coming back to life

by crushed & stirred

Hello, outside world. The folks here at crushed & stirred (me) have been off the grid of late. Because: harvest ate my life.

Last I wrote we were happily submerged in funny-smelling and funny-tasting ferments, crumbly berry caps, and exciting mounds of fruit to be processed and turned into more funny ferments and crumbly caps. We were cheerfully putting in our hours and prodding at the dark circles under our eyes. We of the jolly intern population were heroically comparing wounds and shifts.

Then it happened. We all started logging some serious man hours. I would come home late and fall over or occasionally rally to see my fellow cellar prisoners – kind of like a million years ago in another life when I was able to tap into mysterious stores in the dark hours of my honors thesis to commiserate with my fellow hostages.

By now I’ve seen many a sunrise at the winery . . .

. . . and many a sunset too

More seasoned cellar workers told me, before harvest, that part of the beauty of this time of the year is the way the outside world falls away. On those unpredictable days off, I would take stock of my empty fridge, mounds of laundry, the carnage that was the inside of my room and car, and the long list of unattended errands (post office? replacement socks? because winemaking has destroyed ALL of them). Momentarily deprived of my cellar schedule, I forgot to eat meals and found myself faint with hunger and over-caffeinated with nowhere to expend the energy.

And now – somehow – it’s kind of . . . over. Last week we brought in our last fruit, fittingly from the vineyard that I had been charged with sampling and monitoring since July, a cool-climate, inland vineyard that was comparatively behind schedule. Like this vineyard, I too have been a little slow on the uptake. As quickly as I fell in love with the cellar, I’m still working out the kinks in my performance. I soar with happiness and satisfaction after a great day at the winery. But I am working on a list of things to improve on and it may take another harvest to do that.

In the mean time, some stories from the front lines:

The elephant in the room across these blog posts is that I have yet to mention the following: widespread industry consensus is that this vintage . . . (drumroll) sucks.

Let me explain.

In earlier posts I alluded to the challenges of cool weather. That was rather an understatement, reflecting what was at the time ongoing hope that this vintage would not face the same difficulties of last year, when a cool summer delayed ripening and early rains cut short any hope of last-minute dehydration (which would produce concentration of flavor in the fruit, among other things). The 2010 harvest was challenging for many wineries.

This year saw the same cool summer and the same threat of rains. No one thought that these conditions would prove worse than they did in 2010. But they did. Far worse, in fact, because the rain came much earlier. And once heavy rain comes, warm weather – warm enough to kill off the mold produced by the rain and to dehydrate the fruit, leaving the sugars behind to intensify flavor in the berries – is rare. Around the region there has been a lot of buzz about dramatic measures to increase concentration in underipe fruit or reverse the effects of mold – in ways both legal and not.

The damage caused by this weather pattern has varied in California wine country depending on, as ever, microclimate and varietal. Wineries producing Russian River Pinot had ripe fruit in September and got most of it in before the rain, saving them the trouble of dealing with rotten fruit or picking early to beat the rains. Napa Valley wineries producing mostly Cabernet Sauvignon have struggled – Cab ripens later, and most of it had to sit through the rain and suffer the consequences.

Donelan sits somewhere in the middle of these two ends of the spectrum. Our vineyards are spread around Sonoma County and are both coastal and inland, at high elevations, valley floors, and places in between. We were playing the weather game, carefully monitoring how the fruit in each microclimate was and would be responding to changes in temperature and precipitation, and calling our pick dates accordingly.

We brought in all our Pinot and Chardonnay before the rain, and a portion of our Syrah – our chief crop. But with the weather came some agonizing decisions at a few vineyards – bring it in before the rain? Wait it out and risk the growth of mold like botrytis? We did a little of both.

Along with a great deal of California producers, we encountered significant rain damage at a couple vineyards. Would we let the fruit drop? Many wineries did, leaving vineyard owners scrambling to collect insurance on unpicked fruit or cut deals with the wineries. Even more agonizing decisions ensued – some lots were just fine, came in looking great, fermented beautifully, and are now sitting happily in barrel and tasting promising after only a few short weeks in the cellar. Some lots were unusable; in order to put wine quality first, Tyler voted to let the fruit drop.

moldy clusters get the ax

We took more drastic measures elsewhere. One morning, the four of us headed out to a vineyard we couldn’t face forsaking and spent two full days hacking moldy clusters off the vine. The sad part was how much fruit we had to pull off. The good part was that it picked out heavily, and we returned home with a couple tons of great looking berries.

The two days in the vineyard inspired that familiar sense of extreme motivation. As we drove off in the sunrise, I couldn’t help but think “we’re saving a vineyard” – as though we were going to rescue a beached whale on some remote shoreline.

And it was fun. Two beautiful fall days – cool and sunny – at what is perhaps our most scenic vineyard. John and Tyler talked about sports and the World Series until they were blue in the face. Joe and I talked about food until I was blind with hunger. We played music.

after a day picking grapes

When we got back to process the fruit in the late afternoon – a late start, with a mountain of work facing us – it felt as though we had done everything in our power. We brought in the bins, fueled up with some homemade pie (priorities, priorities), and smashed it out – stomped, crushed, destemmed, filled up the fermenters, and cleaned it all up again. Joe and John and I left the winery late and dirty, and rolled in to a local restaurant looking like hell and ready to devour raw T-bones.

In the weeks to come, as my job draws to a close, we’ll be pressing our last ferments – so I’ll get another chance to talk about that – and recovering in the cellar. We continue to have several blending trials a week – so I’ll get another chance to talk about tasting and what it means to be in an industry devoted to sensory experience.

There may be a theme here: another chance, another chance. I’m already concocting a means of getting another chance at the cellar life, yo-ho yo-ho. The industry is all about another chance – every harvest, every vintage is another crack at the craft. Things are officially winding down – I’ve got weekends back, clean clothes, and I’m seeing more of my friends. It feels like it was all a dream. There’s a lot to be said for coming back to life. But I can’t help it – I can’t wait to do it again.