A Balanced Vintage – Part III – Water

Water is important to all life.

Plants and animals are comprised mostly of water and can live only a very short time without it.

Drop of water on a grapeleaf.

If you feel like a slave to your lawn’s water bill each summer you know what I’m talking about.  So, have you ever wondered how “dry” farming works, or how some regions survive where they are not allowed to irrigate?

The key is in the balance, and tenacity, of the vine.  A vine wants to make grapes with juicy berries around the seeds so birds will eat them and propagate the seeds miles away.  But, if a vine has too much water, it will expend excess energy after the grapes are ripe. The result will be extra shoots and leaves, or what we call “vigorous” growth.  This cause an overly bushy vine that stops sunlight from reaching the grapes for ripening, and in many cases also causes a vegetal – or “green” taste in the grapes.

Any good bartender will tell you that watered down drinks completely change the taste, texture and concentration of a drink.  Just like your tomatoes in your garden will split if they get too plump, a fat, watered-down grape cluster will taste watered-down and are a feast for mold and mildew.

This past vintage we saw little rain, and it avoided crucial times. These crucial times are Lucas Farmer of Euclid Wine in Napa Valley“flowering”, when the grapes offer up delicate lacy flowers to the bees.  If spring rains wash away the pollen the vines are left without fruit for the vintage. Another crucial time is at the end of the summer when the grapes are large and tightly clustered when they’re particularly susceptible to mildew. Lucikly – it stayed dry through both of these phases.

If done right, the vines are left to struggle slightly and put as much energy as possible into the grapes, keeping the green leaves in check yet not watering down the grapes.

A very delicate balance… and that is just what we had this vintage.

Man Vs. Vine

So, I just finished a three part series on the 2012 vintage covering temperature water and pests.

Another dichotomy in the wine business is, typically,  when you have a lot of something it Lucas Farmer of Euclid Wine in Napa Valleyisn’t that good, but that is not the case with this vintage. We had such a balanced vintage that we got good juice… and a lot of it.  So, we can expect some wineries to sell juice off in bulk if they’re over capacity.

To me, however, it is what happens after the vineyard is that is the most important part of the winemaking process.

There are many purists that wax poetic about the expression of terroir and insist a winemaker be minimally involved… but, who are we kidding?  Even the most staunch biodynamic vineyard owner manipulates the vines with pruning and canopy management and soil additions. I don’t believe there is a commercial vineyard in the world that just “lets the ground express itself.”

I mean, really, the only thing that is truly natural is a weed.

What winemakers face are a multitude of choices in the vineyard, only to have the real fun begin when the juice is fermented and ready for barrel.

The barrel aging and blending part is the true art of winemaking in my opinion.  Barrels are a winemaker’s spice rack.  Some are toasty and sweet, others are bitter and fresh and herbaceous.  The combinations are endless.

Mike Farmer in Euclid Winery Performing Barrel Tasting

I’m known for big spreadsheets.  My Dad taught me, “If you fail to plan you plan to fail.”  Like a chef playing with recipes, I find true joy in experimenting with different juice lots in different barrels and then different toast levels in either new, once or twice-used barrels.

A question I get all the time is “what are you aiming for?” I believe there are many strategies to answer this. Your winery may have a “house style” that your customers have come to expect. Or, you may be looking to please a certain type of customer, price-point, food pairing or award critic.

I, personally, look for deliciousness.

I try to make wine that I believe tastes good. The final blend can be complex sets of formulas in excel, but hopefully it is just as complex and excels in the mouth!

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!

The Grass is always Greener

Napa is definitely not the most exciting place to grow up.

As soon as I graduated high school I did some traveling abroad, and one of the many things I learned was that the places that I fell in love with reminded me of home. I realized that I took my hometown for granted. I now take the time to really enjoy the opportunity and beauty that this valley offers.

Lucas Farmer of Euclid Wine in Napa Valley