Nathan Halverson’s article in the Press Democrat on Tuesday gave voice to a concern and conversation raging around Northern California. Cool temperatures and late rains into the spring already delayed bud break in many vineyards and the continued moderate mid day highs are doing little to help the vines catch up. For delicate skinned grapes like Pinot Noir, there is the grave fear of mold if the grape are still hanging when the fall rains begin. The same is true of Chardonnay where even a few spores of botrytis can multiply beyond control, in some cases inside the cluster where it is not even readily visible. These are concerns for Cabernet Sauvignon producers as well, though the thick skins make them less susceptible. The biggest concern is ripeness – bringing the tannins and fruit into balance before the suns arc lies too low on the horizon, or the incessant rains force people to get the fruit off the vines.
I noted a tweet earlier in the week of verasion in merlot at Frediani Vineyard just east of Calisotga, but Cabernet producers up and down the valley are scratching their heads and laying out plans for diligent and aggresive vineyard management.
As luck would have it, I spotted Meteor Vineyard manager Mike Wolf strolling around block 3 this morning – a perfect opportunity to get his thoughts. His decade long history of vineyard management in Napa Valley entails myriad scenarios, and he is quick to point out that every season has its peculiarities and unique circumstances.
“I have heard several people already compare 2010 to 1998, which was one of the most maligned and misunderstood vintages of the last 20 years.” Indeed, in retrospect, many of the wines from the 1998 vintage are fascinating expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon with vibrant acids and tannins allowing for graceful aging.
Perhaps his most telling comment was one of process.
“We may have to get a little Draconian.”
And here lies the essence. It is vintages like 1998 that separate out the great producers from the middling. Tough decisions are made and implemented. Anyone can make a great wine in a vintage like 2007 (I was going to say 97 but then thought of all of the pruny and overripe wines where there really was need of intervention) – who will stand out in a vintage like 2010?
The vineyard team is making its first green harvest pass now, and I expect to see several more as the months wear on…
In winemaking we measure our experience not in years, but in the number of vintages. Between Bill & I, throwing in the odd harvest in the Southern Hemisphere and Europe, we count over 80 collective harvests.
In that time we have seen a number of advances and developments, from the vineyard to the winery. Parsing apart what makes truly great wine is to ponder the evolution of these changes, what separates true advances in winemaking & grape growing from trend and fad.
Over the years perception has shifted broadly. Sugar levels at harvest have risen and sunk, only to rise again. The use of oak barrels has carried cries of superiority from France to Hungary to the United States, with ever increasing prices and ever less expensive alternatives like oak chips finding their way into event he least expensive mass market brands. Even how we define and describe varietal character has ranged widely during our time; indeed, many would argue that our perception of quality itself has shifted, with particular wine styles scored highly in the wine press (converting to sales) while other styles are largely left out of the media discussion and left lonely on wine store shelves.
In the 70s growers were rewarded, more directly than today, for high sugars… the higher the better. In the 80s, with the near “death by late harvesting” of Zinfandel (and a growing anti alcohol lobby), we looked to Europe and contemplated the role of wine as food. Then in the fast paced 90s, high sugar again became a major part of the fine wine equation, and, at least in Cabernet, we developed a pathological fear of any plant based character that was green or tannic.
Throughout this time, a profound amount of research emerged from places like UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux. We gained a better understanding of even ripeness in the vineyard and the powerful impact of green seed & stem tannins. Vineyard managers began mapping vineyard sites and matching clones to contour, rootstock to soil type – in addition to developing advanced trellising techniques aimed at tempering the effect of warm climates and maximizing the sun exposure of more marginal regions. Here is Napa, as phylloxera continued its “lousy” march through Napa Valley’s vineyards, many growers took the positive approach and adopted these advances with a fervor.
What starts in the vineyard plays out in our choices of winery equipment. A melange of new “advanced” and cutting edge equipment entered the winery; from destemmers to presses, from multi sized temperatured controlled stainless steel tanks to the now de-rigour sorting tables enabling the hand sorting of fruit.
Yet, with all of these advances, it remains an open question whether or not we have done ourselves any favors with the squeaky clean, virus free plant material and sophisticated winery tools. The great debate about ripeness, and the variation of styles from the 40’s until today, has never reconciled into a cohesive definition of perfect wines. If anything, the “advances” have led to increased debate. Traditionalists, extolling the virtues of the great 28 vintage in Bordeaux, the legendary wines of Inglenook from the 40s and 50s, decry the uniformity of the wines from the great vintages (and here I am thinking about 2000 in Bordeaux and 1997 in Napa Valley). Modernists assert the preference of market driven wines for accesability, for plush tannins and fruit driven styles. The modern wine press, whose scores drive the bulk of the high end wine market, side on the latter.
Yet, in the world of fine and rare wine, are we not all trying to achieve a form of perfection? Whose perfection?
If we prune and farm for even ripeness, identifying the moment of optimal ripeness is a matter of much debate. For some it comes as the seeds begin to harden and brown, for others it is not until the grapes raisin on the vine. Berkeley chef, Paul Bertolli, devotes a chapter in his book Cooking by Hand on ripeness and his philosophical approach appeals to me … in it he says such things as “… the state of ripeness may amount to only minutes, hours or days in the garden (it’s a little longer for grapes). Or a few years in a years in a human life, yielding to the winding down of function, decay, and eventual dissolution.” “…intensity is the hallmark of ripeness, the culmination of growth and experience. But ripeness is not simply the reward for waiting nor is it necessarily guaranteed. The precondition of ripeness is maturity, which in turn can only come about through the right kind of development along the way. Ripeness, then is one of the naturally fortunate outcomes of life.”(p 30)
How do you decide what is right? If you believe in terroir, than it is situational and there will be a “best practice” for each vineyard. But there is the collective aspect as well… how else do you explain Amarone or Champagne, where technique has been raised to prominence over fruit. Do Napa Valley Cabernets now fall into that category where technique (oak levels, jammy, almost sweet fruit) has become an important identifier for wines?
For us at Meteor Vineyard, the final blending of 2008 will unfold this month. The fruit in barrel is the careful amalgamation of best practices from every era. On the modern, is the carefully selected clones and rootstocks planted by Mike Wolf. Purposeful trellising maximizing the long temperate growing season of the Meteor Vineyard hillside, diligent work in the vineyard throughout the cycle farming for uniform ripeness while recognizing the unique nature of each clone, each block, each row – and ultimately each vine. From there we, as wine makers, are largely shepherds, a practice as old as organized community – flagging harvest at a moment when the natural acids of Coombsville meld with the rich fruit characters of Cabernet Sauvignon and the natural tannin structure of the grape. No excessive extraction, diligent use of new barrels (around 50%) and 18 to 20 months in barrel to round out the wines.
Perhaps that is the wisdom of 80 harvests and the ease of working with a perfect site. The great wines have always come from the land, we, as viticulturalists and winemakers are simply here to help them along.
Coombsville’s unique placement offers the elements for perfect cabernet.
The Coombsville region’s eponymous name comes from a Napa founding father, Nathan Coombs, whose historic land holdings in the city’s southeastern neighborhood have led to common usage of his name for the area. Winegrowers are unified in their recognition of the unique geographical characteristics of this region. The soils are a mélange resulting from various geological events. They include volcanic debris and lava flows from the ancient eruption of Mt. George, distinct from the alluvial soils along the Napa River. Other parent materials are derived from marine sediments and stream deposition of cobbled rock. Through uplifting, weathering, and faulting a mix of well-drained and mineral rich soil has developed throughout and is characteristic of the district.
Cabernet Sauvignon requires warm soils to properly ripen, and Coombsville’s well drained volcanic soils soak up the summer’s heat. Equally important is the area’s distinct micro-climate, resulting from its topography and proximity to San Pablo Bay. The fog typically burns off here earlier than in Carneros to the south, ensuring ample heat and sunshine, but afternoon winds arrive earlier than in Stags Leap District to the north. The result is that summer days are warm, but the daily maximum temperature is of unusually short duration. This temperate profile provides an extended growing season, allowing the slow and even ripening so crucial to Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
To date fifteen AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) within the Napa Valley have received official recognition by the U.S. Treasury. This regulatory agency protects a wine production area’s integrity by enforcing varietal and wine growing criteria. It also controls that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle. Coombsville’s legitimate claim to such status has been held up in a mire of political disputes, but there is renewed vigor among producers of the area banding together to push the proposal forward.
Meteor Vineyard’s location in the Coombsville region combines the area’s coastal influence and warm, well-draining volcanic cobble and soils. Those benefits, and Meteor’s 500-foot elevation help produce densely flavored, luscious fruit that is crafted into a perfect expression of the finest Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Linda Viviani excels at providing her clients access to some of the most exciting wineries in Northern California. In this video she speaks with Tracy Schuler about finding the property that is now Meteor Vineyard and the elements that make it such a unique and compelling place.
Fall in the wine country is always serene. The grapes are in the winery, the leaves are slowly changing color and the sunlight feels more refracted and diffuse. The manic nature of harvest feels long ago, and the vines move incrementally toward a period of winter slumber. I was taking a quick respite this afternoon while talking to a buyer in Las Vegas and had to stop and marvel at the pristine natural beauty.
It’s that time and the grapes have been coming in almost every night. Yesterday our very special plot of Clone 7 Cabernet Sauvignon was picked. These “artisans of the field” have tended to every vine during the season. Trimmed, dropped fruit, made the tough decisions over which clusters would stay on the vine during growing season to concentrate flavors in a purposefully selected yield of fruit. Most of these folks have been tending to our vineyard since it was planted a decade ago.
When the time to pick comes, it is done with grace and speed, not to get a tedious job done, but to get from vine to crush as soon as is possible.
No musical accompaniment to this little video clip would do it justice.
Yesterday the last of our Cabernet was picked. A long leisurely harvest season this year punctuated with a short monsoon this week. No harm as little of the fruit was left and they rode out the storm perfectly. Last night we were presented with this picturesque sunset highlighting the launch of the vines transition to Autumn.
I’ve grown used to the bittersweet feeling of staring at the post-harvest vineyard freshly bare of fruit. It’s like sending your child off to kindergarten. One era ends and a new one begins brimming with potential. And so, with all of the Meteor Vineyard fruit safely picked and crushed, the 2009 Vintage journey begins.
2009 Harvest Summary
The 2009 harvest ended on Saturday October 17 as we scurried to bring in the last block of Cab before rain hit again on Monday. What had been a near perfect growing season turned ugly when over 3 inches of rain fell in one day- not in itself a bad thing, but what followed was several days with humidity over 70%- perfect conditions for botrytis and mold.
At Meteor we had 3/4 of the fruit in before this weather event and made the decision to leave the last block, clone 4 in the vineyard for that last little ripening that turns beast to beauty. Clone 4 always benefits from a little extra “hang time” to smooth it’s rather aggressive tannins and under normal circumstances, a little rain is a non issue.
The balance of the vineyard was picked on Oct 10, a full week earlier, when rain threatened to bring our leisurely late summer to an abrupt close. We started to see complete evolution of flavor and ripe tannin around Oct 5th, but with gently temperatures and little sugar accumulation felt no sense of urgency and squeezed every last bit of flavor from the season. And with rain predicted for the 12th, we pulled the trigger on the clone 7 and 337. Picked at night, the cool fruit was delivered to the waiting destemmer in pristine conditions.
Our partially tamed beast (clone 4) weathered the storm well, but we chose not to tempt fate by leaving it thru a 2nd storm and brought it in. All the blocks are fermenting separately and bring unique elements to the blending… this year we have a tremendous palate to work with.
The final Meteor harvest news is the addition of just under a ton of Petit Verdot. 0.5 acres was eked out of the property and planted in 2004*. Until now the young vineyard has been, well, a young vineyard with all it’s unruly characteristics. This year the Meteor team made the decision to bring it into our fold and it looks beautiful. At this time we’re not sure exactly how we’re going to use it, but in thinking about our 2 wines, it’s potential to be the perfect spice is compelling.
Overall season characteristics at Meteor
1. even bloom
2. long, slow season
3. high pHs (universal in Napa this year)
4. majority picked before the major weather event
Harvest always forces winemakers (and wine lovers) into a game of comparisons. The singular character of a vintage is dependent on an incalculable array of variables; from sunlight hours to rainfall, from the gradations of temperature to the frequency and intensity of wind, from the decisions to green harvest to the agonizing judgment of sending in the crew to pull the fruit from the vine.
The 2009 vintage was incredibly even until the freakish storm that swept in mid-October. But that was nothing compared to the disparate conditions of 2008. Barry refers to it as the year of Fire and Ice.
While harvest is already in swing around Napa Valley for Pinot and white grapes. We are weeks away, particularly in our temperate hilltop at Meteor Vineyard. But time to check in and get a baseline on the physical maturity, brix and a little taste of the berries.
Clusters are plentiful but looking a bit light on berries.
For those not familiar with premium Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, we grow the grape, or berries in viticulture “speak” to be small and highly concentrated in flavor.
We pay particular attention to the seeds and the “jacket” of fruit around it. a mature berry will have a brown seed and no jellied fruit clinging to it. we are weeks away right now as you can see.
And finally a quick take on sugar content or brix. Here is where my handy pocket refractometer is great for a quick read, although our various winemakers and viticulturists will do it the more traditional way. 22.1 ripe for Bordeaux and waiting 10 years to drink, but not even close for Napa’s finest.