Category Archives: Weather

2014 Bloom Progress

May 15, 2014 Syrah 100 May 15th and we are at the end of a string of near-100° days — a pattern that has set in for the time being here in the North Bay: 3-4 hot days followed by 3-4 cooler, “normal” days. The picture above illustrates the start of bloom in the Syrah at our Estate vineyard. I also noticed a few flowers in the Roussanne and the Cabernet. No flowers yet in the Tannat, while the Mourvèdre and the Counoise look to be weeks away yet.

All the cane-pruned blocks of Pinot are in full bloom, though I don’t see any set and beginning of berry sizing in any of them. I speculate that the heat is holding back development a little. About half of the clusters in the cordon-pruned Pinot are in flower, compared to none five days ago. The big surprise for me was to see that about half of the clusters in the Grenache are flowering:
May 15, 2014 Grenache As my daughter would say, comically and with a full understanding of how silly it sounds when others say it (thankfully!) “that’s totes cray-cray!

Flowering — The Real Start To Vintage 2014

May 10, 2014 PN90 flowering Today I’m calling flowering in all the cane-pruned Pinot Noir at the Estate vineyard. It surprised me to see that the heritage Pinot selections including the Pinot Liébault (Haynes selection) are ahead of the Dijon clone Pinot 943. The 943 is usually the earliest ripening clone on the site.

I found a couple flowers in the cordon-pruned clone 777 but I couldn’t find a flower in the older cordon blocks (Pinot clones 115 and 667) that has lost a cap yet. The Viognier has also started to bloom, but the Roussanne is still closed tight — as are the Tannat and all the Rhône varieties.

Today was a windy day. We have started to put up the canopy catch wires, but I still saw a couple shoots that the wind had popped out of their sockets. May 10, 2014 PN667 shoot breakage

Another Big Crop Year?

Apr 14, 2014 PN-CVSWe are having a run of lovely, mild, quiet weather just now: day/night temperatures in the mid- to high-70s/mid-40s, morning coastal low clouds and fog burning off by midday, light breezes. This weather is predicted to last through the weekend, with just the hint of possibility of a rainy front pushing through at the 10-day forecast limit.

Walking through the vineyard yesterday I was struck by how fruitful our Pinot is looking just now. The cluster primordia (seen in the photo above, more in my Twitter/Instagram streams) in the young-vine cane-pruned blocks are enormous, with wings on wings in some cases, mostly two clusters per shoot, and frequently two shoots per bud. It looks like 2012 and 2013 all over again.

A large crop three years in a row would be unprecedented in my experience. I’m <ahem> “interested” to see if the cumulative effect of the past two heavy crops and the very dry conditions December-February lead to massive flowering failure — somehow “worried” is simultaneously too strong and too weak to describe how I really feel.

The Syrah and Tannat are not looking anywhere near as fructiferous as the Pinot at this time, but they are several weeks behind — and the Syrah especially has fooled me before, with the crop ending up much heavier than early-season cluster evaluation led me to expect. I am surprised at how far along the Grenache is this year. At this time its development appears to be between that of the Pinot and the Syrah. Grenache primordia counts are low but they look to end up as really big clusters.

No surprise to me that the Counoise is barely budded out at this time. What really IS a surprise is that the Mourvèdre is behind the Counoise, with only 20% of vines showing even a hint of green. Up to now the Mourvèdre at the Estate has budded out between the Syrah and the Grenache. My only conjecture is that it has been delayed by the dry winter, as the Mourvèdre block is planted on our shallowest soil with the lowest water-holding capacity. I have no idea what this weird timing of bud emergence may mean for either the Grenache or the Mourvèdre this year.

My grape broker emailed me this morning: “Buyers are in a holding pattern currently because crop has potential again. If everything sets this year, at this point it is looking very similar to last year’s record breaking crop.” The word on the street is that La Crema (owned by Jackson Family Wines, producing 850,000 cases annually) does not plan to renew contracts this year for Pinot here in the North Coast — they are reportedly shifting focus to Oregon — which means there will be that much extra Pinot on the market.

Part of me is hoping for a massive flowering failure. Everywhere else.

Rites of Spring

Mar 14, 2014 View From TopHere we are, a few days into spring, and the vineyard is still looking pretty bare, while the vines in Carneros already have a couple inches of growth on them. The crew finished pruning and tying at our Estate vineyard about a week ago.

The young, cane-pruned Pinot next to the highway has started to pop (this is in the clone 91 “Pommard”): Mar 14, 2014 PN91 …but the rest of the block is still barely woolly. It used to be that the Tannat at the top of the slope was my “canary in the coal mine” indicating budbreak was imminent:

Mar 14, 2014 Tannat Old VineMar 14, 2014 Tannat Young Vine

…but only one vine up the hill — the young, cane-pruned replacement on the right — has popped, while the older vines in the rest of the block look like the vine on the left.

As a matter of course, our cane-pruned vines are trained to two canes and two renewal spurs (double-Guyot pruning) which looks like this older vine of Pinot clone 943: Mar 14, 2014 PN943 Double Guyot This pruning works well for our Dijon clones and the young vines of the heritage selection Pinots — the vines are well-balanced between crop and canopy. However over the last couple vintages we have discovered that the Haynes selection of Pinot (which we think may be a mutation known as Pinot Liébault) is more vigorous than the other Pinot Noir selections at the vineyard. We have decided we need to set an extra cane to help dissipate this vigor, meaning we had to stretch a new fruit wire to support the extra wood, as seen below:
Mar 14, 2014 PN-HVS 3-canesWe’ll see if this works for us. If the crop load ends up too heavy for the site, we will treat the third cane as a “kicker” and remove it after berry sizing and before veraison.

Endings & New Beginnings

There seem to be an unusual number of changes happening around here right now, big and small, that leave me unsettled. Bob Cabral is leaving Williams Selyem to do who knows what. I met Bob way back when he was winemaker at Alderbrook and his wife worked with me at Vinquiry.

Steve Heimhoff suddenly announced that he is leaving Wine Enthusiast to go to work for Jackson Family Wines as director of communications and wine education. Steve has been working as an independent wine reviewer for nearly as long as I have been in the industry — for Spectator from 1989 and then Enthusiast from 1994.

Then came the news that Wilfred Wong is leaving BevMo to go to work in PR for wine.com. I can remember when Wilfred started at BevMo — it was 1995 — but it seemed that he had become a fixture there.

Then there’s little things, like the closing after 18 years of Hot Shots, my favorite independent drive-through coffee stand in Sonoma, which will become a Dutch Bros. coffee outlet. It’s going to be interesting to see what the local cadre of finger waggers has to say about the rampant proliferation of coffee chains in our town (first Starbucks, and then Peet’s and now THIS outrage! where will it all end!?), now that they have lost on limiting hotel size, regulating winery tasting rooms and painting ice cream store doors pink.

Maybe I’m still unsettled by the news that a close older family member took a hard fall a couple weeks ago. Or maybe it was the hit-and-run driver that rammed into my car from behind at a stop light the other day. Maybe I’m unsettled by the annual pre-tax-day worries that my business and personal finances are teetering on the verge of insolvency.

Even good news can have an unsettling effect. I’m very happy, but also inexplicably on edge that three good friends are about to have babies. What could be unsettling about that?

I find it curiously disturbing that, nearly a decade and a half after the failure and bankruptcy of the Mobius Painter winery project that was slated to be built on land adjacent to our Estate vineyard, the parcel has finally been purchased by our neighbors on either side of it (Annadel Estate Winery and Novavine grapevine nursery) for a joint development.

I’m even a little nervous that the Weather Service is forecasting rain for Tuesday and again Friday, as we need to get our first sulfur application on the vineyard and dig out some slumped water channels that led to unwanted flooding in the last storm.

This brings me back to the one pure good thing that is not unsettling of itself: the vineyard. No matter what changes are in store for me this year — and I’m certain there will be many — the vineyard is a constant. Sure as the sun rises (which it is doing as I put the finishing touches on this piece) the regular annual rhythms of the vineyard will march on. I’m on my way there shortly to walk and check out the progress of budbreak and become, myself, for a moment, a participant with a small part of the rites of spring.

Looking For Our Customer

alexander meets diogenes1Quiet day in Sonoma. As I start composing this post I’m looking out at a passing storm that has brought us nearly four times the rain we have had since November. We’re still in a drought, but my friends who rely on surface water to raise their vines are getting at least a partial break.

For the moment, things are quiet. The vineyard erosion control measures have been checked and are holding up. I’ve temporarily patched our roof leak, the winery is not flooded, and Kyle and Tiffany are holding down the Salon on a day when most customers are staying home, perhaps watching the Olympics.

Last week I went to Houston for our annual partners’ meeting. It was great to be able to report another year of growth behind us, and make plans for expanding sales in 2014. There is no question but that, with big crop years in 2012 and 2013 expanding our inventory, we are going to have to pursue a return to three-tier distribution — a sales mode we withdrew from in 2008 when the Great Recession hit hard.

But since the crash of 2008 we have found a sweet niche in the long tail of the wine market, a niche where we have been successful directly connecting with many wonderful people — people who love the wines we make, and geek out when they get to sit, chat with us in our tasting salon and share our passion for our wines and for Sonoma Valley. One of the topics under discussion in Houston was how to expand that customer base.

Searching For An Honest Customer

Diogenes was said to wander Athens in the daytime with a lit lantern, looking for an honest man. According to his philosophy, honesty was demonstrated when a person’s deeds and actions matched their words. I think about this a lot.

The Down Side

I thought about it the other day when a group of guests came in to spend a couple of hours, bragged about how they had bought 50 cases at another winery, didn’t believe we were a “real” winery because we don’t have an impressive building and landscaped grounds, and bought relatively little.

I think about it every time someone comes into our salon expecting—sometimes demanding—a free tasting.

I think about it every time I exchange business cards with someone “interested in doing something” with our brand and see the look in their eyes that tells me no matter how many follow-up contacts I make nothing will ever happen.

I thought about it when I was introduced to a wine broker recently at a charity event. It was late in the evening and perhaps she was at the point of finding veritas in vino, but when she tasted one of my wines she commented “ooh that’s GOOD — great ‘food’ wine. But I can’t sell this — well maybe to one restaurant I know. People want ‘lollipop’ wines.” By which she meant sweet, soft and alcoholic. And cheap. It was refreshingly honest.

The Bright Side

Mostly I think about it when we meet someone new at the tasting salon and see their delight when they get more from us than they expected, when they “get” the wines, and when they plunk down their hard-earned cash and take some with them. I think even more about how word and deed go hand-in-hand when some of them come to visit again and again, and some of them join the wine club.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter how optimistic my outlook, not everybody is a potential customer. The people we come into contact with honestly are not “customers” until they engage with us in the cooperative dance we invite them to, and until they actually buy something. So the big question facing us in 2014 is — how do we find more of our kind of buyers?

More Direct Engagement

When I opened our tasting salon just off the Sonoma Plaza in 2005, it was an untested concept in our town. There were two other winery tasting rooms in Sonoma that opened about the same time. Today, in addition to Westwood there will soon be 26 other winery tasting rooms in our Plaza area (moving counterclockwise from us: MacLaren, Envolve, Bryter, Two Amigos, Haywood, Sonoma Enoteca, Victor Hill, Spann, Kamen, Bennett Valley, Stone Edge, Sojourn, Highway 12, Eric K. James, Walt, Auteur, Hawkes, Roche, Three Sticks, JAQK, Adobe Road, Charles Creek, Bump, R2, Petroni, and Rumpus).

Up to a point, every new tasting room that opened seemed to bring more traffic to our own salon. I’ve got to think we have reached a limit by now — a limit dictated by the amount of parking available in proximity to the downtown area. Even with our loyal customer base, referrals, and our great Yelp reviews, we are not going to get any more people in our door in Sonoma unless more parking is constructed and new hotels with shuttles open in the area.

So where does that leave us? I think we have to consider opening a second location. We have to do it someplace that will not cannibalize our existing traffic, perhaps someplace that is already a destination in its own right — maybe The Barlow in Sebastopol, or even perhaps a place in SF like Ghiradelli Square. The big question for me (aside from whether the place will pay for itself) will be, how do we adapt and evolve our customer experience to a new venue? Diogenes

Drought Weather & Farmer Concerns

rossby wavesThe weather is broken. The Rossby effect, which should be bringing winter storms down the coast, seems to be stalled. We have had a persistent ridge of high pressure over the North Coast since November, which broke down once early in December. Since then we have had an unremitting string of dry days, cool nights and record daytime highs.

I’m worried, like I have not been in 30 years. I track rainfall accumulation from November 1 to October 31, and since Nov. 1, 2013 we have received just 1.85 inches of precipitation at our vineyard. This is barely 16% of the average to-date since 11/1/1997 (11.24 inches). Just for giggles, here’s the 2014 accumulation to date compared to the next driest winters in my records:
      2014      1.85″
      2001      3.05″
      2012      3.65″
      2000      4.28″
      2010      4.60″
      2009      5.70″
      2008      6.40″
      2007      7.70″

It’s dry, drier than 2012, which USDA described as “…the most severe and extensive drought in 25 years.” This bodes ill for urban water restrictions and availability of irrigation water for the most populous and agriculturally productive State in the country.

It has me worried for our vineyard as well. The UC Davis Cooperative Extension — Fresno County December 2013 newsletter discusses a possible consequence of a very dry winter: Delayed Spring Growth (DSG). Symptoms include: poor and uneven bud break, stunted growth, smaller flower clusters or complete abortion of clusters, failure and ultimately death of individual buds, and excessive sucker growth at the base or head of the vine. So we will be irrigating soon.

Another concern is that the warm daytime temperatures will wake the vines up early. There is still the possibility of us having a sufficiently wet end of winter-start of spring to make up for the current drought, but if the vines wake up due to warming in the shallow root zone, the weak shoots will be more prone to late frost and to spring Botrytis.

I love farming grapes, and we have had a couple of easy vintages. But I’m planning for a hard time in 2014.

…And Then There Were None

Clear Deck 9/27/13Compare this picture to my last post. Thirty-two bins of Pinot are pressed off, and I have not brought anything in since the 14th. If you don’t work in a winery you can hardly appreciate how much of a luxury this is, to be able to clear the decks between bringing in waves of fruit.

We had a little rain the morning of the 22nd. The forecast was for a tenth of an inch. We received about a half an inch, and I know a few vineyards up our way that got nearly an inch. This was worrisome—we don’t expect or need a lot of rain midway through September—but didn’t amount to much agitá in the end, as we had a few very dry and windy days after to dry out the fruit before rots could set in.

As luck would have it, we had two crews doing a night pick of the remainder of our Pinot at the Estate for another winery when the rain started to come down hard at 2am. We tarped what we had picked—half of the total job—and the crews went home. The trucker showed up at 5:30am to load. Radar showed that the rain was going to stop around noon, and the winery indicated they were fine with accepting wet fruit. We convinced the crews to come back and pick the rest. They finished about 4pm but the trucker refused to come back to take the second load. (It’s been like this all harvest; I can’t remember ever having to deal with drivers this overworked and surly.) Anyway, the buyer finally found someone who would haul for us, and we got the last load delivered by 8pm. Long day.

Today the weather is perfect: warm, very dry and slightly breezy. It smells and feels like indian summer weather. We are picking Syrah for customers Sunday and Monday, then picking Syrah, Roussanne, and Tannat for ourselves Tuesday and Wednesday. I expect to be long in Syrah just like we were in Pinot, so I will spend the rest of the week looking for buyers.

Catching Our Breath …

At The Winery 9/16/13The title is meant to be slightly ironic. Walking into the winery right now it is actually difficult to catch one’s breath, as the CO2 being thrown off by all the fermenters in the picture above is nearly asphyxiating. But we are getting a little break in harvest, and metaphorically catching our breath from the hustle and the bustle of the last ten days.

We put together a wine club shipment at the end of August and started packing and shipping it the first week of September. We had a bottling scheduled for 9/4 that my normal bottling line needed to move to 9/3. I agreed to the change, with reservations, as scheduling ANYTHING the day after a long holiday weekend is risky. Unsurprisingly, we had equipment problems that forced us to cancel bottling with our normal truck.

Fortunately, the problems were resolved with minimal effort, but I still needed to bottle to free tank and barrel space before harvest. And harvest was coming—fast. Luckily, our neighbor across the way was also bottling and I was able to piggyback on their run. We bottled on 9/6.

On 9/7 we brought in our first grapes of the 2013 vintage—clones 115 and 667 of the Pinot Noir from our Estate vineyard. Our picking crews went to church on Sunday, but then we brought in grapes from the Estate every day the following week through Saturday. And on Sunday we rested.

The winery is full. In the picture above you can see 32 T-bins, each holding about 3/4-ton of fruit. I don’t have any empty T-bins at the winery, and probably could not buy, beg, borrow, or steal one right now even if I had to. The eight bins on the left are the pick from the first day, and are nearly done fermenting—I expect to start pressing those lots by the end of this week. The eight bins to the far right have not even started fermenting yet, but I expect the caps to have risen on feral yeast when I go into the winery later this morning.

One might ask “why is he writing at 3 am?” The answer is I napped from 9 pm to 1 am, then had to go in to do punchdowns—the absolutely necessary process of pushing the cap of grape skins down into the fermenting wine in each and every one of those tanks in the picture, mostly to release the heat generated by the yeast in the course of converting sugar to alcohol and the aforementioned CO2. I have to punch the caps down more or less every 6-12 hours, and due to uncontrollable factors just now I am on this ridiculous middle-of-the-night punchdown schedule.

But for the moment, we are taking a break from picking grapes. If the gods put a gun to my head I could bring in six more tons of fruit right now—I have two 3-ton wood fermenters just out of the picture that are almost ready to use (they need to be rehydrated every year so they don’t leak when filled)—but otherwise the winery is full until I get some Pinot pressed off and sent to barrels. Kyle and I are taking a little breather. Except for the punchdowns. And the pressing. And the barreling-down.

Here’s a few preliminary observations on our 2013 vintage:

  • The 2013 harvest started two weeks earlier than 2012, and a full six weeks earlier than the difficult 2011 vintage. This current vintage is starting out early, like the famous 2007 harvest.
  • Unlike 2007, the crop yields are up—making two years in a row that yields are above average, and that wineries are so full that some picking decisions are forced to be delayed waiting on tank space.
  • The grape quality is—so far—very, very good. Looking back, 1993 and 2003 were also excellent vintages for us; it appears that 2013 could perpetuate this decadal pattern.
  • I have noted that the coldest fruit we have brought in to date has only been as cold as 63°F, where in our “normal” past vintages we have brought fruit in at temperatures more like 45°F-55°F—even in early and otherwise “hot” harvests like 2004 and 2007. This is the strongest signal of climate change I have seen yet.
  • In spite of the relatively warm harvest temperatures, the majority of my Pinot ferments have been astonishingly tame. Where I have become accustomed to my Pinot ferments rocketing from around 22° Brix to 2° Brix or less in 12 hours or so, this year I am seeing mostly steady drops of 0.4-0.6° Brix an hour. This is such profound break from what I am used to regarding managing Pinot ferments that I am slightly unnerved by it.

So now it is 4 am and I am finally sleepy again. I will catch a couple hours and then meet Kyle at the vineyard to sample Syrah and Tannat. And maybe to find something to sacrifice on the altars of the weather gods so that we might be spared the rain that is forecast for the end of this week.

Calling Budbreak — Finally

PN 96, 4/12/2013 Everything has broken bud at the Estate vineyard, at last–even the late-breaking Counoise. That’s young, cane-pruned Pinot 96 in the image above, where shoots are already out about two inches.

We finally managed to get a little rainfall accumulation last week, nearly an inch last Thursday. You can also see in the image above that this has really helped push the cover crop, which is topping 2 ft. in some areas and is no less than 6″ anywhere. The bromes are setting good seed, and I’m seeing more rye and clover than I did last year. And the mix with turnip, marigold, and the many other annuals and perennials in our mix, is gorgeous.

PN 943 April 12, 2013 I just like this picture. What you can’t see from this particular angle is that a very large fraction of the buds in the Pinot are pushing two shoots, and most of them are sporting two clusters. This means we are in for a lot of work to manage canopy density and crop load this vintage. Traditionally we call and end to frost season in the middle of April, but the weather pattern has changed enough that I won’t stop worrying about frost until at least the start of May and more likely the middle of May. Jet and geese I snapped the pic above just before leaving the vineyard this morning: a small flock of geese with a low-altitude jet still throwing a contrail.

It’s been nearly six weeks since my last post, but then there has been a lot going on. First, my assistant (and friend) Justin Moulton moved on to a new job early in the year (he’s now managing the spirits program for Bounty Hunter in Napa). It took me a while but I eventually succeeded in bringing Kyle Altomare on board. Here’s a pic of the new guy: Kyle Altomare Kyle came to Westwood from Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, where he managed their wine club (which is substantially larger than ours). Kyle hopes to rapidly expand his knowledge of the industry through participating in all aspects of production, sales and marketing with me.

The other thing that has been occupying my attention is preparation for bottling. We did a pretty big day on Friday, April 5th: Bottling, April 5, 2013 We had originally scheduled the bottling for Thursday, but could not guarantee we would have all our labels in time. That turned out to be a blessing, as nearly an inch of rain fell (as I mentioned at the start of the post). Friday was supposed to be clear, but we ended up with an hour rain delay after we started on the day. Wasn’t too much of an issue, but I was very glad when it stopped.

I’m really happy to have got one of the best rosés I have ever made in the bottle. We also did a bottling for custom crush client, Marcel Petard—a white blend of 80% Roussanne and 20% Viognier. Marcel bought the juice from the grapes we pressed off for us to use the skins and seeds in our Syrah ferments. I thought Enkidu, Bedrock, or Tricycle would buy the juice, but this guy showed up at the right place at the right time with cash in hand. Don’t know a lot more about him or his brand, but we will be selling the wine for him out of our Tasting Salon. 2013 New Wines

Sailing Into The Seas of Spring

Grenache, Mar 02, 2013I can’t believe it is already March. February came and went and I barely noticed it. My lack of attention was due in part to having a recurring respiratory infection (didn’t I have that same thing the first couple of months of 2005 or 2006?) and then the flu. But really, very little has actually happened.

The shot of the Grenache above shows that the crew has completed pruning the vineyard. That’s about it, so far as real work goes. Wines are still asleep. My healthy hours have been spent catching up on business financials, interviewing potential new hires, and selling wine at the shop when people are around. January and February have been pretty quiet, sales wise.

The weather has been very mild. Recently, daytime temperatures have warmed up out of the high-30s-low-60s range into the mid-70s but it has not been enough to push budbreak yet. It has also been extraordinarily dry. I recorded less rainfall in January and February 2013 than I have since we started keeping records at the vineyard in 1998. People paying attention are starting to talk about drought, but I think (hope) that worry is premature. Our November and December were relatively wet, so our season-to-date accumulation for the 2013 vintage is still ahead of 2001, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012. Grenache close-upEven with the warmer temperatures recently, there is very little bud push visible in the vineyard. In fact there is very little sap bleeding from pruning cuts yet—perhaps a function of the dry soil. I did find a little bit of sap in the cane-pruned Pinot, and the bare beginnings of bud swell: Sap on large pruing cut in PN 943There are a lot of trivial things going on in the industry that I will not be writing about, among them: the implosion of the Wine Advocate, balance in Pinot Noir, hipster wines (high acid, obscure varieties, orange, etc.) and the continued delusion in some circles that social media have changed everything and that Millennial wine drinkers are fundamentally different from older generations. *yawn*