… or, How We Excelled in the Harvest of 2010.
A note from Winemaker, Richard Sowalsky
By now, you have probably heard about the Napa Valley harvest of 2010 – abundant late spring rainfall, the coolest growing season on record, the brutal late August heat event. So, you may be wondering, how does a winegrower deal with the realities of such a season and successfully navigate through the obstacles to achieve world class wine? I have been told by many close friends that my comparison of winegrowing to jazz music is pretty played out after years of use; however, if there ever was a vintage where a mastery of the fundamentals of grape growing and winemaking plus an ability to improvise in an artful way would prove a winning combination, it was 2010. To put this another way, it is the rare day that I am glad I’m not young, yet many days in 2010 I was happy for ability to be able to draw fully on the wisdom of my age.
Let’s begin at the beginning, namely dealing with consequences of the winter and spring rainfall. To understand the effects of excess water, it is helpful to know that the grapevine is a bit like drinking straw, with the pressure to move water through the plant from the roots provided by evaporation of water through the leaves. If there is more water present than the plant is evaporating or if evaporation is low due to cooler, more humid weather (both in play in 2010), then the water will tend to expand the plant tissues of the grapevine itself, leading to larger shoots, leaves and berries. Large berries can lead to diluted wines while increased foliage will shade fruit and hinder flavor, color and tannin development in additional to promoting fungal diseases. Obviously, being a passive observer in this type of situation is not an option!
Fortunately, the Clos Pegase Estate vineyards are planted on very well draining soils (decomposed shale at Tenma Vineyard, tufa (a porous compressed volcanic ash) at Applebone Vineyard, etc…), so excessive water in the soil is not a big issue for us even in wet years. In those areas of our vineyards where the soil is less well draining, we use cover crops of grasses or clover to help rapidly dry down the soil profile; in 2010, we let these crops grow much later into the season to reduce soil water as much as possible.
The record-breaking coolness of the season, which began with a two week delay in budbreak continued cold throughout, was another source of potential grape quality concern in 2010. Again, the fortuitous locations of our Estate vineyards together with our varietal mix by ranch proved prescient, as a cool year in Calistoga is ideal for the Bordeaux varieties while a cooler year in Carneros delivers Burgundian varietal wines with classic mineral-driven fruit. However, the prodigious initial crop which nature provided needed to be brought into balance through thinning, which essentially is dropping fruit to the ground prior to harvest. This process, which is very expensive, was critical for success in 2010. As an extreme example, the Graveyard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon at Mitsuko’s Vineyard was thinned to one cluster per shoot (or about half its typical crop level) very early in the season in anticipation of the continued cool weather; it is instructive to note that this decision was based as much on our knowledge of the typical cool “El Niño” growing season as it was on blind faith on our ability to “read” the season.
The “heat spike” in late August provided additional challenges, as fruit and leaves, unaccustomed to warmth due to the prior uniform coolness of the year, were not prepared to experience temperatures in excess of 105° F. Luckily, in many instances, the particulars of our vineyards, such as a protective row direction or vine pruning style, limited or prevented damage. In other cases, however, we were forced to revisit blocks and cut off all damaged clusters, a practice both expensive in labor and lost fruit. But, we had no choice. Suddenly, our large crop was smaller than average.
There were many more instances of unplanned vineyard practices required to ensure that 2010 was another great year for Clos Pegase. Throughout the growing season, we evaluated all of our vineyard blocks individually on a weekly basis for growth of foliage, the balance of foliage with fruit and fruit condition. Based on these assessments, we made ongoing decisions to tuck and re-tuck shoots, remove excess leaves (especially those leaves close to the fruit zone) and laterals (side shoots), trim the tops of the shoots and remove additional diseased, poorly colored or excess fruit, all in an effort to optimize wine quality.
The delayed season morphed into a delayed harvest. This not only compressed the harvest period at the winery, but also resulted in the near overlap of Carneros Chardonnay with Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon – our version of “the Perfect Storm” (although we were very tired, we did remain safe throughout, however). Our staff and interns, who spent a very relaxed August and September, were pushed to the limit in October and early November, as the onslaught of grapes proved relentless and a bit overwhelming. To ensure that we were able to achieve meticulous grape sorting (especially in a season where removal of shriveled and poorly colored fruit could make the difference between acceptable and great wines), we demoed a state-of-the-art optical grape sorting machine which increased our sorting efficiency by fourfold with near perfect selectivity for ideally colored and intact berries (in fact, this machine was so cutting edge that many winemakers from throughout Napa Valley stopped by to check us out).
Finally, as always, we relied on our naturalistic approach to coax our well groomed grapes into great wine. Daily tasting of juice at the press and wines in the fermenter lead to near constant revisions of fermentation plans in an effort to understand what the season had finally given to us and how best to make wine from this bounty. Tasting of the 2010 wines to date (including the blending of our Sauvignon Blanc in preparation for bottling a few weeks hence) has reconfirmed that our formidable efforts throughout the winegrowing process were not in vain, although additional selection of wine lots will be necessary to ensure that each of our blends is as artfully crafted as possible. And against this backdrop of lot selection and blending, the 2011 season is taking shape – more on this season next time!