Grapes are an agricultural product. After the fruit sets in the late spring it ripens slowly during the summer and into the fall. As harvest approaches the time comes to begin sampling the various vineyards from which we source our grapes to get an idea for when we will pick the fruit. I’ve never experienced commercial farming in any form besides grapes, but the nature of winemaking calls for rather precise monitoring. If the grapes get too ripe, high sugars generally translate to high alcohol (which, more or less is undesirable… see the alcohol debate in California Pinot Noir). Too ripe means very low acidity, which is also undesirable, making for a ‘flabby’ wine that won’t drink or age well. Pick too soon and you will have very high acidity but also run the risk of ‘green’ and undesirable flavors and compounds that won’t help the end result. Of course there are always ways to manipulate the juice into a desired form, and many producers follow suit. To me, the end goal is making the best wine possible with the least amount of intervention. I think that’s everyone’s goal, as a small producer at least.
The entire growing season affects how the final crop will turn out, down to the day. Sometimes the most stressful part of it all comes in the last week or two prior to picking. Take this year, for example, as the season has been relatively normal. This weekend we’re experiencing what’s called a ‘heat-spike’ where the temperatures rise well above normal and if it’s extreme enough, can damage or ruin the entire crop. Hail, rain, frost, there are many worries. There’s a lot of talk about and time spent looking at the weather during the end of summer and early fall in the wine industry.
I’ve logged hundreds, thousands of miles in the past month driving around to various vineyards in Sonoma and Lake counties visiting small, rural, often family owned vineyard sites, hiking up and down rows with landscaping clippers in one hand and a plastic bag in the other. I cut clusters off the, trying to get the most accurate representation of where the vineyard is at as a whole in it’s ripening. I’ll bring the samples back to the winery, crush up the grapes and strain the juice off into beakers, going on to test the sugar content and measures of acidity present in the juice. From there I’ll have a pretty good idea of the overall ripeness, but I think the foolproof method always comes back to taste. If the numbers look right, but the juice doesn’t taste ready, we’ll wait it out. If the juice tastes ready, but the numbers don’t look quite right, we might just take a risk and call for a pick (this year we had to sign a wavier from one of the growers because we picked at a ripeness that was too low for his contracted threshold).
Even with the other stresses of a busy harvest season involved, there’s something to be said about getting out of the wet and artificially lit winery, out of the city and driving through the windy country roads outside Occidental or Sebastopol. Thistles in my leg hair, sticky grape juice running down my forearm, dirt in the cracks of my boots, and sunburn on my face, these are the uncomfortable sensations out in the vines that I somehow find comforting.