SCHOLIUM PROJECT 2012 MID-HARVEST REPORT: ANNUS MIRABILIS It is truly the annus mirabilis this year. You might have heard it since early summer; the more trepidatious or superstitious among us have hesitated to chime in, but the fact is now undeniable. And what a wonderful, wonderful relief it is for all of us-- but especially for the farmers. The spring was warm and steady, with just enough rain, as if measured by Angels. There were no frosts, and no storms during bloom. Fruit set was sound and bounteous across Northern California. The summer was as warm as summer should be, without heat spikes to fry the fruit. Labor Day came and went, with perfect weather for speedboating on the Sacramento; nowhere close to 100 degrees, nor so cool that ripening stalled. No-- it proceeded apace, with what felt like determination but not haste. As we began harvesting, farmers noticed that their crop estimates were too modest-- perhaps we were all spooked by the devastating harvests of the last two years. Two tons always became three; big vineyards yielded tonnages that seemed to hearken back to a nearly forgotten Golden Age of Yields. Just today, George Vare brought in twice as much Ribolla Gialla than he had predicted. That is a good thing for the whole world. Now let me give you some details to our work: First I must tell you about the interns this year. We have an amazing crew. And the "we" is me and them. Alex is here everyday; Brenna nearly so. Reese (from Florida) began the year with us; then Lara arrived in time to helps us bring in nearly all of our best white vineyards in a fiveday period (she came from North Carolina); March has been here twice already (part of a class at the Harvard Business School; she can clean up the crush pad or scrutinize my balance sheet); Philip is on vacation from his engineering job (he earned 7 patents this summer); Michael and Geren and Grace still to arrive. We accomplish amazing things together. The presses have never produced such excellent juice so quickly (we have generated almost no heavy press this year-- we
seem to nail purely superb quality without waste). We bring in the tons of Sauvignon Blanc that had me afraid of intern exhaustion, and instead we find the crush pad cleaned up in time to catch a merely late-evening beer at the Rockville Inn. A team: a happy and productive team, learning together and accomplishing much. Next, I must speak frankly about ripeness and alcohol levels. All over northern California, winemakers are harvesting fruit at one to three degrees of potential alcohol less than they would in any good, normal, year. It is one of the things that all of us have been discussing most since the beginning of harvest. And in vineyard after vineyard, I have been making the same harvesting decisions that I always have-- and then have seen two to three degrees of potential alcohol less than in any previous year! And at the same time, the quality and quantity of fruit have been truly remarkable. Once he began harvesting, Markus Bokisch found an extra ton of superb hillside Verdelho for us. It was the first wine to go dry and drop its yeast; it has stunning precision and acidity at about 6 weeks of age. And nearly 3 degrees less alcohol than previous wines we have made from the same site. It is the darling of the cellar. Last year, fruit set was so poor that Chuch Harrison could not get us any fruit from Lost Slough; this year, we brought in both Gewurz and Verdelho. Not much of either (preciousness!); but the quality seems to be the highest since 2006. And the wines are at 13.5%, not 16. Growing conditions have been so propitious (and our pruning and shoot-thinning so skillful) that we brought in the highest amount of Glos Sauvignon Blanc we have ever harvested-- even though more than half of the vineyard has been ripped out and replanted (without Sauvignon Blanc) since we made our first vintage! The potential alcohol is 12.5%! We harvested Guman the day after Glos and have the greatest amount of wine from this vineyard since 2006. One vineyard after another-and George Vare's double Ribolla harvest! It is hard to contain our excitement . . . . But what is the reason for this? The higher yields have many causes; to some degree they are due to the plants
springing back from being unburdened by high crop loads for the last two years. And then there has been the absence of frost and inclement weather during bloom. This helps explain yield, but it does not yet explain quality-- or the unexpected combination of high quality and high yields. I think that there is a single factor behind this. High yields can come in several shapes: put simply, there can be a lot of grapes or there can be heavy grapes. Heavy grapes, especially when heavy with water, do not lead to high quality. In general, even with white wines, made without skins, higher quality comes when the surface to volume ratio is smaller rather than greater. This is because the compounds that we depend on most for the flavor and aromas of wine reside in or near the skins of the grapes, not in the juicy sphere between the skin and seeds. Moreover, lots of small grapes can be very good, not in any way necessarily less good, than fewer small grapes. This is why an absolute reference to yields (say, 2 tons to the acre) is meaningless. As with so much else in grapegrowing and winemaking, the essence is not some absolute number (whether vineyard yields, total acid, pH, or alcohol); the essence is balance. I think that the reason that we are seeing an amazing coincidence of quality and quantity this year is because of the high number of clusters, and the high number of little grapes in those clusters. In other words, in a certain sense, the high yields are in fact the cause of the high quality. There is one more factor that is absolutely fundamental to the annus mirabilis we are experiencing this year. Indeed, one aspect of the present Sea Change in Northern California winemaking is the turn, by very accomplished winemakers, to lower and lower levels of potential alcohol. Some are harvesting fruit earlier in the season (perhaps less ripe, or perhaps just less dehydrated); some are moving to new vineyards or new regions where ripeness occurs at lower sugar levels. I am not so much one of these winemakers; I have always sought balance, even if it comes at very high levels of alcohol. And I think that for the most part, I have achieved it. But some of my wines have been real monsters. Never flabby (I treasure the vineyards that I have found in the rather warm regions around me, vineyards that
produce beautifully ripe fruit with very high levels of acidity) and always, I think, offering precision and definition at the same time as power. So why are my wines in particular this year so much lower in alcohol than they have been in the past? The answer is weather. We have learned so much this year about what is possible when we can ripen without heat spikes. I have a theory (which I will discuss with my colleagues this very evening) that goes like this: heat spikes cause dehydration late in the season, but they cause irrigation early in the season. Water is a necessary constituent for sugar; I have always thought that all things being equal, a dry-farmed vineyard will produce wines lower in alcohol than an irrigated vineyard. Some of the growers I respect most share this view. So if the vines can progress all summer without requiring irrigation, they have a chance to ripen fruit with lower potential alcohol (and perhaps with a smaller surface to volume ratio). And if we can watch the grapes reach perfection in the last few weeks of summer without sudden dehydration, then the potential alcohol remains moderate and is not exaggerated by a process completely extraneous to the ripening we seek. This is perhaps the first year in the dozen or so I have spent in California when I have been able to witness this. Ripening without dehydration. An exceptional year-- or a change in climate miraculously in harmony with the sea changes in sommeliers's tastes and winemakers intentions? The harvest is far from done. We have harvested red fruit from only one vineyard: Cinsault from Bechtold in Lodi. We brought this in at the end of August (the wine is wonderful; clear, gentle, seductive). Now all of our red fruit in Napa, Sonoma, Suisun, and Martinez await us. We had a somewhat sudden and unfamiliar incursion of the marine layer today and dark heavy clouds did not lift until 3:30 pm. Rain is forecast for next week. The whole story of this harvest is far from told.