Wednesday, March 12, 2014

BRAMBLES: Waiting for Winter

Mission Ridge, Santa Clara County
Drought seems on the surface natural for grape vine 'dry farming', the sustained use of residual moisture in soils accumulated during the rainy season for crop production during the dry season.  Local grape growers had a relatively dry Winter in 2012-13, so water tables and reserves were already low.  January and February here were without significant rainfall, and saw to it that our hills and vineyards stayed golden brown. Now almost in mid-March, we here are still waiting for needed Winter rains, as rainfall amounts are about half of what they were this time last year.  Dormant grape vines store water during the Winter, but this year there is again, not alot to go around.  Recently, after the storm door had opened slightly, we took a short needed road trip to a drier, warmer climate south into the Livermore Valley AVA.

Just over the San Francisco Bay hills, the east-west oriented Livermore Valley was basking in sunlight. Spring bulbs, early season wildflowers and flowering shrubs splashed color across the backdrop of newly green hillsides. It was beautiful!  The valley is home to about 50 wineries in a ten(10) mile stretch, dotting an increasingly suburban landscape.  Early names like Wente, Concannon and Murietta's Well are prominently part of this areas California viticultural history from the pioneering 1880's. The AVA is today part of the larger Central Coast AVA, and its sub-region, San Francisco Bay AVA, as the Bay's influence can be felt by the cooling winds that race across its rolling hillsides.

Here the smaller producers open their doors and get by with direct to consumer sales and retail placements in local restaurants and bottle shops, but our first stop was at a large, nationally distributed brand, Concannon.  Recent investment into the brands production and visitor facility brings out the family picnics to their expansive and creatively landscaped grounds, as well as the limousines of younger wine lovers who toy in their tasting room. Creatively, the long established brand also has a restaurant and wine bar that serves local & import brands in addition to their own.  During our recent tasting, our favorite was the Concannon 2008 Petite Sirah with its mouth-filling black fruit and fine grain tannins.
Way back in the early 1880's, a nursery-man from southeastern France, Dr. Francois Durif, crossed a workhorse variety, Peloursin, with a late-season ripening indigenous grape, Syrah.  He named his grape progeny, Durif.  James Concannon planted the new variety, now commonly known as Petite Sirah, on his estate at the turn of the 20th century, and the rest is as they say, history.

We did not have to travel very far to find the down-home Mitchell Katz winery; a horse-drawn surrey was in the gravel parking lot and locally made sausage were on the grill.  Our tasting included several adequate white & red selections, but the consensus favorite was the fruit driven bing cherry notes in the 2010 Abbout's Acres Merlot. Here we conversed with a local vineyard owner who was staking his sweat and fortune on the minor variety Sangiovese planted nearby. He announced that he had just returned from a much needed vineyard pruning, only to find that his freshly cut cane's did not weep a drop. "They need a good soaking", he cautioned. As the afternoon winds picked up we drove a short distance into the hills and across another gravel lot to the McGrail Winery.  Easily the best reds of the day were found here with the 2008 Picazo Proprietary Red(a Bordeaux blend) and a solid rockstar of a young, herbaceous Cabernet Sauvignon.

Gravel is big here; you can see it in the log row vineyard soils.  But most noticeable was the advanced new leaf growth in row after row, a sign that bud break occurred very early here in this warmer inland environment. Just as in the wine valleys above the Bay's north shore, we are all waiting for Winter. With no rain in the regions extended forecast, it would seem to be a good time to plan a visit to a few more of these down-home vintners.  Livermore Valley Wine Country's 6th Annual Barrel Tasting weekend is on March 29/30, with 32 open-armed venues ready to sample and to entertain winelovers.
Awakening Bud Break
With Spring just a few weeks away, I'm also waiting for the much anticipated results of my submitted teaching video to the Society of Wine Educators.  Waiting seems to be the constant theme for this Winter.  We are waiting for the rains, waiting for the seasonal chill, and waiting for consequence of our many years of wine study.  Perhaps that is the wonderful and curious thing about Winter; it is the sustained anticipation of a renewed growth season... just like the dry farming of our winegrape crop.

Salute' and Cheers!!