The rain continues to fall across Northern California as I write this, providing a very familiar landscape outside the winery windows. Although the numbers from the rain gauge aren’t approaching 2017’s total, it does seem that we’ve had an extraordinarily wet winter! The effect of the Russian River flooding in late February has likely skewed our perception of the season. This was the sixth biggest flood in Guerneville, since the 1940’s, when the gauges were installed along the river. This area is about seven miles downstream from our winery. Certainly, the residents in our river towns are ready for sunshine.
Another seven inches of rain fell this past month, a far cry from February’s twenty inches, but still more unnecessary precipitation at this point. The ground is saturated across Wine Country, and the rain simply runs off into local creeks and into the Pacific Ocean. Here are the totals from the five most recent rain years (our rainfall season runs from July 1 to June 30 each year). I’ve also listed the percentage of each year’s rain that fell in March and April.
|Rain Year||Total Inches||March Rain||April Rain|
|2014/15||15.55 inches||less than 2%||11%|
Winter is officially over on the calendar. As you can see from the chart above, however, we still can’t expect the rain clouds to completely give way to sunshine. In the past five years, we experienced an average of six rainy days in April. Weather forecasts are quite suspect this time of year; but, for now we’re anticipating a fairly wet April.
Despite our wishes, it would be unusual for the skies to fully dry up, until we get into the month of May. In the meantime, we’ll try to be patient and consider the good side of late season rain. The grapevines will have plenty of water to produce a full crop; great for the families that grow many of our grapes, and for those who love our Russian River Valley wines!
For two days, although my home wasn’t threatened by the flood, the high waters did close off the only road into my neighborhood. It was reminiscent of the “snow days” I experienced as a kid in Wisconsin and Minnesota, when school was closed due to a big winter blizzard. Removing cars from the scene allowed a very peaceful feeling to settle over our river community. We met many of our neighbors walking down to check on the river, and enjoyed the chance to slow down a little. Fortunately, we were safe, the power remained on, and the river receded after a few days.
VINE GROWTH RESUMES
One effect of the continued cloudy skies and cold rain storms is that it slows the activity of our newly awakened vines. The vines are content to keep their tender shoots tucked inside the buds, a protective cocoon of sorts. It takes warm sunshine to convince the vines to start actively growing. Once this does start, it’ll be amazing to see the pace of growth!
We’re seeing fairly consistent vine activity so far this season, albeit with only a tiny growth. The buds are pushing uniformly across every vine on the estate, which is a good sign for consistency. We’ll continue to monitor the vines closely at this stage, and make certain that they’re protected during any frosty nights. These often occur after a rainstorm has passed through.
One of the tasks in the winery this time of the year is the topping of barrels. While oak barrels have many attributes that benefit our classic age-worthy wines, constant evaporation of precious wine from the casks is not one of them. Some winemakers refer to this loss as the “angel’s share.” But, I think a devil is at work every month, robbing us of a significant percentage of our beautiful Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel!
The loss of a small amount of wine during aging requires us to unstack the barrels using our forklift. We then carefully replace the lost wine, which eliminates the air space above the wine. We use wine from another barrel in the same wine lot, and transfer any wine remaining in the “topping barrel,” to smaller barrels and stainless steel kegs. This is to avoid leaving any barrels partially full. We go through this effort, to avoid the production of acetic acid (vinegar), which could occur in the presence of air. By topping barrels every three to four weeks, we maintain the freshness of our wines.
We sample each lot the day before topping is scheduled. Numerous analyses are performed (alcohol, pH, total acidity, malic and acetic acid, tannin, etc.), to track the evolution of the wine. Most important in this process is… we taste. This task is certainly no chore for us, being the lure that brought us to winemaking! From the analysis and tasting notes, I come up with instructions for the cellar crew, and judge each wine’s continued development in barrels. Some wines need considerably more time to mature; while others show fragility and suggest a sooner timeframe, before blending and bottling.