Wednesday, September 24, 2014

BRAMBLES: A Summer's Harvest

Harvest of Pinot Noir in Cote du Beaune
Early picking for higher acid grapes used in sparkling wines began here in August as usual, but a few weeks earlier than is typical. August is usually a time when wineries check crush equipment, assess barrel inventories and try to schedule production activities, like bottling a prior harvest, around the frenzy that is the anticipated fruit-picking season.  Not unlike spring baseball, every producer has renewed dreams of crafting award-winning, critically acclaimed wines from their soon to be harvested and newest, best cuvee. It is an annual cycle, where almost nothing is always exactly the same as prior years.

A summer's harvest is an exciting time in wine communities, and the buzz is felt in surrounding localities.  There are the hard-working migrant workers that swarm to the vineyards, the early morning arc lights that pop-up in otherwise undisturbed locations, and the short-lived fruit flies that are nursed in the grape pomace. At the winery there is the well orchestrated dance of arriving fruit trucks, the snake-like noodles of hoses that seem to go everywhere, and the smell of crushed grapes ready to get happy from the conversion of their sugars to ethanol and carbon dioxide.
Grapeskin cap in open top fermentation tank

On a hilltop south of a quaint Russian River Valley town there sits a 44 acre sustainably-farmed vineyard estate, award-winning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir anchored to its Goldridge soils. Morning and late-afternoon fog are chronic visitors here on this southern boundary of the Russian River Valley AVA, but so too is the warming mid-day sun.  It must have seemed as idyllic to the retired couple who in the late 1990's became the stewards of this beautiful land, as it remains today. But after more than a decade of cultivation, Rick & Diane DuNah sold their estate in mid-2013.  From their first vintage in 2001, the quality of their site and clonal selections, and the quality of the retired couple's stewardship was evident. It was advantageous as well to have a heralded and skilled winemaker, scientific traditionalist Greg LaFollette, at the helm.

It too is part of the cycle. Local farmers diversify and become grape growers, and grape growers become winegrowers, and after riding for a time the industry roller coaster that is commercial agriculture you may just think about getting out. One of the earliest adages I remember hearing in wine marketing classes was, 'the easiest way to harvest a small fortune in the wine industry is to start out with a large one'. It is a usable adage because for the most of the small producers it is still a chosen business and it is still true. In Matt Kramer's New California Wine, he states that unlike the Old World, we here lack a 'true primitivism', an adhesion to place. European winegrape farmers historically had no choice but to continue to work the land that their fathers had.  Grape growing on their family plot was their subsistence, for better or worse, cycle following cycle.

Unlike the current global trend, our national wine consumption per capita is growing with America(California) ascending to be among the largest producers in the world. For consumers there are more choices in bottles and retailers than ever before.  The ranks of domestic producers have swollen as well over the past two decades.  Even though a handful of big guys(corporations) produce & distribute most of our domestic vino, California's 4000+ wineries & almost 6000 grapegrowers remain predominantly family owned and multi-generational. Just like the DuNah's.

According to the industries Wine Institute web site, the large number of domestic alcohol products 'continued to squeeze distribution channels, and many small- and medium-sized wineries look to direct-to-consumer sales through tasting rooms, wine clubs, online marketing and other direct sales channels, using social media and other digital communications to reach out to consumers'.  So today small producers not only need to be passionate about viticulture or winemaking, but also need to know how to reach the diversity of this saturated market thru contemporary & diverse means. Fortunately for Generation X to Millennial(Generation Y) consumers, and even us Boomers, there is today a new and impassioned upcoming generation of wine producers, from Sonoma's venerable Benzinger Family Winery to Livermore's Wente Vineyards. They too are part of our domestic cycle, just like a summer's harvest.

A cool night harvest in the warm Sonoma Valley AVA

A special thanks to Rick & Diane for great wines and warm memories.
Notable wine: LaFollette 2012 Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir; bright notes of cherries & raspberries rise from a brilliant garnet hue that offers integrated red fruits, like cranberry, with accents of roasted nut and warm earth that dance across the palate gracefully with good acidity and fine tannins, to a lingering finish.