Suburban Wino 2: The Wordpress Experiment

Rainy California | October 10, 2011

Waking up to the sound of raindrops pattering on the roof is not something unusual… in the Southeast.

Napa Valley in early October?  Nothing I’ve ever seen before.  So much for “sunny California”.  The rains came in last Monday, and save a couple breaks in the grey, held strong until Wednesday afternoon.  Being a jet-setter on holiday with expectations of warmth and solar rays, I was disappointed that an ample wardrobe of gaudy Tommy Bahama shirts and Magnum P.I.-style short-shorts stayed in the suitcase.

Despite my inability to showcase the gams, the opportunity to watch the wine industry react to a rainy harvest was fascinating.  As the veiled sun set over the Mayacamas ridge to the West and darkness fell over the valley, vineyards lit up with industrial-strength flood lights.  These were night picks, intended to collect the ripe grape clusters ahead of the rain (no matter what time in the evening or morning).

The conversation among the insiders was obsessively focused on brix– the sugar levels of the ripening grapes.  Was the brix high enough?  Are the acid and sugar levels in balance?  Have the seeds lignified (turned to brown, indicating phenolic maturity)?  Basically speaking, will the winemakers be working with ripe grapes?  Acid and sugar are in balance in a grape.  As acids fall, sugars rise.  At a certain point, enough sugar exists in each berry to provide enough food for yeasts to metabolize into alcohol during fermentation.  Furthermore, if skins, seeds, and stems are not yet at their peak, wines can end up tasting “green” and lacking fruit character.

So why not just let that fruit hang on the vine?  While it’s possible that the grapes will swell with the additional water, resulting in diluted flavors in the grapes (I’ve heard this point contested by a respected grower), the bigger concern is rot.  With moisture (after a dry growing season) comes that very real potential.  Wine, especially that which relies upon the fruit of a single-vineyard, has no “do overs”.  Losing a vintage and potentially millions of dollars of revenue, all on a gamble for riper grapes?  I think you’d rather see me in those short-shorts.  Barely.

Keep an eye out for the 2011 vintage from Northern California.  Sure, you won’t see many of the wines for a couple years, but from knowing the raw materials, could we be tasting wines that are leaner, more acidic, and lower in alcohol?  Or will instincts, gutsy decisions, and winemaking magic protect the powerful wines that have put places like the Napa Valley on the map?

More importantly, as the consumer, which would you prefer?

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