2014 Vintage Looking Good!

grapesRight now we have just about finished veraison, or the turning of the grapes from green to red that signals the start of onset of ripening.  This is a significant development milestone for grapes as it indicates how the flavors and sugars are developing and when harvest might begin.  We are early with veraison this year, which makes sense because we had the earliest bud break since the mid-90’s this spring.  This also means we’ll have an early harvest.

For all of you who have read articles or posts on “hang time” and are thinking an early harvest might adversely affect wine quality; think again.  Early harvests are historically better vintage years.  And, in truth, it takes roughly the same amount of time for a vine to go from bud to mature fruit every year – it just varies how early or late in the season it starts and finishes.  In years when the season starts late so harvest is pushed into October, there is the risk of rains, disease such as leaf curl, and cold weather setting in.  All these factors hurt the wine quality.  Thus, when we can pick mature fruit while the sun is warm and the weather dry, we have better quality fruit.

Many have been asking me if the drought is affecting the vineyards.  Unlike our friends in central and Southern California, Northern California vineyards are doing just fine.  We had two big storms this spring that filled our reservoirs and we’re seeing average yields this vintage.

For the second half of the year we will be focusing on canopy management. This is a process where we remove shoot laterals (the vines that strike outward) to allow gentle dappled, sunlight to reach the ripening grapes.  We don’t want too much sunlight or they will raisin, but too little sunlight won’t promote ripening.  We will also likely do a pass and drop some fruit in congested clusters to keep airflow and sunlight all around the clusters.  These adjustments will help us get the best quality fruit leading into harvest.

Overall, we’re looking at a fantastic year in the vineyard.

Harvest Update – Picking has Begun

Many of our friends have asked us how the 2013 harvest is going.

In our area, the 2013 vintage has been rushed. We were treated to an early budbreak this spring, followed by verasion (the changing of grapes from green to red) a full three to four weeks early this summer.

Early Harvest? 2013 harvest for wineries has begun in Napa Valley

Now, many of our neighbors that harvest white or Pinot Noir are well into harvest. But for us, we have just begun to pick Cabernet Sauvignon on Howell Mountain. and our Syrah vines aren’t quite there yet.

Howell Mountain benefits from a high elevation, bringing the grapes closer to the sun, so we’re a few weeks ahead of the red varietals on the valley floor.  This mountain appellation also gets more heat, and cooler nights than the valley, bringing the fruit into balance.  So, we have started picking.  To do this we look at the sugar contents of various bunches, as they can vary row by row depending on the sun exposure and water positioning.  When they reach the ideal level, we coordinate a hand-picking and sorting.

From here, the grapes go into a cold soak to stabilize them, and then into fermentation.

2013 Predictions

Wine grapes from harvest on the conveyor
We are very happy with the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit this year.  It is exhibiting many of the terroir characteristics we have come to look for in this area – a rich, round, creamy and silky mid-palate, overtones of tropical fruit with a base of dark chocolate.  2013 should be a lovely Cabernet vintage.

Up next…the Syrah.

If you’re traveling to Northern California this fall – let us know – we’d love to give you a glimpse of this year’s fruit and taste some wine.

Let’s Go Streaking….

I’ve always been a leg man.

A gorgeous set of legs will get me excited every time. I’ll just want to lick every last bit.

Streaks on a glass of wine can can tell you how the wine will taste and old the wine is.

I’m talking about the legs in a glass of wine. (Where did you think I was going with that?)

It always amuses me to watch tourists and locals at the bar swirling and looking at the wine slowly run down the glass. Known as “legs”, these hypnotizing drips say a lot about a wine, but very few know how to interpret them.

We are visual creatures. We seek mates, food, entertainment and, yes, wine with our eyes.  (Our sight center in our brain is also closest to the verbal center, which is why we can describe yellow in a hundred ways, but have a hard time describing what a peach smells, or tastes, like). So, we naturally will probably notice the color. The color can give you and indication of how the wine will taste and old the wine is.

glassesA bright wine is young, versus a browned wine, which may be old (or prematurely oxidized as a defect). If the white wine has a greenish tinge, chances are it will be on the more acidic, or herbaceous, side, versus fruity. A butte-colored wine has seen oak and will seem fuller in the mouth and creamier. A dark stained red that leaves purple tears has a lot of phenolics floating around (those good things that help your heart) and a red that runs down the glass  quickly and doesn’t leave a stain is likely a more fruity wine.

The second thing you’ll notice is how fast those little legs are running down the glass, or viscosity.This indicates either sweetness, or alcohol. Since our brain interprets alcohol as sweetness, this is sometimes hard to separate.  But if you have a dessert wine, it should be more viscous in the glass. If you have a 15% alcohol Zinfandel from the Central Valley, you should see a similar effect.

So, the next time you are absent-mindedly twirling your wine at the bar, observe the legs and see if you can get a profile for what the wine will taste like before you enjoy it… then see if you were right.

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