SUSTAINABLE MANAGEMENT OF VINEYARD WATER
Six weeks ago, my expectation was that an early start to irrigation would be necessary in 2020. Total rainfall last winter was only 40% the amount of the prior year, and June temperatures were very warm in the Russian River Valley, regularly climbing into the upper 90’s Fahrenheit. The high vigor seen in our vineyard was also expected to result in high water uptake and early depletion of soil water reserves.
However, we continued to measure stress levels of our vines, and soil saturation as measured by soil probes in the vineyard. Based on these metrics, we were aware that the vines’ stress levels were well below targets we must reach before starting irrigation.
As a result of our modern instrumentation and proper interpretation of the data, we’ve again been able to delay irrigation applications much longer than our instincts were telling us. This has saved tens of thousands of gallons of water already in 2020, and will benefit us doubly by increasing the quality of our grapes at harvest!
FRUITFUL VINES AND START OF VERAISON
The grapes on our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines have continued to swell over the past few months, showcasing the incredible fertility in our vineyard this year. I mentioned last month that we saw indications of very good pollination in both varieties, and the berries have grown to the point where they have filled the clusters to full capacity. See the picture below for a compact and “perfect” Pinot Noir cluster!
As a result of the rapid growth of these berries, we have been removing clusters from every vine to balance yield and vigor. These clusters need to be sacrificed for the good of the remaining grapes, allowing the vine to focus its significant energy into the remaining berries. That will result in red wines with more tannin and color intensity, and more flavor potential for both the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay!
Veraison is an exciting time for a grape grower, and at the earliest sign of red color in our Pinot Noir, I can’t help but put a few of the ripest berries in my mouth to get a sense of what’s to come! Underripe Pinot Noir provides subtle hints of strawberries and watermelon, along with tart acidity, firm pulp, and herbal green flavors. It’s certainly nowhere near the flavor explosion and sweet juiciness of a fully ripe grape, but does give an indication that the vine is working toward the rewarding taste we prize.
Even in this underripe state, the grapes are nearly at the point where Pinot Noir clusters would be harvested for sparkling wines. Flavors will transition into red raspberry, cherry, and plum as the grapes approach full ripeness for our classic Russian River Valley Pinot Noir!
Part of our harvest preparation involves assigning each vineyard block to specific tanks and fermentation dates. We have to factor in all Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at our estate vineyard, but also the grapes we contract from independent growers throughout the Russian River Valley. We put a great deal of effort into managing each vineyard to achieve target yields that are balanced to the conditions of each vineyard, but occasionally, we are surprised by actual yields when picking. During some vintages (such as 2012 with its extremely heavy crop) even veteran crop estimators were off by 30-40%. This provides big challenges on the winery crush pad, as we try to find a suitable home for the “extra” fruit. Attempting to fit 8 tons of Pinot Noir into a 5 ton capacity tank is never a good plan!
To best estimate crop size, we sample each clone and location during mid-veraison, when the average cluster is 50% green and 50% purple (Pinot Noir or Zinfandel) or golden (Chardonnay). These samples are weighed to determine average cluster weight. Along with average cluster counts per vine, number of vines in each block, and historic increases in berry weight from veraison to harvest, I can determine total tons of grapes in each block within about 10%. This information is incredibly valuable as we prepare for the onrushing wave of over a million Pinot Noir clusters!
We have completed the bottling of the last of our 2019 vintage wines, and find ourselves in the unusual position of having nearly a month to prepare ourselves and our equipment for harvest. This is greatly appreciated in a year as strange and challenging as this one has been!
One thing that is foremost on our minds is employee health. For the 2020 harvest, we are implementing some key changes to how we handle the grapes, the processing techniques used, and employee schedules to avoid crowded workspaces during crush. We feel confident, with equipment investments made in previous years, minor changes to our protocols, and rehiring of seasonal crew we trust to take precautions at work and at home, we’ll make it through the season without increasing our team’s risk of Covid-19 infection.
Harvest is crazy enough without a pandemic, but we are preparing to manage the conditions that are in our control, and are excited about the months ahead!
On behalf of the entire team at Ron Rubin Winery, we wish you all continued good health!