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Slightly Cloudy With A Chance Of Mold

I would imagine that for most people the mere thought of wine evokes mental images of long vines and rolling hillsides covered with trellises. That's why I'm always perplexed at the disconnect it seems people have between the vineyard and the finished product. We don't at all view wine as a product in the same light that we see other agricultural products in the grocery store, like say... artichokes. Somewhere along the way the grape is transformed. It is fermented, studied, blended, bottled and lo! It becomes wine. And at that point, I feel, we cease to see it as an agricultural product. We hate to compare it to the likes of carrots and potatoes and arugula. That is what makes it easy to forget that wine really is a product of the land and that a crop of grapes is susceptible to all of the trials and tribulations that Mother Nature throws at it. In fact, the wine grape is far more imperiled by disease and weather than most crops. Vitis Vinifera is one of the toughest plants in the world in that it can grow in extremely poor soil and without much water at all, but it is especially vulnerable to pests, disease and molds. And when a farmer intends to make wine out of his grapes he can expect to grow more than a few grey hairs. To make a wine worth its yeast, the grapes that went into it must be harvested at optimal conditions: When the sugar is at the perfect concentration in each berry (known as brix). It's mostly up to Nature to decide when that will be, if at all...

And that is why this harvest, when the weather forecast came in for the end of October, we started to get many panicky growers showing up at the crush pad, asking with increasing melancholy when their fruit would be harvested. The person who is purchasing their grapes is the one who gets to decide when the harvest occurs but the fruit is weighed and paid for after it's been picked. So if the grapes get moldy due to rain, as was the case this harvest, and needs to be discarded, it comes out of the pocket of the grower and not the winemaker (if the two aren't the same party). So this can create a tenuous situation, as the winemaker is obviously more concerned with making the best wine possible, and the grower is concerned about selling the as much quality fruit as possible. The hope is that their interests will align. For most of the harvest this was certainly the case. But as the rain loomed towards November it seemed disaster might strike.

This harvest disaster struck. A cool early fall caused many of the varietals that ripen slowly like Cabernet to dawdle and then the monsoon that came at the end of October drenched all of the grapes still hanging on the vine. This made copious amounts of water available to their root systems. The resulting grape is the same as pouring some water into your glass of fine wine. Vines need to be stressed with only just enough water to perform their biological functions. That way the fruit they produce is concentrated in flavor and sugar. The only way to recover from the vines binge drinking is to wait for the ground to dry and the grapes to lose some of the water again. It's a dangerous game however, because a dense canopy of wet grape leaves provides the perfect environment for mold to grow. Almost all of the grapes we got after the rain were affected in some way by the mold. In a lot of places the winemaker would throw up their hands, exclaim "C'est la vie!", and throw the moldy grapes into the fermentation tank. But at Deerfield we rolled up our sleeves and sorted out every single moldy bunch. At our peak before the rain, the crew could sort about one ton of grapes an hour up to Deerfield's level of expectation. After the rain it took up to 4 hours to sort one half ton. For comparison, mass production wineries will sort up to 30 or 40 tons of grapes an hour. You'd be surprised: That type of production is by no means limited to the likes of Carlo Rossi, though I won't name names...

So harvest slowed way down and despite our best efforts, quality suffered slightly but I have full confidence in Robert's ability to save the day. After all, a lot can happen between harvest and the time it's ready to bottle. In the end, 2009 will be a mixed vintage for Northern California. We saw some truly spectacular fruit before the rain and some really terrible stuff afterwards. I hope the sour grapes don't tarnish the reputation of the whole vintage. Sometime I'll discuss how entire vintages can suffer from bad reputations and how that's unfair. Until next time!

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Reader Comments (2)

Welcome back Rat!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersandra rex

Clever Rat, a perfect storm of info and suspense. How many years will we wait to find out what the 2009 harvest morphed into?

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPete

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