Tuesday, October 26, 2010

God decides California grapes had hung long enough

Thank you, God.

I didn't expect you to get involved in the hangtime, concentrated-wine debate. You have so much else on your plate, including your unexpected intervention in the National League Championship Series, for which I am extremely grateful.

But I forgot you were both omnipotent and omniscient. Which means I don't really need to finish this post. But I'll spell it out for the humans who have made me one of the world's 10-most-read wine bloggers (thanks for that too, God, as it is another of your mysteries).

The 2010 northern California vintage might be the most compelling of the century so far, but only for vintners who picked their grapes before last weekend. They benefited from your long, cool summer, as their grapes had months to develop flavors without building up the huge amounts of sugar that lead to high alcohol. I simply cannot wait to start tasting these wines.

But not everybody recognized your grace. Some worshiped the false idol of super-ripeness.

On Saturday, you sent them a warning, with a little less than an inch of rain. Then on Sunday you poured nearly 6 inches of rain on Mt. St. Helena. It wasn't exactly Noah's worst storm in the rest of our Wine Country, but it might have been one of his lesser 40 days.

Winemakers who were waiting to harvest, hoping to make inky, concentrated fruit bombs, are today wondering what to do. If they harvest now, their wine might be surprisingly decent; the water absorbed by the grapes might cut their concentration enough to produce food friendliness. They might not get 98 points, but they'll be able to enjoy these wines at the dinner table with your other gifts of beast and fowl and root. It's almost like a miracle your son performed.

Or they can wait another fortnight, into November, to see if they can make a Dark Monolith Wine. But you have their attention, and they know you might again express your displeasure with this style.

God, you are tremendous. You created vitis vinifera grapevines and you didn't intend its fruit to be left out in the fields in the last week of October, with nets and fences to prevent your other creatures (birds, deer) from harvesting it when it's ready.

You created the annual cycle of generation and rest in these vines that arguably reaches perfection in northern California, where you bless us with dry summers and all the water we need in winter. You have planned a schedule that works, and all we have to do is have faith in it.

I never really thought about whether or not you actually drink wine, which is one of your greatest gifts to us. I know many believe that you do, which is why they offer it to you as a blessing.

After last weekend, I agree with them. I think you do drink wine, and you prefer balance and elegance.

Having already received so many blessings from you, I am loath to ask for too much. But I would be grateful if you would speak to the hearts of the winemakers who left their fruit out too long, and to the tiny number of influential critics who pushed them into it. Nothing dramatic like a plague on my account, please! However, I will not presume to know your methods. Sometimes a grand slam is needed, but other times only a sacrifice fly. Speak to them, and show them how they might show respect for your gift of grapevines by making the type of wine you intended.

Thanks again, God. You have spoken, and the wise will listen. Amen.


Portland Charcuterie Project said...

Amen Brother!!

Anonymous said...

I can’t believe some hadn’t picked their grapes, even though it was late October. I’m tired of super over ripened grapes and high alcohol bottles. Looking forward complex and delicate 2010 California wine.


wineman said...

Coming from a winery that still does have fruit hanging, it isn't necessarily to make a super concentrated fruit bomb. We had Cab Sauv that was still at about 24 brix last Thursday, just prior to the rain, with little color and an incomplete development of flavor. Cab can certainly withstand moisture as it has thicker skins, loose clusters and smaller berries. Overall, I enjoyed your article, but just felt it necessary to mention that some sites just haven't gotten to a correct, delicate balance, let alone a "monolithic" fruit bomb.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks wineman, I felt a little bit guilty knowing that there are some vineyards out there like yours, but I'm glad you accepted it in the right spirit.

Jeff said...

To God be the Glory!

Lisa Mattson said...

Our winemaker believes the Cabernet and Merlot lots in tank right now are the best young wines he's ever tasted from Jordan. We were able to pick at our usual, optimal sugars -- 23.5-24.5 Brix, considered low by most modern-era California Cabernet producers -- and the flavor development was far beyond recent vintages of memory.

You can't wait to taste the 2010s. Neither can we. The question is how the critics will score these wines, especially in non-blind analysis environments like some critics use.

Go, Giants.

Journey of Jordan: a wine and food video blog

Anonymous said...

Great post. But I can't help but point out the irony. As your post correctly implies, we are, in fact, making products at Mother Nature's whim.

This year, the flavors were there long before the sugars because the season was much cooler than normal. By the way, despite a cool year, Cabernet was picked precisely at the same time as last year and most every year. And also at about the same sugars (sorry to dispel your assertion the wines will be lower in alcohol - some may and others may not). Whites, on the other hand, were not picked at their usual time. Sure, there are some whose Cab grapes are still on the vine, but its not because of some strange plot to produce a high alcohol wine. Its because they aren't ready to be picked.

Most years, summer here is much hotter and the sugars develop long before the flavor. We wait for the flavors to come because no one wants to drink Cabernet that doesn't taste like grapes. I don't understand why you can't see that your very valid point about God's intervention is exactly the reason for 14% alcohol Cabernets.

There is no machiavellian plan by winemakers in Napa Valley to make wines higher in alcohol. I can think of only one winemaker I know who deliberately lets the fruit hang until way past ripe. In general, most make a fairly well-balanced wine using what Mother Nature gives us.

Anonymous - Cabernet grapes don't ripen until sometime in October and is dependent also on alot of factors, including location. The mountain fruit ripens slower than Valley floor fruit, usually. So vineyards there will almost always have grapes on vine until late October. I recommend the Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil as a good read. I also recommend developing a relationship with a good retailer so he/she can understand your preferred style of wine and recommend choices to match. We always hope people don't make others wrong for their choice of wine or wine style. There is no right or wrong in drinking wine. There's only what you prefer.

Anonymous said...

YES! Well said!

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: Thank you for a thoughtful post. However, I want to clarify that I have no problem with 14% alcohol in Napa Cabs -- that is, as you say, what God intended with the weather patterns here.

15.9% alcohol, labeled at 14.9% to use the maximum leeway allowed by the TTB, is what I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

Blake... I can't imagine any wine consumer would want a winery to lie about its alcohol content. Does it happen? I'm sure it does. However, you make it sound like that's the norm. Factually, you know that's not the case. So, I'm wondering now why you bought it up. Is it to perpetuate yet anothermyth, over generalization and stereotype that doesn't exist? Makes for better reading, eh?

W. Blake Gray said...

First of all, why don't you tell me who you are? I'm not ashamed of what I have to say.

Second, the fact that alcohol levels on wine are not exactly accurate is not news and not scandal. US law allows a tolerance of 1.5% in wines with alcohol under 14% and 1% in wines with alcohol over 14%.

Yes, you're right, in responding to anonymous commenters below my blog, I must be trying to sell newspapers. Or something.

Who are you again?

Jared Brandt said...

This was decided for flatland, not steep slopes. (God spares grapes on the steep hills...)

We still haven't picked our Broken Leg Syrah in Anderson Valley. The hill is steep and the 6 inches of rain only set us back about a brix - from 22.5 to 21.5. We are still planning on picking early next week.

And 6 inches - no big deal. The year we learned in France it really rained - up to 32 inches in some of the vineyards over 3 days. (Parker was washed off the road in CdP that year.)

W. Blake Gray said...

Jared, of course God favors hillside vineyards, they're literally closer to him.

If I am ever able to find one of your Donkey and Goat wines that's overripe, will you give me $1?

Alan Baker said...

Enjoyed the piece. And I think we all know you are not picking on those growers (say Oregon Pinot growers) who are looking at 20 Brix at the end of Oct.
We were lucky to be puling fruit from a corner of the RRV that tasted great at 22.5 Brix well before the heat blast. So I'm with you in looking forward to the wines from this year but with headlines in the PD like "Worst-ever harvest almost over" I don't think consumers are going to be as optimistic.
Too bad, but we're all going to have to fight that bad press for a few years.


W. Blake Gray said...

Wow, what an irresponsible headline. Thanks for pointing it out, 'cause I really think the good wines from this vintage will be very special.

It seems like every week I get some anonymous blowhard commenter who reads what I have to say, then tries to dismiss it as "it's only a blog." Blogs aren't perfect, but print publications in toto aren't any better. Thanks for the reminder.

Jared Brandt said...

Yes - $1 is fine

Didn't think about the location factor. Wonder if high altitude wines are favored as well :)

Evan Dawson said...

I'm late to the commenting party here, but I want to say... Yes, and cheers, and thumbs up to everything in this post. Blake, I wonder if there will be a rather clear bifurcation in CA wines (particularly Cab) this year, and if so, what major critics might say about the lower-ABV group. Vintage variation is a beautiful thing.

Larry Brooks said...

While it may sound like belaboring the obvious some vines and wines benefit from a cold season, and some suffer from it. In general cold seasons create wines with underripe character which most tasters professional and amatuer alike distain. You need only look at the '98s to confirm this. The 2010 season was the coldest on record for the pacific coast - colder than '98. The average wines especially late maturing varietals like Cabernet and Syrah will not be great wines. The exceptions will be some appellations of early maturing wines such as Pinot Noir. Spring rainfall and untimely fall rains added to the difficulties. I predict that the critical response to the '10s will be a bloodbath.