Winemakers’ Nightmare

A winemaker’s nightmare is happening right now in Northern California. A perfect storm, literally. Starting this morning, an early season rain storm moved into the wine growing regions of Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa Counties. This rain event has harried the picking process, stressed out winemakers and growers and all around is causing what was already a tough year to become even more so.

We had a late summer. Some would even say that summer never really arrived, since most our warmest days of the year have actually occurred in autumn. And even at that, those days haven’t really been warm overall. We had an extremely cool spring delaying the start of the growing season and then a freak early June rain event right during the flowering process of the grape vines. Prior to today, all of this has led to a very late harvest. Now, there’s rain.

Rain can be devastating to the grape crop at this time of the year because it causes bunch rot or mold. Moldy grapes are not good, unless you’re making dessert wine and then it’s a different kind of mold altogether. Let’s assume you are not making dessert wine. It takes great grapes to make great wine. In other words, you can’t take good or bad or moldy grapes and make great wine. It just doesn’t happen.

Now there is some time before that mold starts to show up. It’s not instantaneous. So, let’s say it rains for the next three days like it is supposed to. Then after that, we get some relative heat back and wind to dry out the vineyard so the grapes start to mature again. How long should you wait to harvest? Not long. A week, maybe 10 days, maybe two weeks if you’re really watching the crop closely. Grapes can mature a lot in two weeks. But those varietals that are still 3-4 weeks away from actual ripeness will either be picked early and augmented in the cellar or be left on the vines to rot. Either way, there are compromises.

Yesterday we took a drive through several different growing regions of Sonoma County and I saw many vineyards being mechanically harvested. I also saw many vineyards being prepared to be mechanically harvested. This is not a common sight in Sonoma County. Most of the grapes, most years are hand-picked. But with many wineries wanting to get their grapes in before the rain, there were only so many hands available.

A lot of people are against mechanical harvesting. I’m not sure why. In fact, I saw a question floating around on social media recently asking is great wine could be made with mechanical harvesting. I think the answer is yes. However, there must be some really good sorting tables back at the crush pad because the harvesters pick a lot of what’s called MOG, Materials Other than Grapes. Leaves and stems among the most common. Just a few percent of these MOG’s in the crusher and fermentation tanks can change the entire taste of a wine. The problem is here in Sonoma and Napa, most wineries aren’t equipped with the proper sorting tables and will likely have to hire staff quickly to sort properly.

So, what can be done? Nothing really. I’m sure most wineries will be pulling in their grapes in the days that come, ready or not. All this really means is with the 2011 vintage, the consumer will have to make educated decisions about which wines are the best to consume from which areas. I will go back to previous statements in that most wines will probably have lower alcohol levels this year. They might produce more ‘green’ characteristics too. Overall though, it’s still too early to tell what the overall outcome will be.

It’s also a reminder that Mother Nature is in charge. Growing grapes is like almost any other crop, completely dependent on the weather.  And if my mom has taught me nothing, she has taught me this: We can only focus on the things that are in our control. Rain falling out of the sky is not in our control. We can’t worry about it. All we can do is prepare and hope for the best.


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