Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hang on to your hats

Here's the time of the year when every grape grower in the Willamette Valley gets nervous.  It's the time of impending weather system change.

Here's the snapshot at 4:30 pm from the NOAA satellite.  This shows the water vapor over the Eastern Pacific ocean.

Note that the big patch of clear high pressure off the Northern CA coast is starting to disintegrate.  If you watch the animated set of images, you can see that the weather systems are still being shunted up to B.C., but weather is starting to encroach, wholesale, on Oregon now.  THIS IS NOT a reason to panic. 

In 2008, we saw this sort of threatening weather pattern sitting around for 3 1/2 weeks before the rains finally came.  We'll certainly get some showers, but the vineyards are ready to take a bit of moisture (leaves pulled out of the fruit zone, last sprays on).   I'll just focus on getting the winery ready to go, and see what happens. It'll be fine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Final prep-work nip and tuck in vyd

Last Friday, I made one last swing through sites to make decisions on the last tweaks to crop loads, leaf removal, and canopy management before the "Great Wait 2011". The pix below were taken on Sept 16th at four of our vineyards.

Barring a little leaf removal and some light thinning passes that happened yesterday and today, the vineyards are in pristine shape to just sit in the sun and slowly ripen and develop flavor over the next 6 weeks.

Tasting through the 2010 wines last week got me excited for another late fall. Even without calendar days between bloom and harvest, there's something about the late picking years that produces dark, layered, interesting flavors!

Above: The Walnut Hill site high in the Eola-Amity Hills (~550 ft, okay, so it's high for Oregon). Color change at 50-60%. Best guess harvest date Oct 27th.

Above: Stoller Vineyard at the South tip of the Dundee Hills. This block is on the West side of the vineyard. Planted to 667 clone. Maybe 40% color here.

Above: The block of 115 clone at Stoller Vineyard. Much better color progression here. Probably 60-75% on average.

Above: Hirschy Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton. This is our block of 114 clone Pinot Noir. This was about 95% colored up. This will likely be our first pick of 2011...Oct 23rd?

 Above: Wadenswil block at Shea Vineyard. Maybe 50% color. Would expect nothing less from the aromatrically beautiful, but late ripening, clone.

Above: Block 11 at Shea Vineyard (Dijon 115 clone). Note how the clusters are hanging out in the breeze after an excellent round of leaf removal. The airflow in and around the clusters will help the fruit dry out and resist the development of rot if/when we get rain before harvest.

Below: Sometimes I have to defocus a bit and realize the beauty of where I'm standing. This was taken from the middle of one of our blocks at Stoller Vineyard.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Not easy been green - fighting the waves of angst

After seeing a few bits of color at Hirschy Vineyard on Monday (thanks again, John & Linda for hosting all of us) and after looking at the sunny, warm forecast for the rest of Sept, you might think that my mood might be buoyed....and then I drove out to vineyards again yesterday for a reality check and a dose of winemaker angst.

I hit higher elevation sites and cooler sites and saw a sea of green berries.  This IS NOT surprising, as we pick at hot sites like Hirschy usually 3-10 days ahead of sites like our Walnut Hill vyineyard (below).

Still, there's something unnerving about driving in the Willamette Valley on Sept 8th and not seeing any fully colored Pinot Noir.  At Stoller Vineyard, things seem equally behind our normal schedule. Stoller Vineyard is a very counter-intuitive site to me.  It is fairly low elevation, and the vineyard is on the South tip of the Dundee Hills, with dead-on South facing.  However, it's always one of the last sites we pick each year - My theory is that it cools off more quickly in the evening as the cool air from the nearby Willamette River banks up the sides of the vineyard.  This slow finish is what makes it one of my favorite sites, but in cool years like this, it's one of the sites that makes me nervous.  If we have dry weather into November, I can easily see waiting until Nov 3-5 to pick here.

We really are headed for an Oct 25 + harvest window, even with this bit of spectacular Sept weather.  Nothing to do now, but sit back and enjoy the beautiful weather while we wait.   No worries - I'm very optimistic about another slow cool finish delivering delicate, beautiful flavors this fall.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Why this one photo makes me happy

Oh, so this is a little over the top, but that one pink berry in the photo below brings a smile to my face and a huge rush of relief, angst, and anticipation all rolled into one.

That little pink berry was the first Pinot Noir berry I saw with some color this year.  For those of you thinking to yourselves, "Wait. I thought they were harvesting in Burgundy?", you're correct.  France was very warm and early this year - about as early as we are late.  This picture was taken on 9/1.  By today, this same cluster should be a mottled harlequin with mostly dark berries and just a few green ones left.  Using the standard rule of ~ 50 days from veraison (color change) to harvest, that means Boedecker Cellars will likely start picking on October 25th.

Yes. October 23-25th is likely the start of Pinot Noir harvest in Oregon this year.  For those of you, like us, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, I bet you can count the number of dry, warm Halloweens you've experienced on one hand.  Even with the exceptionally nice September weather it looks like we'll enjoy, this year will be a nail-biter in Oregon. 

Keep in mind, 2008 (the Oregon "Vintage of the decade") was almost as late, and with the same dry weather this year, we can get the same result - complex, deep flavors combined with fantastic texture.  We just need the Jet Stream to keep those Pacific storms pointed at our friends in B.C. (sorry guys) for an extra few weeks this year.

For those who want to watch the developing weather patterns with me, I highly recommend NOAA's satellite website. This is millions of dollars of U.S. tax money at work for you - cool stuff! Below is the current snapshot of water vapor patterns in the Eastern Pacific.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Making up ground at Stanton Vineyard

As I sit looking at a 70 degree late- August day, I have to think "Well, we could have hurricane-force winds" and wish my cohorts in Virginia and New York's Long Island the best.  Late October harvest dates in Oregon are definitely better than grapes blown all over the ground in August.

That said, with last week's even, perfectly mid-80s temperatures, we've finally caught back up to 2010.  Sort of.  We're on the 2010 pace from the standpoint of physiological progression - seeds are all hardened up, shoot tip growth has almost stopped, and the start of veraison is likely days, not weeks, away. The vines are switching over from growing more leaves to ripening the fruit.  From an overall heat unit standpoint, though, we're still behind 2010, and we're still on track for the coolest overall vintage in decades. 

It's never boring making Pinot Noir here.  I can't imagine anywhere else in the U.S. where we can get completely different seasons every year and still produce wines with fantastic depth and complexity.  We are so lucky, we can even go out foraging for Morels while we wait for the Pinot Noir to mature.


I spent some time recently in down in the Lorane Valley (SE of Eugene) at Stanton Vineyard.  Charlie Stanton's fruit is truly beautiful and unique.  The vineyard sits up on top of a little knoll with fantastic clear views from SE all the way to the Coast Range (read "All day sunshine").  The soils are rocky with sandstone subsoils - truly different than all our other Pinot Noir sites.

Here are some pictures of the vineyard right after the final hedging of the year:

Note how nice and moderately sized the clusters are?  The higher elevation pushed bloom date at this site into a bit of sketchier weather, which led to a poorer set than other places where we're dropping literally 1/2 of the fruit on the ground.  What does the lighter set mean?  To some extent, it just means there's less thinning to do at Stanton than elsewhere. As an added bonus, the clusters are a little looser, reducing disease pressure later in the season.

For a last inspiring, sunny photo, here's a shot looking West from the top of the Stanton Vineyard.  Smaller vines in the foreground are new plantings that'll start bearing a crop in 2012

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Time for green harvest 2011

Well, we now know that we had an absolutely perfect bloom and fantastic fruit set this year.  Most of our Pinot Noir is sitting at 5.5-6.5 tons per acre, an amazingly perfect conversion of flowers into grapes.  Unfortunately, we couldn't hope to ripen that much fruit in the best of years (especially when we're defining ripeness by flavor). Even our brothers and sisters to the South can't do that.  So, what do we do?  We go through every vineyard and cut tons of fruit off the vines.   This is all hand-harvesting of clusters, so it's slow and expensive...and it makes a farmer cry when all that fruit lands in the dirt.

But this is the price we pay for wanting to harvest before the late fall rains come.  Right now, we're anticipating picking the FIRST of our Pinot Noir sometime around Oct 25th.  That's about 1 month later than normal and easily 2 weeks past my comfort zone.  Late Oct harvests can produce spectacular vintages (e.g., 2008), but I cannot remember too many Halloweens when we hadn't seen substantial rainfall. And that's what we're talking about this year - Picking between Oct 25 and Nov 1!!  Hang on to your hats, folks. 

Don't get me wrong, this is the type of year I love - It's full of challenge, and it rewards those who make the tough decisions and who decide to put in extra effort to coax delicate Pinot Noir clusters to ripeness.  We're all talking to each other and nervously commenting "This vintage will be made in October", but we're all farmers.  We'd show an unimaginable degree of hubris if we weren't worried about something.  Five years from now, we'll hopefully all look back with much more machismo on how we stood up to the coldest vintage in Oregon since 1976....

In the mean time, check out photos of the vineyards below.  The upside of the cool, even weather is canopies that are dark emerald green and operating at maximum photosynthetic capacity.  We could end up being surprised - All it'll take is a few above-average weeks in Sep, and we'll pull in harvest by a week...which is all we really need.

Shea Vineyard snapshot:

Perfect weather during flowering led to a perfect fruit set.  All the clusters are big, tight, and heavy.

Estimates this week were that we had ~ 5.5 tons per acre, even after our 25% crop reduction earlier in the month.  We're moving forward with a 40% reduction in clusters this week!  Even in a warmer year, we can truly ripen maybe 2.75 tons per acre from Shea (physiologically & phenolically).  If we leave the 5.5 tpa on the vines now, we'll end up with a lot of fruit, but it won't lead to complex interesting wines.  So, even though we're paying by the acre, on the ground it goes.

Walnut Hill snapshot:

The vineyard we're leasing on Walnut Hill is managed by Stiring Fox and his crew at Stirling Wine Grapes.  At this site, the set wasn't quite as perfect (see variation in berry size below), but there's still plenty of fruit.

Here, we're taking a bit more of a manicure approach to thinning.  We'll be reducing the number of clusters on the very heavy-set vines mostly by cleaning up "crowded" areas where clusters are bound together or overlapping and by eliminating all of the wings.  Again here, we'll come back in 2-3 weeks and drop the clusters that are lagging as we hit veraison and things color up.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Growing season catching up, lifting spirits

The warm weather we've been enjoying over the last couple weeks is taking a bit of a hiatus today, but the vineyards are catching up very quickly from where we were just a month ago.  My own personal barometer in Portland is my tomato garden. I now have little Sun Golds ripening away - This is a couple of weeks earlier than 2010!

I was up in Cherry Grove Vineyard last night, and the progress there has been phenomenal.  Third catch wires are all up, and the vineyard is ready for the first hedging pass.  More importantly, bloom happened very quickly - Bob Van Steenberg told me that Cherry Grove went from 5% to full bloom within just a couple of days last week.  This is great news, as it means we've made up another few days of the schedule. 

Even if we have the rather luke-warm summer a la 2010, we still will start harvesting Pinot Noir by Oct 20th or so.  If we get the even warmer weather that's currently in the medium-range forecast, we'll be back to a mid-Oct start.

Don't get me wrong here.  I'm happy for the cool growing season and late fall.  Athena and I have been tasting through our 2010 wines in barrel ahead of summer racking.  We're finding a wonderful range of ripe flavors on a light frame with brightness and length.  These wines are the poster children for cool climate Pinot Noir - It's why we're here!   My heart, however, loves the bit more certainty that we won't start picking in November this year.