Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Merlot Mike Vineyard Report

(Editor's Note: He's back: Merlot Mike, with the first preharvest update, written by the poet Merlot Mike himself.)

Escondido Sunrise Vineyard
The Grape Vine, August 16, 2011

Hello Grape Enthusiasts, Winemakers, and Mystified Recipients,

Last winter was kind to our vineyard.  Frequent rains allowed us to get into late spring before starting irrigation.  On about March 17th, we saw our first of bud break.  “Bud break” is when the vines, pruned and looking for all the world like so many wooden French fries sitting atop of the larger wood of the vine’s cordon (the cross arms of the vine), finally start to burst forth with leaves emitting from the swollen and pregnant appearing buds left on the upright spurs.

With all of the rain, once bud break started our vineyard exploded with growth.  Within days, it transformed itself from a field of bare wooden pole like objects to a vibrant, beautiful vineyard.  And, shortly thereafter, tiny clusters of flowers appeared.

The flowers bloom into very tiny bouquets.  If you listen when the wind isn’t blowing and the birds aren’t calling to one another, you can almost hear the pollination as the flowers form the base of what will shortly become a miniature cluster of grapes.

Over the early summer months, the grapes grow into larger green clusters … green grapes, not red.  All grapes start out green.  And on about July 27th, yet another transformation took place.  Veraison.  This is the metamorphosis that as the clusters of green grapes change, one grape at a time, from green to red.  And as red overtakes the green, the thousands of clusters of  grapes that were before camouflaged among the millions of green leaves suddenly become evident, swinging swollen from their vines, swelling with the promise of the wine yet to come.
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Veraison is almost complete as I write you.  The birds, once oblivious to the vines with their green and bitter tiny grapes, begin to show a new enthusiastic interest.  They surround the vineyard, sitting on power lines greedily observing the red grapes as they ripen.  And the race begins. (Editor's Note: The birds have migrated from our property to his. After he nets, a flock of them will return to us, I'm sure.)

“The race” refers to our preparing the vineyard for netting and then rushing to get the nets in place before the birds gorge themselves, sending out invitations to their family and friends to fly forthwith to our vineyard for the mother of all feasts.

Preparing the vines for netting refers to our walking up and down each row of vines, trimming the vines that extend above the top wires of our trellis.  The rows of vines extend for 2.5 miles  …  trimming the rows requires attention to each side, a 5 mile exercise of holding your arms above your head, grasping vine after vine and snipping the portions off that would foul the nets.  Our early mornings and late afternoons have been filled with side-step, snip, snip, snip, drop vines into trashcan, side-step, snip, snip, snip, oh my arms are breaking, drop vines into trashcan.  Fortunately, our evenings are filled with a collection of red wines that have been expanding beneath our home, making all of this worthwhile.

Later this week, the nets will start to cover the rows of vines.  Three men, all netting applied by hand alone, spending two and a half days, covering a mile of vines each day, holding their hands over their heads and doing the same side-step as they drape the nets over the vines and tie the nets together beneath the vines.

Above it all, the growing flocks of birds gathering on the power lines are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film  …  they watch, hungrily, occasionally flying into the vineyard and snatching a grape ahead of the fellows moving slowly along, draping nets over the vines.  Tiny birds, large crows, condors, bald eagles, and humming birds … sitting in rows on the lines, watching the vineyard and the feast they hope will come.

Last evening, we took our first reading of the sugar level from a sample of grapes.  Nancy walked through the vineyard, selecting about 40 grapes from vines scattered through the lower section of vines.  We adjusted and calibrated our refractometer, a device resembling a small telescope that provides an instant analysis of the percentage of sugar in a sample of grape juice.  We crushed all of the grapes together and placed a few drops of juice on the lens of our instrument, looking expectantly at the reading and finding that our sample was 19.6% sugar in solution in the juice.

19.6% means a lot to us.  First of all, we keep records of the readings at different points in time over the years.  Looking back quickly over the past seven years, we found that we were right on track with the readings in prior years.  We had felt that the grapes were one to two weeks behind earlier years but this first reading tended to contradict our observations … the grapes are moving quickly towards ripeness. 

For years, we have had our major harvest over Labor Day weekend.  For some reason, our vineyard tends to be among the very first in our county to mature.  Our harvest begins a 10 to 12 week period of frantic harvesting, crushing, destemming, fermentation and pressing as the winemaking season moves from standing by to full swing production.

As the grapes ripen, we will send out more updates, culminating in a call for harvesters.  Each year, a collection of old and new friends descend on the vineyard and help with the harvest.  This is the high point of our year as farmers and starts us off on our season of winemaking.  It’s good to wear many hats.  It’s good to drink wine.  It’s good to have friends.  Thanks to all of you who have come to help in the past.

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