Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Farmers and Alchemists

Man, it must have been 20º this morning! OK, maybe 30º… or 40-something. I don’t know, but it was cold. Then it will heat up to a lovely 80º by this afternoon. That’s Napa Valley at harvest time. The most glorious weather you can imagine (at least that’s what the grapes think). And they are thinking life is pretty good this year. They got to come out early in the spring, hang around through a mild summer (what global warming?), then slowly start storing up for winter by tucking away all that wonderful sugar.

I haven’t talked to a winemaker yet that isn’t excited about this harvest. They like a medium-sized crop, with lots of ‘hang time’ and almost, but not quite, bursting with sugars. Well, they got it this year. As of today, September 19th, the white grapes are mostly in and the red grapes are mostly still hanging around, waiting for that last little blast of heat we always seem to get in October.

The thing about wine is that you can always learn something new if you keep your ears peeled. To be honest, even though I live here, I spend most of my time running the Inn or writing on my next novel. I don’t peruse The Wine Spectator or hang on Robert Parker’s latest words, so sometimes I am a bit behind the times. But a couple years ago I started hearing about brown seeds as an indicator of when red grapes should be harvested. I have lived in the Napa Valley for forty three years and the only real determining factor I ever heard about was Brix, the percentage of sugar in the juice of the grape. Brix was king.

Well, for some winemakers, brix is nowhere as important as the ripeness of the fruit. And this is determined by the color of the seeds and flesh of the grape. Try this; buy some seeded red grapes at the store. Bust one open. Chances are you are going to see a flesh that is slightly reddish close to the skin, then turns quickly to a light green closer to the seeds. The seeds will almost certainly be green. Now, this is ok for eating grapes, but the word is that for world-class, full, layered red wines, the green has got to go.

My brother makes a Cabernet called Hourglass with a winemaker by the name of Bob Foley. My mother grows the grapes for this cultish wine. Bob is a very sharp guy and one of the best winemakers in the Valley. That doesn’t mean he is the most popular guy around. We can look out over my mother’s vineyard in September and marvel at the beautiful crop. But we worry about the rain, an early frost, mildew, not enough heat and a bunch of other things that can still go wrong. Then Bob comes out and says, “Let’m hang”. October comes, with mild days and cold nights, dark clouds looming in the forecast and Bob says, “Let’m hang.” Late October arrives and other vineyardists are scurrying to pull their fruit, having lost the gamble of letting their crop fully ripen before the first big rain, and Bob says, “Let’m hang.” My mother is imagining no income for the year and my brother is fretting about an entire vintage missing from his sales chain, and Bob says, oh, you know what he says.

Now half the fruit is shriveled and ugly, the rest is near falling from its stems and Bob comes out to check the fruit. He breaks open eight or ten berries from different parts of this incredibly small vineyard and says, “OK, you can pick the grapes on the flat, but the hillside plants need a little more time. MORE TIME!!! It is early November and every other grape in the Valley has been picked! In 2005 they picked the last of the grapes around the 15th of November. There is still no way of knowing what this year will bring. The fruit looks beautiful right now.

Such is the life of a few people trying to make the best wine they possibly can (and trying not to go broke in the process).

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