A Balanced Vintage – Part II – Pest Management

Anyone living, or visiting, the Napa valley has seen the European Grapevine moth signs.

This pest invaded California almost a decade ago and attacks the blooms of the grape flowers. Why is this problematic? Because, no blooms, no grapes, no grapes, no wine.European Grapevine Moth Billboard
The European Grapevine moth decimated vineyards in Temecula, and was headed North. Since the moth only has a flight path of 30 yards, it was clearly hitching rides. Billboards, bumper stickers and signs urge individuals not to bring plants or produce into agricultural counties in California.

But it clearly isn’t feasible to quarantine an entire county, so other precautions need to take place.

Say what you will about how pristine European vineyards are, and how US agricultural standards are lackadaisical, but most people I know who are blessed enough to own land in the Napa Valley take care of it. This means minimal (or no) use of chemicals, and an attempt at nutrient balance in the soil. So, the answer to getting rid of moths is definitely not to spray the vineyard. Not only do you want to limit chemicals on the grapes, wine, or runoff water, but you don’t want to kill other organisms that are of benefit to the soil or harm plants that break down nutrients for the vines.

“Integrated pest management” is a field of study where one looks at the lifestyle of the pest in question and tries to naturally disrupt it. This may be introducing natural enemies, or reducing surrounding shrubs as breeding ground. In the moth’s case, it involves mating disruption.
European Grapevine Moth Advertisement
If you are a lonely male grapevine moth looking for love, you do what all men do- you go searching at the local hangout, flirt with girls, and gauge who might be into you. In the grapevine moth’s case, this interest is determined by a pheromone that is released from the females that indicates they are ready to mate (green-light) or that they have already been mated with (red-light).

Euclid used natural techniques and twist ties, instead of chemicals, to get rid of the moths in the vineyardIt was a sad year to be a grapevine moth in Napa. If you walked though vineyards you might notice very small twist ties on some rows of vines.  These tiny ties contained the female “red-light” pheromone. Poor male moths found no luck looking for a viable female this year as they traveled through vineyard flooded with overpowering pheromones telling them no females were interested.

Since the grapevine moth has several life cycles throughout the season, we could monitor if the efforts were working, and indeed they did.

The first cycle count was 100,000 moths in 2010, with only 87 found in the first count of 2011.  So in one seasons we were basically able to confuse them into extinction – with twist ties.

But, that isn’t all that went well for the 2012 harvest. Stay tuned for Balanced vintage Part III…

A Balanced Vintage – Part 1 – Temperature

We know it is difficult to have a great wine in a bad vintage, but a great season doesn’t always guarantee a great wine.

It requires just as much work and thought along the way.

Grapevine in Napa ValleyEspecially when mother-nature is concerned.

All season long the vines are manipulated.  When it’s wet, we cut the canopy (leaves) allowing direct sunlight to naturally dry the grapes to prevent mold.  And, when it’s hot, we leave the canopy longer to cover the berries and protect against sunburn.  Sometimes, you even remove fruit if the leaves are working too hard to ripen it (fruit dropping will assure concentration in sugar and flavor.) All the while, you are helping the vine achieve balance to allow the fruit to mature to its full potential.

This is why I rarely like to see vintages summed up in broad sweeping terms.

But, I will shock you all and say: this vintage was great and easier to maintain both in the vineyard and winery.

Yes, great.Picking Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from vines in Napa Valley

If you look up ideal conditions for VIRUS VINIFERA in a viticulture textbook-you will see a description of this vintage.

Let’s take temperature for starters.

Balance in weather is just as important as balance in a fine wine.  Vines use photosynthesis to create energy to ripen grapes. Like little solar panels, this is what the leaves are for. Obviously they need sunshine, but this is not enough. For a leaf to achieve photosynthesis, the time and temperature in the sun is extremely important. If temperatures fall below 50 or sail above 95 degrees, photosynthesis shuts down.  And, the leaves need to be the right age (not young little sprouts, but not getting ready to turn colors and fall). So, basically we are looking for these temperatures within a four month window from mid-April to mid-August.

This is exactly what we had this year.

What does this mean for the wine?  High temperatures create high sugars with low acidity in the fruit. If you harvest grapes with these characteristics your resulting wine will be high in alcohol with a high pH – or a flabby, rich, alcoholic wine.  If temperatures are too cool, your fruit doesn’t ripen enough and you harvest grapes with a high level of acidity, which will provide you with a wine that is extremely bright with green characters.

But, this year our temperature was nice and even with few fluctuations. The more even and longer the growing season the more gradually the grapes can ripen. This allows for complex flavors and aromas to develop, and sugars and acid to come into balance.
As in life – balance is the key!