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harvest 2012

Vintage of the Century

It's the vintage of the century!

The pickers take a break as dawn breaks

The hype machine is on for the West Coast. Unfortunately, the noisiest wine press is no longer the one that separates the juice from the skins. Hopefully someday we can get back to the fact that in agriculture there is no perfection, only personality.

Each vintage the weather and soil combine to create a once in a lifetime experience. As with people, the personality you prefer is, well, personal. This, of course, does not apply to the vast majority of wines, which are industrial beverages where the only thing that is important to the consumer and producer is that their wines have no individuality from year to year. Oddly enough, this same rule seems to apply to cult wines.

In the Napa Valley, the weather could not have been kinder to grape growers. Mother Nature’s largess to grape growers and winemakers is not always equal. There’s not an empty fermenter or barrel to be found in the Napa Valley right now due to the bumper crop of grapes bestowed on the Valley this year. More is not necessarily better when it come to winemaking. The growers are already celebrating and headed for some sunny beach. Winemakers still have plenty of work to be done in the cellars with most of the red wine harvest still in fermenters.

It was a vintage Goldilocks would have loved. Not too hot and not too cold, just right. It started with a gentle spring that allowed for textbook flowering and fruit set. Then they just started to come, one after another. Warm sunny day after warm sunny day. Rarely did we hit 100° F for the high and just as rare was the day it did it not hit at least 85° F. The nights were cool dropping down to the low fifties, even nicking the forties. Up and down the temperatures swung wide each day in that dance that makes the Napa Valley such an exceptional place to grow wine grapes. 

September arrived and harvest began. First pinot gris and then we started picking sauvignon blanc, almost on the same date we’ve picked the last two years. Then they started to fall like dominos, coming in just the order you’d expect: first the merlot and then the syrah followed by cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. The even weather allowed us to pick at a deliberate pace able to wait until the flavors arrived at just the right point. By the middle of October we’d picked almost all of our vineyards. The first real forecast of rain arrived at the same time. On Sunday, October 21st we picked our last fruit. At midnight it started to rain.

By our standards at Cornerstone Cellars we’re very, very happy and optimistic about the wine that is fermenting as I write this article. What makes us happy? Wines with freshness, life, energy and, most of all, personality. We were able to pick truly ripe fruit at moderate sugar levels, which means moderate alcohol levels with crisp acidity that will make the wines sing. I love it.

In most of Europe’s great wine regions a bad vintage means cold and rain, in the Napa Valley it means too hot and dry. For example, take the highly touted 1997 vintage in Napa. The wines are now falling apart, condemned to death by the same high pH and alcohol levels that got them their good reviews in the first place. There’s a sucker born every minute. This will not be a 100 point vintage in the Wine Spectator, thank God, which means we’ll be able to make some real wine.

So the journalists will want to know if this was a great vintage. Of course it was, just like it will be next year and was last year. It’s not a question that anyone who has grown anything would ask. It is the experience of growing the fruit and making it into wine each and every year that makes for greatness. Letting that individuality speak in the wine every year is what makes wine so fascinating. The greatness of wine is in how it speaks to you. Each of us can rate a wine or a vintage 100 points, but we can only do that for ourselves. No one can do it for us.

There is something to love in every vintage. Every vintage is the vintage of the century, even if just for a few minutes. Andy Warhol said everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Each vintage should at least get that.

It's a Grind

Picking merlot in the Oakville Station/To Kalon Vineyard

It's a grind. Another quarter ton bin of grapes is loaded onto the dumper on the sorting line. Another truck arrives and another twenty bins are added to the twenty or so already there. At our top speed it takes an hour to process two tons or eight bins. We rarely hit top speed. Best guess is another five hours to get through these bins. That's on top of the five hours already in. Then when we finish sorting there's another two hours of punch downs and cleaning. 

Its like that every day. It's a grind. Its harvest. The term "romantic" does not enter your mind: at least until it's all over. The only times when the romance of it all fills your spirit are the first day, the last day and the rest of the year. The first day it’s all about the potential, the last day you are a bit awestruck by what you have accomplished. In between it's a blur as you grind through each day. It is very simply the next bin, the next fermenter and the next day.

In the picturesque harvest in the wine magazines it's all about bountiful lunches with happy workers eating hardy meals and quaffing wine from carafes. In a real world working winery its cold cuts, colds, cold wet clothes and hot, sweaty rubber boots. Most of all you are sticky. Head to toe splashed with super-sweet grape juice, which makes you a yellow jacket's dream lunch. 

Then there is all that gleaming stainless steel equipment that looks so efficient and high tech. The reality is more like a Rube Goldberg invention as the whole process is a patchwork of things that don't play well with others. Something always seems to break at just the wrong moment, which makes winemakers the champions of jerry-rigging as equipment is forced to behave with beatings and duct tape. For a winemaker knowing how to convince everything to work in the winery is just as important as knowing when to pick. Let's just say that OSHA would not approve of many of these solutions. 

The day comes to an end with the best beer (or two) you ever tasted in your life quickly followed by an all to short, but very sound sleep. Then you wake up and do it again, and again, and again until one day the last bin arrives.

Then, as the last bunch of grapes from the last bin drops into the last fermenter the romance hits you again. Instantly harvest is once again the best and most exciting thing that happens to you every year. It is the concentrated essence of everything you believe in and the fuel that fires your flame for the next vintage. It reminds you how lucky you are to be working as hard as you can to accomplish something you love.

We finished the last bin at about 5 p.m. last night. Winemaker Jeff Keene and I shook very sticky and very tired hands. Harvest 2012 was done. 

What a grind. I can't wait until next year.

One, Just One, Green Grape

It was just one green grape. It was one green grape too many. It's always something. 

It has been a picture perfect vintage. A lovely spring, with warm, dry weather for flowering and fruit-set. A “three bears” sort of summer: not too cold, not too hot, just right. So why was it there? As you passed through the vineyards you could not miss it standing out like a sore green thumb in the middle of a bunch of gloriously deep purple cabernet sauvignon, there would be one, just one, green berry.

No big deal, right? How could just one unripe grape on some bunches make any difference when all the others were perfectly ripe? One green grape is a very big deal if you want to make wines that are special.

Also there was another issue. Everything else this vintage has been perfect. The gorgeous weather has produced fruit capable of making wines from this vintage something very special indeed. When Mother Nature gives you such a gift you must take advantage of it. There is a sense of duty, responsibility, to take this gift and do everything in your power to make not only great wines, but memorable ones. 

What could we do? For us there was no choice. Out into the vineyards went our crews with one mission: to remove one-by-one those individual green grapes. Armed with scissors they went down the rows with the precision of a Bonsai gardener. Was this expensive? Certainly, but this is the price you pay to go beyond good, or very good, on to greatness in a wine. For us there was no choice.

We’re getting pickier and pickier every year as finicky is a virtue when it comes to winemaking. Not satisfied with just dropping any less than perfect fruit in the vineyard, we are going beyond just sorting out any bunches that don’t meet out standards and this vintage will be sorting individual berries on a special sorting table specially designed for nit-pickers like us. Note this is not a job we farm out, Jeff and I do all the sorting ourselves. 

I'll spare nothing, not only in this glorious vintage, but in each-and-every vintage to make wines that I love to drink and, most of all, that I am proud to share with you.

A perfect bunch of cabernet framed by the light of this morning's dawn