Friday, September 29, 2017

HARVEST; the Cycle of Past Perfect

Dried leaves danced in a race across the dry pavement.  It was a reasonable escape considering the sweltering heat spikes that repeatedly visited wine country throughout the weeks of summer, but the effort used up entirely too much energy.  No fewer than 5 weekends over a two month period saw triple digit temperatures blanket our vineyards hanging full of fruit.  After a historically wet winter with a generous snow pack in the mountains, the vigor of the vines that had introduced the 2017 season had now slowed to a listless crawl.  What was an early promise of good fruit quality and average crop yields was altered; it had become a different harvest.
Sonoma County American Viticultural Areas(AVA)
That wet spring gave way to sustaining sunshine to begin flowering and fruit set of the vines, and then came a rare hail event in June.  This is the type of weather that may be more common in continental Burgundy, not maritime-influenced and Mediterranean Sonoma County. Weeks of summer went by seasonally, albeit higher than average humidity.  By the end of July, sparkling wine producers were already calling out picking orders, expecting a traditional early crop of higher acid ripening fruit with sufficient sugars. Then in late August seasonal temperatures began to rise; Labor Day weekend saw three days of invading triple degree digits.  September, a typical harvest month, began a patient game of waiting for sugars to threshold and phenolic ripeness to develop in the fruit. It all stalled, as it remained unseasonably hot.  Locally, there were even a few rain 'events' mid-month promoting the fear of widespread fungal rot.
Vineyard rows adapted to machine harvesting
Grapes are cyclical survivors, they want to complete the process.  As photosynthesis shuts down to produce ripening of the sugars, it is common for growers to remove grapeleafs, promoting even ripening by exposing the fruit to more sunlight. It is a balancing act, for we know that stressed vines produce more intense fruit color(flavor) and richer aromatics. During a heat spike sugars climb and then drop during sustained waves, the maturity process shuts down with this continued vine stress. To combat, growers can irrigate their stressed vineyards, but that dilutes flavors and runs the danger of altering the fruit flavors.  Harvesting under-ripe fruit does not help much either.  The fruit bakes; light, thin skins can sunburn, the fruit dehydrates, and may even raisin the berries.  Months of dedicated toil and nurturing can change to critical over a scorched weekend. 

Sonoma county is not alone in this current climate challenge. "The heat was excessive to the point where it actually slowed ripening", noted celebrated Lake County AVA winemaker, Jed Steele. Moist conditions from winter's rains and rare monsoonal periods in September introduced rot to many vineyards.  Talley Vineyards of Arroyo Grande Valley AVA noted it sorted out a surprising 14% of its harvest from Rosemary's Vineyard due to the blight. Globally, according to Decanter, Italy and France are expecting to see the smallest harvests in more than 60 years due to a late season heat wave the Italians have dubbed 'Lucifer'.  To balance the scales, cool, sun-deprived Germany is having a historically early harvest, as reported by Bloomberg's, E.McCoy!
Italian wine raisins in the Mediterranean sun
If we add the agricultural labor challenges to pick fruit at the peak of ripeness in more vineyards than ever before with a shrinking seasonal migratory work force, the annual increased farming costs, and a more competitive producer/consumer marketplace it is a wonder that growing premium wine grapes still invites the dreamers.  And, the wildfires in Mendocino, Lake and Santa Barbara counties, and in Oregon would only add to a winegrowers challenges this year, too. Welcome to the new normal of farming cool climate sites, the real new McCoy, as it were.

Record amounts of carbon dioxide hang in the atmosphere, our rising sea levels and increasing deforestation are global events the worlds' agrarians have never before seen on this scale. Locally, our Sonoma September was 3+ degrees warmer than our historical average for this harvest month. Those increasing global temperatures have introduced to once marginal, cool extreme vineyards the rarity of more hours of sun and increasingly consistent ripening. Now at this edge, indications are that we are currently living in the new climate normal. A few longtime fruit farmers may have see it all before in their day, but for the rest of us we may be entering a vineyard environment of the Cycle of Past Perfect!

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