Welcome to the 2012 Harvest Halftime Show…

Full Tanks Oct 01, 2012Yes, that’s right—it’s the second week of October and I think we are about halfway through the harvest. So far I have brought in 32 tons of Pinot Noir from our Estate vineyard, and drips and dabs of a few other varieties, mostly for customers. By comparison, this is at the tonnage (or more) than I brought in for all varieties in every vintage since 2007. Partly this is due to seven acres of young vines that we cropped for the first time this year, but the big news of the 2012 vintage is that, across the North Coast, for all varieties brought in so far, nearly without exception, the crop load is unexpectedly heavy.

Forthwith, here’s some bullet points on what I believe will define 2012:

  • Grapes are coming in at 50% over estimates. Anybody who tells you different is lying. The culprit here is mother nature, not “greedy growers.” Nobody planned to hang this kind of tonnage. We thinned to set cluster counts per vine as we always do, and for whatever reason the cluster weights just blew up.
  • Despite the heavier-than-expected crop loads, quality is outstanding—the best I’ve seen since 2007: excellent physiological ripeness, thick deeply-colored skins, high seed content, and intense flavors.
  • The weather has been as perfect as the weather can be. It has been dry, cool, warm when we needed it, and dry. Did I mention that it’s been dry? Dry is good. Unlike 2009, 2010 and 2011 we have absolutely zero rot. So far. (But it’s only halftime, so “shhhhhhh.”)
  • The cool, dry weather has meant long hang time. This has led to moderately low acids (unlike the high acids in 2003 and 2007) but with better tartaric/malic balance than in recent years, relatively low potassium levels and decent pH levels—all amenable to judicious adjustment.
  • The heavy crop correlates with lower than average juice nutrient levels: there’s only so much nitrogen to go around, and when the crop comes in heavy the levels of ammonia and assimilable nitrogen are lower. Winemakers that are not feeding their ferments are going to run into trouble, especially if they are relying on feral yeasts to do the job.
  • The heavy crop correlates with other things—logistical things. First we ran into labor shortages. The industry relies on migrant labor. The poor economy has meant fewer migrants, which means we have to rely on the smaller pool of skilled permanent residents to manage a larger harvest. Add to this gas prices north of $4.50/gallon and it’s no surprise that the crews are going for the picks where the biggest money is. Several times so far this harvest I have had to delay bringing in fruit because my crew decided they would rather jump on a 20-ton pick before my 8-ton pick. The driver for the decision on when to pick went from “are the grapes ready?” to “is there a crew and equipment available?”
  • The labor situation has turned around a little since the start of harvest. The heavy crop has meant that growers have been delivering well over contracted tonnages, unless the wineries have been adamant about only taking the contracted amounts. And ripening has been bunched up: for example, Chardonnay and Cabernet are both coming in right now, which is unusual. What this has led to is no empty fermenters in either valley for the time being. Many of us, myself included, have grapes ready to pick but no place to put them.
  • And these delays in picking mean that the fruit that is going to be coming in over the next couple weeks, as we free up fermenter space, is going to have higher sugars than we might prefer. Remember how all the cool kids were blathering on for the last couple of years about how “alcohol levels are coming down”? Well, they are going back up.

And that’s about it from the trenches.

We are starting to press and barrel down some of the best Pinot we have ever made over the next couple days. The band and cheerleaders are coming off the field, and by next week we will have the team back out there, bringing in grapes as fast as we can manage: Tannat, then Syrah, then Mourvedre, then Grenache, and finishing with Counoise. Wish us luck, and pray for more dry weather.