!

Cheers!