It always happens. I tell someone we're harvesting or I have a pick in the morning and they say, "have fun!"
Harvest is many things: inspiring, rewarding, fulfilling, exciting, meaningful, exhausting, but it one thing it isn't is fun. At least not if it’s your life and your living. It may be fun to work a harvest or chip in for a few days, but if you have to take that fruit, make wine, bottle it and sell it fun is not part of the equation. Harvest is the worst thing and the best thing that happens to you every year if you want to make wine that means something. Making great wine is not fun, it's an obsession. Most of all it is intensely rewarding, not financially, but somehow, spiritually.
The mental and physical exhaustion that is harvest is what wells up inside of you when someone asks you about how many points your wine received from some critic, but then you remind yourself it's a lot easier to make opinions than it is to make wine.
It's hard to describe the intensity that we focus on our wines. The hours and hours of walking the vineyards and agonizing over every little choice that is made in the sometimes years long path a wine takes from the flowering in spring until it has the Cornerstone Cellars label applied to its bottle.
The experience of each harvest may not be fun, but the memory of it most certainly is as each moment comes back to life with every cork you pull of that vintage for years to come.
Worth it? You bet.
I couldn’t believe my eyes as the last bin was lifted off the scale and they handed me the weight tag. I blinked in disbelief as I read 2.25 tons. That was less than half of what we picked from this vineyard last year.
Making things even more painful was that this was not just any vineyard, it was our Oakville Station Cabernet Franc block. We just had just bottled the 2013 Cornerstone Cellars Oakville Cabernet Franc, Oakville Station Vineyard and there were only 101 cases from that banner vintage. A small amount of this exceptional cabernet franc is used in the blends for Michael’s Cuvée and The Cornerstone, but we save enough to bottle as a single vineyard as this is one of the most distinctive cabernet vineyards in the world and to not let it sing its own song would be a sin. The 2015 Cornerstone Cellars Oakville Cabernet Franc, Oakville Station Vineyard could end up being less than fifty cases.
This one of those situations when you find out if you are a optimist or pessimist - a half-empty or half-full glass sort of person. The half-empty of this situation is the small amount of fruit harvested, the half-full is what little we got is of exceptional quality. We’ll take the half-full side of this situation as quality is always more important (and more delicious) than quantity.
A little very welcome rain fell on the Napa Valley yesterday hopefully giving the firefighters a little help in their struggle against the Valley Fire. For us that meant no fruit today, but tomorrow we’ll be harvesting Grigsby Syrah in the Yountville AVA.
It will be full speed ahead now until the end of harvest. Yields will obviously continue to be light, but we’ll keep our glass half-full outlook.
Yesterday at daybreak it was cloudy, cool and showers were threatening. Today more of the same. Finally it feels like harvest in Oregon. It was ninety degrees just a couple of days ago and the crew was working in shorts and t-shirts instead of the usual fleece and flannel garb usually associated with Oregon harvests.
The weather we started harvest in was a reflection of the entire growing season in the Willamette Valley. It was hot. The hottest ever. The Oregon wines from this harvest will reflect that, just as they should. After all, isn’t the point of growing pinot is letting the idiosyncrasies of each harvest and vineyard speak for themselves?
What are the results of this warm Oregon vintage? It means that the grapes are being harvested at brix levels that are considered high in Oregon, but low in the Russian River Valley. In other words they will be big pinots by Oregon standards, but not those of California. What I think they will be are rich, charming wines that will be ready to drink, and should be drunk, young. This is the way nature should work with some vintages better for drinking young and others needing time to reveal their true character. Their rich textures and softer acids will mean a lot of wines getting big points from certain critics. Just remember, sometimes the closer the score is to 100 points the more the likelihood that you should drink the wine young.
Yesterday we were very lucky as our fruit, from the Saffron Fields Vineyard in Yamhill Carlton, arrived at the winery early in the morning allowing us to get a quick start on processing fourteen tons of pinot noir. This is really the maximum amount of fruit the team can physically handle. I assure you your arms and legs are tired after hand-sorting that much fruit. Doing it day after day gradually wears you down and getting out of bed in the morning becomes a creaky, sore process. The day finished with a quick tour of the vineyards remaining to be picked to get samples and determine when they’ll be harvested. There will be a break of a few days now as rain comes through the area. The remaining vineyards just need a little more time to fully develop their flavors.
Today I’m heading back to the Napa Valley as we’re picking Oakville Station Cabernet Franc at the crack of dawn tomorrow. After that harvest we’ll be sampling our cabernet sauvignon vineyards (that’s all that remains in Napa) to set the dates for their picks.
It seems clear at this point that everything will be picked by the end of September. Crazy, simply crazy.
It’s 6:30 in the morning and it’s time pick the grapes. However there is no picking crew waiting except us. This vineyard was going to be harvested by the four of us. This is the Maverick Vineyard, in the Oregon Willamette Valley sub-AVA of Yamhill Carlton. It’s just a baby and an infant like Maverick does not produce enough fruit to interest a crew of pickers paid by the bucket. The fruit needed to be picked so the four of us picked it.
Then to the winery where over the next twelve hours seven of us hand sorted and processed 15 tons of pinot noir, from our other vineyards, which are now happily cold soaking as we finish cleaning up the mess that only handling ton after ton of grapes can make.
An interesting thing happens after you hand sort that much fruit. The tartaric acid crystallizes on your fingernails making them look like they’ve been painted white. I don’t think it’s good look for me.
You’ll excuse me after fifteen hours of hard work for not being more eloquent, but I’ll give you a more detailed look at our Cornerstone Oregon harvest tomorrow. Good night as another fifteen tons will be waiting in the morning.
The baseball season is long, one hundred and sixty two games. After six months of effort it can come down to one game, indeed one swing of the bat. Months and months of effort can come down to one second.
Baseball, grapevines and winemakers start and end their seasons at the same time and in the same way. Some teams are happy to go home with a .500 season while for others nothing less than a championship will do. Every year we swing for the fences expecting nothing less of ourselves than winning it all.
Our season came to an end last Saturday when we picked our two cabernet franc vineyards in the Napa Valley. As usual, although Oregon and California are neighbors, the vintage experience is very, very different. In the Napa Valley it was smooth as silk. The early flowering in the spring gave us all the time we wanted to ripen our fruit to the very point of perfection. In Oregon the pace was not as relaxed as an approaching storm forced us into high gear to get our fruit in before the rains hit, which we did.
Once again as in baseball, there is more than one way to win the game. The 2010 vintage may have been difficult and the 2012 vintage warm and benevolent, but we made excellent wines in both years. Most importantly we made wines of the vintage, letting the natural character of the wines nature gave us to speak their own minds. Perhaps the biggest difference between big industrial wineries and artisan producers like Cornerstone Cellars is that their wines taste the same every year and ours don't. In baseball "small ball" often wins games, but in winemaking there is only one way to the pennant and that is by swinging for the fences each and every year.
Now as we finish the 2013 harvest, we are releasing the Cornerstone Cellars Cabernets from the 2010 vintage and our Cornerstone Oregon Pinot and Chardonnay from the 2011 harvest, while the 2012's are still resting in their barrels. Each of them tells the story of our dance with Mother Nature every vintage and we are confident you will find each of their stories as compelling as we do.
The dawn has yet to glow over the Vaca Mountains to the east. I am standing in the dark morning coolness as hazy figures glide through the blackness waiting for first light to signal the start of the day's work. Harvest 2013 is now seriously underway in the Napa Valley as we prepare to pick our first grapes for red wine this vintage, Oakville Station Merlot. Theoretically the harvest started here weeks ago for sparking wines (they're done already) and some white wines, but in the Napa Valley you're not getting serious until you start picking merlot, cabernet franc and, most of all, cabernet sauvignon.
While the scene sounds idyllic, and indeed it is, there is an undeniable feeling of pressure. We get just the one chance a year to make meaningful wines from each of these sites. There are no second chances. Every decision is critical, including the timing of today's pick, which I believe we have gotten just right.
Vintage 2013 is full of potential. Our early spring combined with a warm, but not too hot summer has been ideal for developing the complexity of flavors we strive for in our wines while preserving the essential acidity, which makes them live. It is our responsibility to fully realize this potential.
The Oakville Station Merlot was of such outstanding quality in 2012 that we have decided to produce not only our first single vineyard bottling of merlot, but our first Cornerstone Merlot ever. The 2012 Cornerstone Cellars, Oakville Station Merlot will be bottled next July and released after a year of bottle age in 2015. We only produced 100 cases and it will be exclusively available to our Cornerstone Club members. Looking at the outstanding quality of the merlot we are picking this morning, I have every reason to believe that 2013 will see our second single vineyard bottling from this very special vineyard block that is tucked into the famous To Kalon vineyard.
So as it happens each year in the natural cycle that is agriculture, our goals remain the same, but Mother Nature makes the rules. Our goal is to make elegant, refined wines that elevate your experience at the dinner table. Almost every year here in the Napa Valley nature gives us the privilege of achieving our goals. It is our duty to repay that privilege by doing the very best we can do. While that's a heavy responsibility, it is also a great honor. The ultimate expression of this honor is achieved when we can share our wines with you.
Their shrill barking woke me from whatever dream I was having. A pack of coyotes was having a debate in the vineyard outside my window. In my sleepy stupor I tried, but could not remember the day of the week. It sounded like dozens of them, but it was probably just a few being particularly rambunctious. Suddenly the report of a rifle echoed sharply across the valley and the coyotes were silent. Just a few hundred yards from our house, in the other direction, the first crew of cooks were arriving for work at The French Laundry. Such is life in Yountville during harvest. There is this incredible mixture of nature and urban sophistication, which only intertwines so completely in the Napa Valley. The reason I could not remember the day was simple: during harvest all days are the same. There are no regular patterns, hours or life. It’s exhausting, stressful and the best thing that happens to you every year.
So what does this vintage mean to us? It means another debate with Mother Nature, much like the coyotes outside my window had last night. As winemakers we all bark at the weather, but in reality we live within it and in the end treasure what we have been given each and every year. Like a parent we don’t have a favorite child, but revel in their differences and the memories of their unique strong and weak points. The critics will give this harvest a rating, but numbers have no soul and harvests, like all things in nature, do.
So what should you expect from a wine or from a vintage? I think you should expect personality. Those who rank vintages by number in the modern era miss the fundamental character of wine and truly do not understand wine itself. The question should never be what is the greatest vintage of this wine can I have with my dinner tonight, but should be what vintage will taste the best with my dinner tonight. The disaster vintages of days past are no more due to the dramatic advances in enology and viticulture over the last decades. On top of it we live in the Napa Valley where, let’s face it, the weather is never really that bad. The ranges of vintages today runs more from producing earlier or later maturing wines and from bigger or more elegant styles. It’s a fact of the matter in the Napa Valley an overly hot vintage has a more negative impact on wine quality than ones that are overly cool.
It often strikes me that critics want all vintages to be the same. I cannot think of anything more boring: or unnatural. Tomorrow morning at 4 a.m. we start picking our Talcott Vineyard Cabernet Franc in St. Helena. It will make a wine different from last year and from the one it will make the next. I would not have it any other way.