Monday, August 25, 2008

Harvesting This Sunday: Calling All Strong Men & Nubile Maidens

"Merlot" Mike's poetry waxes elegant as harvest is only 5 days away! Enjoy his update -- I'm going out to the vineyard as the sun sets to pick some grapes to make Bluey's Tempranillo jam.

Mike, owner of Escondido Sunrise Vineyard and a founding member of the Hidden Meadows Winemakers Association, writes today:

"Greetings From The Vineyard: .... I went up and down the rows, collecting samples from each of the three sections … bringing the grapes back to my rudimentary little lab … squeezing each grape in the plastic baggy for that particular section … and then analyzing the juice. Again, I picked close to 100 grapes, a large enough sample that it should be giving reasonably accurate results. As shown on the updated table attached, the sugar level only rose by 0.5% over the course of an entire week … as opposed to a 1.4% increase during the preceding week.

"So, the sugar is at 24.7 (average between all three sections) and the acid is dropping (a “good” thing) … the acid was 0.69 per my analysis on Saturday morning. In an “ideal” world, the grape acid level will be between 0.60 and 0.75 at harvest … but, if it should be a bit lower, we are prepared to supplement the natural acid with a blend of acids to adjust the acid level up to a desired level prior to starting fermentation. The pH was 3.37.

"There are a number of ways to evaluate how ripe the grapes are … the three numbers above are used as part of the analysis … each tells us something different … and there are a number of ratios that we calculate with these three factors that also tend to indicate the degree of ripeness. That said, there are other less scientific ways of evaluating the ripeness … with two of the simplest methods involving tasting and evaluating the color of the seeds. So, I tasted … I spat … I rolled the poor little seeds around in my hand … enjoying the sweetness of the juice … noting that the seeds, that were mostly green with some brown 10 days ago, are now mostly brown with some green. Ideally, we will have brown little seeds with almost no green when we harvest.

"All this being said … “why do we care?” is a logical question … especially when most growers would already be picking. We care because the longer we can allow the grapes to hang, up until the point that they have simply turned to raisins, phenolics continue to develop. Phenolics give the wine much of it’s character … allow it to develop “characteristics” … there really is a difference between “Two Buck Chuck” and the wine that a good winemaker can make if he has quality grapes to work with … and since we work all year to get to the day that the grapes are “ripe”, we want to wait until the grapes are as close to perfect as we can possibly get them to be … before we pluck their sweet little carcasses off the stems that have nourished them for their short existence, thrusting them into the Italian crusher that breaks open their little bodies without crushing their tiny seeds, allowing the sweetness held within to burst forth mixing with the grape skins, extracting color from the skins, tannin from the seeds and skin, and looking up at us with eager expectation of the fermentation that will start shortly converting that special sweetness into a ruby red elixir with an ability to turn old men into youthful lovers and tarnished damsels into objects of intense desire. So, now you know why we care. Would you want anything less?

"All this having been said, to try to achieve this peak of perfection, this ripe rapture, this juicy jammy state of grape nirvana … we cut off the water well before the expected harvest date so that the grapes begin to shrivel a bit as the water evaporates, pulling up the concentration of sugars … from the winemaker’s perspective, this is wonderful … from the farmer’s standpoint, since you charge by the pound for grapes and shriveled, concentrated grapes weigh less than plump (filled to the brim with as much water as the grapes can retain) grapes, the farmer would rather harvest plump grapes with lower sugar levels (before the birds swoop in and devour the harvest) … and, having cut off the water I looked with amazement as water fell from the sky this morning, giving drinks that I hadn’t intended to the vineyard. With the potential for more rain in the forecast … but at some point, you have to point to the calendar and give it a good guess … so, we’ve done that and targeted a date. WE HOPE TO PICK THIS COMING SUNDAY MORNING, AUGUST 31ST, FOR THE FIRST HARVEST OF THIS SEASON … subject to another reading of the sugar, acid and pH levels and the cooperation of the weather … more rain most probably equals a week delay in harvest … dry, heat most probably equals harvesting this Sunday.

"Most of you probably know the routine … we congregate in the picnic area near the vineyard between 7:00 and 7:20 AM, start the day with a champagne toast, grab our clippers and a five gallon bucket and venture forth into the vineyard to free the grapes from the vines while the air is still cool (hopefully). The buckets are poured into larger containers scattered about the vineyard … some paid helpers lug the larger containers to the end of the row where a vehicle retrieves them and takes them up to the crush pad (that doubles the other 364 days of the year as the covered walkway in front of the pub) where each container is weighed so that a count is kept to insure that we pick enough but not too much (hoping for other winemakers to yet descend on the vineyard in search of the perfect grape). It’s fun, dusty, has the potential for sweat to break out on more than your forehead, and a time for talking and enjoying a beautiful (thunderstorms can be quite lovely) morning … waiting for the call of “That’s enough grapes for today” to signal one and all that it is time to return to the picnic area for libations and lunch (we always make a couple crockpots of “stuff” … generally large hunks of beef with rolls and potato salad … some folks bring something to share … some winemakers bring samples of their wines for others to try … we always have an assortment of our wines out for the adventurous … and, although I may not get “authorization” for it, I was thinking that a crockpot of chili sounded pretty good too.) We have 20+ spare pair of clippers … if you have some, please bring them with you.

"I will take another reading to be sure that the weather change isn’t impacting things too much and follow up with a more detailed email evaluating the degree of ripeness and instructions to come to the vineyard."

Please contact us if you need directions to the vineyard. Cheers!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

One Week To Harvest: Ready or Not

The wineries in Blue-Merle Country are nearing harvest time. Yeast, tartaric acid, DMP, potasium metabisulfite and "super food" (a yeast nutrient) have been ordered and delivered by Steven of Vintner's vault, who drove a trailer from Paso Robles to San Diego full of supplies and equipment including bladder presses and crusher-destemmers. We are busy rinsing out the fermenters. As the Blue-Merle Vineyard will be selling our grapes today at the Farmer's Market, the princess and Bluey are out in the vineyard cutting down the purple delicacies. (As our vines are only 2 years old, they are not yet optimum for wine-making, but boy do they taste good to eat! I've heard it said that grapes are the sweetest fruit -- I concur.)

Next door, "Merlot Mike" from Escondido Sunrise Vineyard is approximately one week away from Harvest Day. Here is his latest update, in the words of MerlotMike himself:

"The weather has been perfect … the grapes are getting darker … the taste sweeter … the seeds are turning from green to mottled brown-green on their way to becoming fully brown (one of the many indicators of ripeness). We took another 100+ grape sample on and were surprised to find that the brix had climbed to 24.2 (one brix = 1% sugar in solution). I am attaching a spreadsheet that shows the changes in the sugar levels as the days march along towards harvest. Note that we are running ahead of where we have been in prior years … and our vineyard always seems to be among the first to harvest … our micro-climate evidently encourages early ripening.

"After measuring the sugar level (higher than expected) and the seeds (still has more ripening to go), I measured the acid level. You do this by titrating a sample of the grape juice. The acid level was 0.80 … which was above the desirable level at ripeness. We want to target a level between 0.60 and 0.75. As the grapes ripen and the sugar level rises, the acid level declines … approaching a point where optimum ripeness is achieved...

"[after] testing the acid and sugar levels, I was supposed to measure the pH level … but, being out of practice (I only do this each year as harvest is rolling around) I looked at the lovely glass of grape juice setting on my work bench and drank each and every last drop … so, my pH analysis will have to wait until the next specimen is taken. From the official test of “How did it taste?”, it passed with flying colors.

"I have attached photos of the vineyard showing a view yesterday morning and evening … note how the vines have been cut back (given haircuts) with the net wrapped around each of the rows. The leaves have been pulled near the grapes, giving the clusters a bit more exposure to the sun … it’s beautiful but it also means that things are beginning to move more quickly … ready or not, harvest is approaching.

"Over the next days I will continue to take measurements ….Ultimately, we will have one or two larger harvests and one or two small harvests … targeting different brix levels for the different grapes or types of wines we hope to produce. With the vineyard being netted, we are able to hold the grapes for both making a “big red wine” as well as for making “port” … and, since our zinfandel ripens at a different speed than the Merlot, we’ll always expect to have a small, late harvest when we pull our zinfandel.

" … we will be looking for pickers in the not too distant future. As we are able to target a specific date...for now, let’s just let the vineyard be fruitful … and have a toast to a bountiful harvest with many, many good bottles of wine to follow."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Preparing For Harvest: The Work That Got Us Here

Our friend and neighbor "Merlot Mike" of Escondido Sunrise Vineyard has issued his first "Merlot Update" of 2008 in anticipation of the harvest. It's an excellent summary of the vintner's toil in Blue-Merle Country. Enjoy the update, and let us know if you'd like to help with the harvest, tentatively planned for Labor Day Weekend (condition of the grapes permitting).

Merlot Mike writes:

"We pruned back in January … cutting back and limiting the number of buds to reduce the yield of our harvest … and then followed by spraying a combination of stylet oil and lime on the dormant vines as a means of reducing the spores that produce powdery mildew.

"On about March 7th, we had “bud break” … when the buds, swelling with life, burst forth and tiny leaves first appear. Within about 10 days, the entire vineyard was alive with baby leaves … very uniform.

"In April, when the leaves were getting larger and the vines starting to grow, we began our application of Pristine and Rubigan … applied in alternating three week intervals … also intended to combat powdery mildew … and used as an alternative to sulfur.
In May, we applied Admire through the drip system to try to protect the vineyard from grassy winged sharpshooters and the Pierce’s Disease they tend to carry.

"In July, we started leaf thinning. On about July 9th, we started veraison, which is when the green grapes begin to change colors … going from green to red … with clusters showing both colors … really very pretty.

"Before July ended, we were completely through with veraison, and could see that the grapes were beginning to rapidly ripen.

"During the first week of August, we trimmed back the vines to make the rows more uniform and began applying the nets … by hand … 2.5 miles of nets applied by hand with the bottoms of the nets tied together with bread ties. We net to keep the birds from eating the ripening grapes … and to enable us to allow the grapes to hang as long as we wish without too much fear of losing the remaining crop to the increasing aggressive birds.

"We are still watering … we will water until about two weeks before harvest … which is getting really close. Once we stop watering, the sugar content of the grapes begins to jump rapidly.
We walked through the vineyard several days ago, selecting 100+ grapes from vines scattered throughout the vineyard … and noted that the brix was a bit over 21. In our experience, our sugar level seems to climb at about 1.5 brix per week now.

"Harvest is approaching … many things need to be done in preparation … selling grapes to wine makers … deciding on how much we wish to use for our own production … scheduling dates for the harvest (trying to break it up a bit this year … perhaps a few days as opposed to a “giant day”) … and chilling the champagne for the traditional sunrise toast as we prepare to venture forth into the vineyard waving our clippers and buckets at the sweet clusters of grapes waiting to be squeezed and pressed, forfeiting themselves to provide us with cases of wine to drink in the years to come."