When I first sat down to write a post about harvest it was raining. That was over a week ago. Today it's hot, at 90 degrees. Go figure. Such are the vagaries of harvesting those little purple berries that we magically turn into wine. It certainly takes skill and patience, as well as a good dose of humor to handle the ups and downs that come with harvest.
You could say we've seen it all in the nearly 4 decades that we've been in business. From flawless vintages and ideal picking conditions to schizophrenic weather patterns that ended in near disasters on the vines. (1983 and 1989 come to mind.) It comes with the territory as they say. Frankly, it's the one part of the business that is very difficult to completely control. And no matter what degree of planning and preparation you do, it's always a bit of a crapshoot.
No story illustrates this more than Dad's first harvest back in 1972. It was a scorching hot day and he was preparing to receive his very first load. They were Chardonnay grapes from the famed Robert Young vineyard and we were all excited and nervous. Our only employee, Mike Ruggee was driving the truck that would soon deliver that precious fruit. Unfortunately, our old truck overheated and broke down on the way to the winery. Mike quickly flagged down a passing farmer who helped him fill the radiator back up with water. He then did something my 9 year old eyes had never seen before. He took an enormous wad of chewing gum out of his mouth and plugged up the hole in the radiator hose. This allowed him to slowly make his way back to the winery before the water leaked out or the fruit got overheated.
Things have gotten much more high tech around here in the 38 harvests since!
One thing that hasn't changed is our stage program. In 1975, my father began an internship program for international winemaking students. Our first stages (French for interns) were Andre Chatteneau and Bernard Cabe. They spent the 1975 harvest with us, learning new world techniques that would soon make California world renowned. Over the years, we've run into many former stages who have developed illustrious winemaking careers all around the world. It's a wonderful feeling to know that we played a small role in their professional development. (Andre went on to run his family chateau in St. Emilion and Bernard became a successful negociant in Bordeaux.) This year we have two young men, Mathew Kirby from Australia and Phillip Vercuiel from South Africa, helping us out. They add a bit of brawn and rowdiness to an otherwise serious winemaking operation. (You know what they say, it takes a lot of good beer to make great wine!)
To date, we're about 55% through the 2009 harvest. The sporadic weather of the last week has had little impact and things are looking good. We have a great winemaking team and a host of small growers that complement our estate grown fruit. This year, we've added a couple of new winemaking techniques thanks to the ingenious thinking of our cellar staff. One is a new contraption designed to gently move whole clusters into the press by bypassing the crusher. Another is an internal pump-over device that keeps the skins and seeds inside the tank when draining and doing pump-overs. (The process of moving fermenting juice from the bottom of the tank to the top to promote a healthy fermentation.) Both of these techniques help us minimize maceration (squishing up) and handle the grapes as gently as possible. Stressed grapes in the vineyard make great wine; stressed grapes in the fermenter do not!
While it's been many years since I worked harvest, I always feel a sense of nostalgia this time of year. The sights, the sounds and the smells are nothing short of amazing. And, in the end, things haven't changed all that much since the early days. Sure we're more efficient and have a host of modern winemaking equipment in the cellar. But overall, traditional winemaking practices prevail- just like in the good old days.
With the exception of the Bazooka bubble gum.