Winter 2017 Newsletter
Farmers Insurance has been running a series of ads for some time now. Each one has a bizarre scenario for filing claims and then they say, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two”. That could have been my motto as I headed into my 39th vintage and the winery’s 50th. However, I have never seen anything quite like this last year. It began with record rainfall and finished with the most disastrous fire storms in state history.
The rain was a welcome relief after several years of extreme drought. It rained, and rained, and rained, finally finishing in April. While we were under no illusions about it erasing the drought, it certainly eased it, at least for this year. Streams that had been nearly dry began to run full and clear again. The native flora sprang back to life. Wildflowers bloomed in profusion. Native shrubs and trees once again looked healthy and vibrant, and our vines acted as if they were never going to stop growing.
This caused excessive shoot growth, which we ameliorated by thinning and shoot positioning (tucking shoots vertically between wires). We usually see very little second crop, but this year it was ubiquitous. I fully expected to see a delayed harvest due to the persistent vegetative growth, but several periods of extreme heat seemed to move things along.
We began to worry that the vines would “forget” to go into their normal ripening mode where shoot tip growth stops and the vines turn their energy toward ripening. The temptation was to pick by numbers rather than flavor. With actively growing vines you usually don’t have ripe flavors and aromas, often dogged with green-tea character. To avoid this, we decided to hold out for true flavor maturity and, hopefully, better balance. However, Mother Nature had other plans.
At the end of August and into early September, near record heat ensued and there was a rush to harvest throughout the area. We were determined to wait until the last possible moment to call the pick to ensure that we received the fruit at the exact moment when the flavors and balance were attained. However, our best-laid plans ran head on into something that I should have seen coming. There simply was not enough labor.
Too many vineyards, too few people, too many competing needs for the pickers. Vineyard managers who had scheduled picks had to scramble, when half their people showed up. In some cases, whole crews would leave when someone else would offer them a better opportunity. The reasons for this are many but to say it was disheartening doesn’t do it justice. At one point, facing the potential loss of a very special lot of grapes, I was almost ready to call it a career. The next day, three of our neighbors all growers, along with Ted, Lynn and I and an opera singer friend who was opening that night with the San Francisco opera(!), descended and began to pick. It reminded me of what the old timers often told me. In their day, when harvest came, whether it was grapes, apples, prunes, or pears, schools would close and they would be out with their families bringing in the harvest. While I have no illusions about those days ever returning it was heartening to see such support when we needed it most.
The rest of harvest was just about as difficult. Vineyard managers had their crews booked as long as two weeks in advance and even that wasn’t a guarantee that they would show. In the end, however, it all seems to have worked out. We ended up with some pretty amazing wines, although we ended up doing more winemaking than we are accustomed to. This definitely was not a laid back, hands off year!
Then, just when we thought our difficult days were behind us, with just two vineyards left to pick, disaster struck on the night of Sunday October 8 and the morning of the 9th. I was delivering bins to Bastoni Vineyard, located on Riebli Road, just off of Mark West Station Road in Fountain Grove AVA, late Sunday evening. I heard on the radio that the area was under a red flag alert for extreme fire danger. In the middle of the night our neighbors woke us up. Fast moving fires were heading our way. We had no phone, no television and no Internet. Our cell phone didn’t seem to be working. We went across the street to the neighbor’s house, and, from the upstairs deck of their tank house, we watched in horror as the entire horizon to the east was engulfed in flames. We could hear the explosions from propane tanks, car gas tanks and ruptured gas lines. The only news we could get was on the radio and it was often contradictory as the flames were moving at unprecedented speed.
It was clear that Bastoni Vineyard was in peril. Even though the fire had jumped the freeway at River Road to the east of us, the vineyards formed a firebreak and it never spread to us. Sadly, many friends and colleagues were not so lucky. Even those not directly in the path of the fire had their wineries cordoned off by the authorities and even if they were able to sneak in the power was shut down. Some winemakers went to extreme lengths to sneak past the lines to take care of the wines in the fermenters, and saved their wines. For us, we never lost electricity but did have to deal with choking smoke for more than a week. It was a small price to pay considering what could have been.
When I was finally able to get into Bastoni Vineyard so I could tell the insurance company honestly that the crop was lost, I was amazed and grateful to see Martha and Russ’s home was still standing! A miracle aided and abetted by one of their vineyard workers and a nearby neighbor who sprayed water from a back pack sprayer and a water truck on burning structures next to their house, preventing the spread to the house itself. Although their crop was lost their vineyard should recover to produce fruit next year.
The VHSR Redux Zinfandel was picked soon after the fire erupted. We even had a little more fruit than usual (just over a ton!). Smoke taint is always an issue but it is caused by smoke borne compounds that enter the grape skins and get bound to sugars. We found no evidence of it in the grapes nor have we noticed any in the resulting wine.
On a more positive note, we are once again making Gewürztraminer from Saralee’s Vineyard! Our friends in the Kendall Jackson universe finally prevailed on management to allow us to make wine from these special grapes once again. It is great to be “The Rodfather”! In addition, we made another special wine, a pinot noir from a very famous wineries estate vineyard. We swapped a small amount of fruit with them to be able do this. This is the first time in the history of either winery that our respective estate fruit has been off of the property. The working name of the project is Three Birds. I haven’t had the chance to taste their version yet, but ours is pretty outstanding. It will most like be bottled within the next year and held for at least a year before release. They have told me that they have similar plans for theirs as well. The project will be officially announced at some point in the future.
Thank you for all of your support for us over the years. And a happy, peaceful and loving holiday season to you and everyone around you!
Rod (aka “The Rodfather”), Cody, Ted, Debra, and Lynn