Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Unrequited French Love: Petit Verdot


When I was living in Paris in my early 20s I always knew that I would marry a French woman. I imagined she would be petite like so many mignon gals from France I knew at the time but I never foresaw her surnom would be Verdot. At last, I have found her, the most fragrant of the fair. Maligned in Bordeaux where she is used only sparingly in blends, she has blossomed in San Diego County in your vineyard. I can't think of anyone who doesn't like la mademoiselle who has tasted le vin we have made from the Petit Verdot grapes of your estate. Ma maitresse que je l'aime!

As for the 2010 vintage, she presents certain issues. As Coyote Karen would say, perhaps it's menopause. Namely, in your attempt to restructure your vineyard this year you have been more than parsimonious with water. You have been Robespierre and simply cut it off and the vines have had to make due. What you have achieved are berries that are small, indeed, we could say petit. And, if your aim was to stress the vines, that too has been achieved. In the three previous years we have picked these grapes on average in the middle of September. Now we are in the middle of October, and we will be fighting the bees and the yellow jackets for more than our fair share. Yet, despite the long hang time and the mini heat waves, the sugars just don't seem to mount with these grapes. Last year, they reached 23 brix. But, a week ago, you were still at 22 brix. The bees, causing damage now with each berry invaded another pimple on my lady's complexion, tell me it's time to harvest. Just to be sure, we walked the vineyard, taking a random sample of 60 berries, 10 each from the six rows. The refractometer indicates a shade over 22 brix. The pH meter says 3.53 and the acid TA measurement is .68 The pH and acid readings are good and although the brix are a little less than perfect, what woman is? I'll take her, and perhaps by grabbing those raisins from lack of water and throwing those into the mix she'll become a little more sweet, like giving your date a box of chocolates.

We have learned from experience it's a challenge for Lady Petit Verdot to stand on her own. But with just a slight touch of make-up she is airbrushed to absolute perfection achieving supermodel status. Our aim this year is to take that dry-farmed Cab of yours, which we just pressed the other night and is so full of promise, and blend some of mademoiselle Verdot with it and with some of the Malbec to achieve the finest "Merleatage" ever created by a dog (or at least by a Blue-Merle Australian Shepherd). And, if it turns out as well as I think it can, I'll commission our tres chere amie Kelly P. of Salud Scent Studio to capture its fragrance in a tantalizing perfume worthy of the First Lady of France.

We're sorry you won't by able to join us for the pick but do keep resting that gash in your head and if the doctors allow you to drink a glass of wine I hope you'll do that as we travail. Enjoy the view from the window as we battle against the bees and the yellow jackets and the rising heat to bring these grapes home to the barrel. If, as you did during the Cab harvest a month ago, you are able to bring us a container of your 2009 Meritage wine, or for that matter any year, it makes a fitting winemaker's lunch with a pleasing taste that lasts all afternoon. (Hey Google, when are you going to add scratch and sniff to Blogger?)

(Photos of the Petit Verdot vineyard, vines and berries.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Good Chemistry, Questionable Grapes


I much prefer Coyote Karen as a lab partner, but how could I refuse your request to run an acid test on the Petit Sirah we picked this morning especially after you crushed it and Gatored it over to our place? Thank you.

I apologize for the delay in getting back to you with the lab results. I just returned to the house with Bluey in tow. He had been out chasing she-coyotes in heat, again. (I guess I would do the same if I were him -- after all, aren't all men dogs?) I should have known something was up last week as he began making low moans that grew into howls. I thought he was lamenting the loss of his friend Carlyle, the neighbor's cat, who went missing after an evening outside attending the Coyote's Ball. Instead, it was either an 8-year itch or a mid-life crisis, because for all the years of his life he's never, ever been one to roam. Well, that's what a hot bitch in a fur coat can do to a dog (and a man).

After the harvest I had planned to bring Bluey to the Three Priests for the Blessing of the Animals (if not outright confession for his recent transgressions) as the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is upon us. As I was getting ready to leave, the Queen showed up short of breath yelling "Karl Rove" had returned from the dead. (She can't pronounce C-a-r-l-y-l-e; the word comes out sounding like the Republican political strategist, which reminds me of our old friend Joe the Wino -- where is he? Out campaigning with the Tea Party?) Now a cat who dances with coyotes, disappears for a week and was proclaimed a goner but returns is a sight to be seen. He's our neighbor's cat and good vineyard friend. They asked us to look after him but it was like looking after a ghost because he was not to be seen, only a trail of dried blood drops from the cathouse to the woods as Carlyle had been injured just after they left. I went up to the house and sure enough he was asleep under the deck (had he been there the whole week and simply ignored our calls when changing his water and leaving fresh food?) I approached him carefully (perhaps he had rabies?) but he seemed well enough, if a bit beat up and tired. I put him inside the neighbor's house, feed him and comforted him. It was too late to drive to the church service, so (with apologies to the Three Priests for missing yet another church service) we just gave thanks where we were for the bountiful harvest and all the animals in our lives, especially the cats and dogs that survived while playing around with coyotes.

I headed back down the mountain to do your lab work, started a barbecue of sausages (somehow we had forgotten to eat today despite all the work) and then went out and took a sample of Grenache berries to measure their ripeness and to provide a control for the tests. The grill was smokey when I came back and the sausages were darker than a black cat. So much for eating.

I had 3 samples to test. The sample of Petit Sirah (PS) you gave me. The Grenache from our vineyard (as a control), and a sample of PS I took from our share of today's harvest. That sure was one of the most interesting harvests we've seen over the years, a perfect storm of powdery mildew, Pierce's disease and a blasted heat wave that taken together ravaged the grapes resulting in the lowest amount of juice we've ever seen. The mildew had decimated a good percentage of the vineyard, reducing what should have been plump grapes to dried out shells, without flavor nor sugar. And, what were plump berries just a week ago were shriveled by the surprise heat wave this week. Decimated by Pierce's disease and a fraction of its former self, it's become something of a family tradition to travel to Valley Center, the next hill over, each year for this harvest of the Scotchman's grapes and this year did not disappoint. In another chapter of the miracle of Don's vineyard, somehow, grape must was produced again this year in abundant quantity which should yield a barrel or two of distinguished wine. Yet, this 2010 vintage, with all of those skins, is going to present a challenge. Here's my strategy: cold soak for 4 days to extract as much fruit flavors and "soft tannins" as possible. Then, ferment for 3 - 4 days (without extending the fermentation beyond that). Then, pressing lightly (which is our normal custom) to produce a well balanced finished product to be blended to perfection with another grape, perhaps Petit Verdot to make another round of "Petit-Petit."

We were both pleasantly surprised to see that the brix (i.e., sugars) were in good shape ... close to 23.5 and likely to increase nicely with cold soaking because of all the raisins (not to mention skins) which should result in a bold Petit Sirah). And the pH was under control. But as I left, you pulled me aside and whispered that you were getting a reading of .9 on the acid, and would I mind checking it at our place because surely the acid could not be that high? Perhaps your test chemicals were out of date?

I have good news and good news and good news. There's nothing wrong with your testing procedure, nor your chemicals. Of the sample you gave me, I also measured TA (tartaric acid) of .91 with my equipment and my methodology. And, it should be noted that I measured .97 on not such a random sample from "our grapes" from the same vineyard. (For the record, I tested the acid of our Grenache, which was low as expected given the long hang time of this year's harvest.) Although you're concerned that the level of acid of PS is too high, let me share with you some wisdom about brix and acid from a master, my old mentor Angelo Pellegrini (bless his heart) who wrote almost 30 years ago in his book "Lean Years, Happy Years" :

"It has been established by years of experience that ... the sugar and acidity in the must will be adequate if the range is between 20 and 24 percent by volume of the one and .6 and 1 percent of the other. These are the minimum and the optimum.... I have found that when the sugar percentage is 23-plus and the total acidity near .8, the result will be a wine that will elicit the highest praise. Of such a wine we would say that the total acidity and the sugar in the must were in nearly perfect balance."

We are not too far from that my friend, and, with the luxury (and skill) of blending, we can achieve it.

So let us drink to the memory of Angelo, to the celebration of the harvest, to the nubile maidens (those who joined us and to those who dream of joining us some day) who crush the grapes, and to the cats and dogs and coyotes, and to good wine and good friends and our induction into the Order of Wise Old Peasants. Cheers!

Test Results:

Your Petit Sirah Sample: 23 brix; pH = 3.45; TA= .91
Our Petit Sirah Sample: 23.5 brix; pH = 3.54 TA = .97
Our Grenache Sample: 24 brix; pH = 3.55; TA=.56

Brix measured with refractometer.

Editor's Note: We welcome low acid on the Grenache because we have plenty of high acid wine with which to blend. Stay tuned for the Grenache harvest next week and the waiting of Petit Verdot.

Pictures: From top to bottom: 1) Bluey's Call of the Wild 2) Carlyle (aka, Karl Rove) 3) Petit Sirah vineyard in Valley Center, CA 4) Example of Powdery Mildew damage

Monday, September 13, 2010

Oh Hommage to Zinfandel: Can You Help Pick On Friday?

Dear Mark,

Waiting for the Zinfandel acid to drop has been like listening to a continuous recording of Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Grapedot.” As each day passes more of the fruit makes the metamorphosis from berry to raisin; another bird, imitating Luke Skywalker searching for an opening to the Death Star, discovers an entrance and flies into a biosphere of luscious grapes; another chipmunk, less elegant than the skywalker bird, simply gnaws his way through the net and chomps the clusters dry. When that author who wrote “The Sensuous Man” years ago described a certain exercise involving the peeling of the grape, he must have been dreaming of our titillating Zinfandel. (Gentle ladies, this being a family publication, please use your imagination).

Only you, our modern-day Johnny Appleseed who plants Zin vines everywhere in Hidden Meadows and San Diego County you trespass; only you, who makes the annual pilgrimage to San Francisco for the annual Zin festival to gain knowledge about this grape to share with the rest of us; only you understand the mystique of Zin. And so it is fitting we invite you to be Master of Ceremonies for our Annual Zin Harvest.

A correlation of forces has dictated that the harvest commence Friday at dawn, including:

*The brix have held steady (with our judicious application of water to control sugar and lower acid) at 24.5 – 25 brix. The pH has risen to 3.37 and the acid has dropped to .84

*The weather forecast calls for continued warm weather the rest of the week, giving the grapies three more days to increase sugars and lower acid

*If the Queen detects another grape transformed into a raisin, it’s more hell to pay.

Doesn’t it sound like it’s time to you?

Since we were out taking samples in the vineyard, we also pulled 50 berries of the Petit-Sirah to measure.Yes, PS, of which I suspect Merlot Mike himself to be a secret admirer. Her pH is up to 3.54, her acid, has dropped to .72 and the sugars, while hovering close to 22 will undoubtedly rise with cold soaking because one row of grapes is raisins, another is close to becoming so, which is balanced by the longest row, comprised of less ripe fruit, showing a strong kick near the finish line. The time is near. And, with Senior Pedro here that day, why not pull it also?

Some people like to jog in the morning before work. Why not join us for the harvest at the Blue-Merle’s TGIF’s dawn delight instead?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

If You Save a Bee Do You Save Hummanity?

After dark, the Queen left a light on in the winery and a door ajar so when I went in to close it for the night I noticed a couple of bees circling the light. In the morning, I found a tired, sad, motionless bee on a counter. He was still alive. The evening before I had been measuring the sugar levels of grapes and there was still some sweet nectar left which I spooned up and offered the Bee. He took a sip and then another and quickly perked up and buzzed off, happy. Fresh grape juice: The Breakfast of Champions.

For Sunday: Theological Reflections:

If you save a bee, do you save all of mankind?

Since the flaps of a butterfly can cause a typhoon in Asia, by saving a bee have I unleashed a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico?

If you want a buzz, isn't grape juice the best?

If I who as a child was stung by and afraid of bees can now save one, is there not hope for reconciliation in the world?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Controlling Runaway Sugars & Harvest Date With Irrigation

At times I feel like an airplane captain charged with bringing this commercial flight in with the smoothest possible landing, especially after last year's fiasco when it was more like a jet fighter landing on an aircraft carrier at night slamming down the tail hook and almost skidding off the deck. I had already made an announcement to the passengers that this was the last chance to get up and stretch their legs as we would soon be preparing for landing (while our pilot friends in Napa Valley, far to the north of here, are just getting round to serving cocktails on their flight). The weather turned warm 9 days ago and as expected the sugars in the then purple grapes began to rise. It was time to check how much. I took a representative sample of 20 berries from each block measuring the juice with a refractometer. The results (as of 8 p.m. Aug. 20):

Tempranillo: 19.5 brix
Zinfandel: 21.5 brix
Petit Sirah: 16.0 brix

The shocker was the Zin, because the Tempranillo started and finished veraison before the Zin, and I was planning to harvest the Tempranillo first. In addition, I've been consistently irrigating the Zin with more water this year than last (when a heat wave struck this time last year sending the Zin sugars to 28 brix while the acid was still high).

I tasted the Zin grape juice, and sure enough, my mouth puckered at the tartness and extremely high acid. "Ladies and gentlemen this is the Captain. The good news is we're ahead of schedule, but on the ground there's a plane stuck in our gate. Air Traffic Control has put the Zin flight into a holding pattern." In other words, we're turning up the water (or in this case, planning to give it its normal irrigation). So, this morning (Aug 21) I watered the Tempranillo and Petit Sirah for 45 minutes (except for the 2 longest and most fruitful rows of PS which got none); the Grenache for 1 hour and the Zin for 2 hours.

If you're concerned about our precious water resources, the Blue-Merle's water usage in July was 43 HCF (31% less than our allocation) with a cost of $157 for 1,150 vines plus alpha (alpha being the "family fruit trees" avocados, macadamias, olives, figs, peaches, oranges, tangelos, lemons, limes, persimmons, kumquats, pomplemousse, etc. and the 47 Canary Island Palm trees the Queen purchased with our last savings at the start of the recession which are now worth more than our house).

For the record, the small block of Durif (aka Petit Sirah) vines at the bottom of the hill are done: the sugars taste perfect, the berries are wrinkled. These are always the first to budbreak in the Spring and the first to ripen. We'll let them go ... it's only a couple of gallons of juice at most and at harvest their over-ripeness will contribute rich flavors to the overall Petit Sirah harvest.

Seasonal warm weather is forecast for the next week with the Tempranillo and Petit Sirah flights preparing for smooth landings in September. I wonder how turbulent the Zinfandel approach will be and if the Captain's actions will deliver a harvest with perfect sugars, acid and pH?

Update as of August 28th:

Zinfandel: 23 brix; pH=3.15; TA = 1.35
Tempranillo: 22 brix; pH=3.6; TA = .94

Watered Zin last Saturday (full watering, about 1.5 hrs) and Tempranillo (about 45 minutes); watered Zin again on Tuesday in middle of heat wave; watered Zin today (Sat. 8/28) for one hour. No water for Tempranillo. Temperatures of turned seasonably cool today for end of August. Let's see what next week brings.) Here we are, watering a drought resistant plant, in order to control sugars and ripening. This is why we're wine growers, not grape growers.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Harvest Forecast

For the third morning in a row the fog has stayed in the valley below and now ripening is beginning in earnest as purple sour grapes build sugar. The Tempranillo and Petit Sirah have been netted. Most growers in California are forecasting a late harvest. For us, two weeks later would put our harvest in mid-September, a bit earlier for the Tempranillo, a bit later for the Petit Sirah, Grenache and Zin, and much later for the Aglianico. Time to think about storage requirements. Can we accommodate the fruit we're expecting?

Fruit set of the Petit Sirah was solid and required thinning. (We dropped about 20% of the fruit.) Last year, we only harvested about 400 lbs, which was reduced because of mildew damage. I'm going to guess 50% more this year plus we have an additional 30+ vines coming on line so I'll estimate close to 750 lbs. (close to a barrel). The Tempranillo harvest last year yielded 1.5 barrels of juice. I'm forecasting about the same this year, with perhaps a slight increase if our nets hold (less for the birds, more for us). I wouldn't be surprised if we got close to 2 barrels of it this year. The Zinfandel yield was 500 lbs. and 30 gallons of juice. The fruit set has been good. Perhaps a 20% increase this year as the vines are stronger and carrying more weight. So, about 600 lbs. The Grenache and Aglianico are wildcards. Fruit set was poor for both varietals. Last year, we harvested about 200 lbs. of Grenache, which yielded about 13 gallons of liquid. We have a significant increase in vines coming on line, but I'm not sure of the fruit. So, I'll estimate about 250 lbs. And, for the Aglianico, about the same. Therefore, the forecast for juice is below in gallons (and in parentheses I'll list containers for initial storage and settling after pressing):

Tempranillo: 100 gallons (80 gallon flex tank + 15 gallon stainless barrel + 1 carboy)
Petit Sirah: 50 gallons (48 gallon poly container)
Zinfandel: 40 gallons (1 15-gallon stainless barrel, 1 15-gallon glass carboy, 2 carboys)
Grenache: 15 gallons (3 carboys)
Aglianico: 15 gallons (3 carboys)

It looks like most of the storage is available, without needing to bottle last year's wine to free up space. Good news; we'll let the 2009 wines age longer before bottling, which should improve their quality.

I wonder if we'll be harvesting the Tempranillo Labor Day Weekend? And, when will the annual 3-Vineyard Harvest at Merlot Mike's take place?


Thinking about the harvest.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New Vineyard Friend: (Don't Call Me Kitty) Carlyle

When our neighbors told us they were going away on vacation and asked us to take care of their cat how could we refuse? Especially after they told us he catches gophers. And, because he was going to be outside, there would be no litter box to clean. Carlyle is the skinniest, most undistinguished, runt of a cat you've ever seen. But the fact that he was going to spend nights outside in Coyote Country was impressive. The neighbors two week vacation was going to be his test of cathood, his first allnighters in the wild and no sooner did the neighbors leave that the coyotes, who had been on their own hiatus, came howling back to town in the valley below.

Our Japanese vineyard manager can't pronounce l's and the closest sound she can mimic is "r" so she calls him Carrow. "Isn't his name Karl Rove?" She's always watching Fox News when not vineyarding.

The vineyard needed spraying and as I walked down the rows of vines in my space suit Carlyle trotted faithfully behind while vineyard dog stayed in the shade under a tree, supervising. My new best friend in the vineyard. Then, Carlyle brought me a present (a mouse trying to get in the house, pictured above). Then I found the remains of an avocado-eating chipmunk. Yes, old Carlyle is a good cat. Bluey is still trying to figure out exactly who this "Carrow" is. The last time he tried to sniff his butt he almost got his eyes scratched out. Undeterred, Bluey chased Carlyle up a pepper tree, where he sat on a limb and smiled like the Cheshire cat. The neighbors came back and Carlyle had survived the coyotes and the Blue-Merle and we liked having him around so each day you can hear calls of "Karrrrooooow0, Karrrrooooooowwwo" and "here kitty, kitty, kitty" in the vineyard, and the prancing feline will make an appearance. Of course those catcalls are also triggers for the Blue-Merle, setting him off in a frantic search. It's good to have a new weapon to deploy against the chipmunks, who are boldly racing into the vineyard in search of purple grapes. Vineyard cat.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Need Your Input To Create the Next Best Thing

Would you help us?

We're asking our fans, friends and followers to help us create an exceptional wine. We have a dozen or so different 2009 wines in bulk storage and we'd like your input into which blends to create. I'll provide a brief summary of each wine then a few ideas to get things started.

This weekend, we're welcoming a group of fans from San Diego to come here and concoct some of your blending recommendations (plus their own ideas). Then we'll taste, tweak, then taste again in search of the perfect vino-nectar. I'm thinking of dividing the group into four teams to create a little competition, something like a World Cup of Wine, with the teams being The Spanish, The French, The Italians, The Californians, tasked with blending traditional (and not so traditional) wines from their region. The winners will have the honor of seeing their wine blended as an official Blue-Merle offering, and of course complimentary bottles for their efforts.

The Spanish Wines

Tempranillo (Estate): This is a big, bold, dark wine. It can stand on its own. Some could be blended with a weaker wine.

Garnacha (Estate): Otherwise known as Grenache in France, a lighter red wine.

(Spanish Team Ideas: Trying blending a little Tempranillo with the Garnacha. Try blending wines from other regions with the Tempranillo to create a "Super Spanish Wine."

The Italian Wines

Nebbiolo (Guadeloupe): A big, bold red. This vintage a little salty. The 2006 Nebbiolo we made is one of the most liked of all our wines, but I'm not so sure about the 2009. Should be good for blending.

Montepulciano (Guadeloupe): Generally, this wine tastes good mostly on its own, but the 2009 grapes may also be a little "salty."

Aglianico (Guadeloupe): A very bold wine. Good for blending. Alas, some salt.

Brunello: (San Diego) The Brunello (Sangiovese) from San Diego has its own unique taste. We've blended it already with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot which made it much more palatable to our liking, and could be the basis for creating a fantastic "Super Tuscan" wine.

(Italian Ideas: Blend the Brunello with some of the "French" wines to create a "Super Tuscan." Create a "Super Italian" wine using the Italians as a base, and improved with some of the other varietals in the winery.)

The French Wines:

Mouvedre (Paso Robles): The grape of Bandol. Very fruit forward. Floral. Delicious. But high pH.
Grenache (Estate): The grape of Chateauneuf du Pape, in this case from young vines.

Petit Verdot (San Diego & Paso Robles): There are two batches of Petit Verdot, both delicious. The Paso Robles one is very fruit forward with high pH. The San Diego one (a local vineyard below us which has been the source of our past Petit Verdots which is much adored) is more subtle and lower pH. Both are very, very floral. One idea is to combine the two into a very complex Petit Verdot.

Cabernet Franc (Paso Robles): Another "fruit forward" wine from Paso Robles. May have been slightly oxidized after the fermentation process (whoops!) so the team will be asked to judge if it is worth standing on its own, to be blended or to be dumped. Also, high pH.

Petit Sirah: (San Diego): This PS was picked at low brix (22.5) and is not as bold as previous Petit Sirahs. Given its low pH, it's a good candidate for blending.

(French suggestions: Thinking about pH--high pH equates to shorter aging potential--it may make sense to blend some of the lower pH wines with the higher ones. Not wanting to lead the witness, I expect your suggestions to create the greatest "Merleatage" ever!)

The Californian Wines

Tempranillo/Petite Sirah Blend (Estate): Big, bold, dark, purple, New World wine, with ripe Petit Sirah grapes from the Blue-Merle Vineyard providing hints of persimmon. Currently, it's a 50-50 blend. with the Petit Sirah overpowered by the Tempranillo.

Zinfandel (Estate): This is a high acid wine, with low pH from young 3rd leaf fines. It can't stand on its own, and should be blended.

(Ideas for The California Team: Be creative!)

Final thoughts:

"Good wine is made in the vineyard. Great wine is made by blending."

"The objective of blending is to create something better. If blending lowers the taste of one of the wines, don't blend it."

What would you suggest?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Uncle! We Give Up: Water Please!

I've been sponsoring a contest among the vines to see who can go the longest without water. The first to cave in were the top three rows of Tempranillo, located amongst the rocks with little to no soil (and shallow root depth). I gave them a drink of water a week ago, and seconds today. Also today the Zinfandel cried "uncle" giving up the contest for a 2-hour drink, their first watering of the season. (Most of the Zinfandel are located on a cliff without soil.) My objective is to be parsimonious with the water (we're still in a drought situation), without damaging the vines (still young, only in their "fourth leaf"). I expect the lower Petit Sirah and the lower Tempranillo vines to win this content, but the Aglianico and the Grenache are still hanging in. Will revisit them the July 4th weekend to see how they're doing. I'm looking closely at the top tendrils to see what direction they're pointing (are they drooping?) and their condition(are they dry?); also looking closely at the leaves. The photo above shows the Tempranillo vines; notice the fading color of the older leaves near the cordon. Many of the tendrils (photo at left) are beginning to droop a bit. The picture below shows a row of the Zinfandel. We could be two months plus two weeks away from harvest. On my mind are ordering nets (to keep the birds from the grapes -- the nets we used last year had too many holes); ordering glass to prepare for bottling some of the 2009 wines this fall (or, in lieu of bottling, more barrels or flex tanks); and finalizing blends of the 2009 wines. I'm going to ask you (the readers of the blog) and friends of the winery to help us finalize the blends.

Welcome To Fog City USA: San Diego

For 17 mornings straight, drops of fog dew have been dripping off the vines at dawn, as a smokey marine layer generated by the Pacific Ocean creeps over hills and seeps into valleys and ascends as high as 1,600 ft. to the top of Blue-Merle Country. Welcome to San Diego: Fog City U.S.A. As we're inland, by late morning the haze lifts, burns off and at sunset begins to eek it's way back uphill from the coast, for what we can only describe as perfect weather for humans (and for powdery mildew). If I were a "marketeer" of expensive fine wines I'd write about how the grapes bask in sunlight during the day and are made delicious by cool ocean breezes at night. Hogwash! At least according to the experts I've asked. Grapes need heat to ripen. So, like vacationers to San Diego's beaches who are disappointed to find June Gloom, the grapes are missing the sun and are behind schedule. "Be careful what you ask for," I warn them, because surely a heat wave is on its way and you'll soon be dreaming of cooler, foggy days.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Drop to Cure, an Ounce to Kill: Whoops!

I noticed a powdery mildew outbreak in the Aglianico vines along the shed. I had this coming as the canopy is mismanaged, not allowing good airflow. But, I've learned a few things since last year, when mildew spread across half of the vineyard and I found it difficult to control (and lost 1/2 of the Petit Sirah and 1/2 of the Grenache crops). There's miracle, organic, JMS Stylet oil that arrests mildew outbreaks. The recommended dilution rate with water is 1% to 2%, so I remembered from elementary school there are 16 oz to a pint, 32 oz to a half gallon and 64 ounces to a gallon, right?* So if there are 64 oz to a gallon then I should blend in 6.4 oz of stylet oil per gallon, right? Wrong! The correct amount is .6 oz. What was I thinking?! Alas, I overdosed the vines. Fortunately, light was running out that evening, and I only attacked the worst spots, and I got the dosage correct for the rest of the block. The two pictures above show dead leaves and shriveled grapes as a result of my mistake. I've heard that vines are tough characters, so I think these guys may come back with time. The picture below shows healthyAglianico vines I sprayed with the correct dosage. I wonder when they're going to need some water?

*(Wrong! 128 ounces to a gallon! So the correct dilution is 1.2 oz per gallon + / -)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

If It's Thursday We Must Be Spraying


Looking forward to seeing you on Thursday. There's been a "cold wave" in these parts with fog each morning and moisture on the vines. The afternoons have been warming up over 70 degrees, and the mildew index is at 100. It's been two weeks since the last spraying, and we've been busy removing excess laterals from the fruiting area. The vines will be ready for another spraying on Thursday.

Based on our experience last time, here’s what I suggest:

Start at the “back gate” (off of Merlot Mike's road) at the top of the hill (by the shed). I’ll leave the back gate open and put some 2 X 4’s up there to make it easy to unload the sprayer from your truck. There’s a hose by the shed you can use for water.

The whole vineyard uses just shy of a full tank of your 32 gallon sprayer. We have 1,150 vines spread out over 2 acres. I suggest “dosage” as if you’re dosing 1.5 acres.

Let’s use Rubigan. (We sprayed 2 weeks ago using Rally.)

FYI, we are battling a mildew infestation on the Aglianico vines – this is the block at the top of the hill around the shed area (flat area at top). I sprayed JMS Organic Stylet oil one week ago. Things seem to be under control. But if you see they are out of control, let me know.

Using your power hose, not sure if it’s possible to control the stream so you get broader leaf coverage, but if so, the foliage is thick, and I hope you can cover it all.

I gave in and watered 3 rows of Tempranillo vines (at the top in a rough area) on Sunday that were beginning to show signs of stress, but other than that, have not watered vines (except for Admire treatment). Let me know what your impression is about signs of stress vines are showing (or not showing) and if there’s a need to water soon. (All that vigorous growth you're seeing is the work of nature and the 15" of rain we had over the winter.)

Please bring invoice for the Admire treatment and Thursday’s spraying. I’ll leave a check with the Queen. Would like you to leave with a check -- it's good for cash flow.

Please pencil us in for July 8th (Thursday) or the 9th. Based on my experience last year (and talking with other vineyard owners), the Aglianico vines will very likely need another spraying.

Call me with any issues or concerns. Thanks for your help, and if it’s possible to enjoy the work (or at least the views), then enjoy. (Be sure and grab a tangelo; they’re delicious!) And watch out for that snake out there among the rocks.

Bluey & Craig

(P.S. Picture is of mildew free Petit Sirah / Durif cluster at foggy dawn. This area was ground zero for the mildew explosion that almost wiped us the Durrif harvest last year. )

Sunday, May 9, 2010

What's Best Way to Spray Vineyard on Steep Terrace?

The challenge was how to effectively spray a small vineyard on a steep slope to keep Powdery Mildew at bay. For some locations, there may be ample space during vineyard installation to terrace wide, flat rows between vines so that a tractor or other four wheeled vehicle (such as a Gator) can be loaded with a sprayer and carted between the rows. (Our property is relatively small and so we didn't terrace the land.) A simple backpack sprayer takes approximately two days and is much trouble as the liquid seems to always get clogged, and the spray in uneven. Another possibility was to purchase a motorized backpack sprayer. This would work, providing a good mist on the vines, but is heavy to carry around. Last year, Frank Bons of Sunfresh Vineyards, who operates a vineyard management company in San Diego County, sprayed the vineyard with a long hose (approximately 300 feet) connected to a large tank on his truck, first stationing the truck at the bottom of the vineyard, then driving by paved road to the back of the property. This operation took another person to manage the hose. Not all vines were reached, and a couple of sections needed to be done with a backpack sprayer. Says Frank, when it comes to spraying, "I don't like your vineyard."

As the Blue-Merle is a difficult vineyard to spray, careful attention is paid to monitoring the mildew index using the University of California, Davis system to make sure spraying is done only when absolutely necessary. Secondly, Frank suggested using a spray such as Rubigan which is effective for 14 - 21 days, depending on the weather. Frank came up with an approach that worked. He brought a 30 gallon pump on wheels to the property, hauling it to the top of the hill, connected to his 300 foot hose. (Next time, remember to drive the pump to the back gate, and lower it using 2 X 4's.) From there, he marched up and down the rows, moving the pump down the hill and across the property as required. The actual spraying operation took less than one hour. Strong pressure from the hose meant he only had to spray one side of each row.

We used 2 oz of Gowan Rubigan (Fenarimol). According to the label, the recommended dosage for wine grapes is 2 - 4 ounces per acre. We have approximately 2 acres of vines and thought we would recharge the 30 gallon sprayer once and so mixed 2 oz. of Rubigan into the machine. It ends up that we used slightly less than 30 gallons (there are approximately 1,150 vines on the property). As this was the first spraying of the season and there was no sign of mildew, Frank thinks a light spraying may have been better. Meantime, we'll continue to monitor the temperatures to keep track of the mildew pressure, preparing for another spraying later this month, using a different spray to avoid resistance buildup.

(Picture above shows grapes infected with Powdery Mildew in early June last year.)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Just Another Day in Critter Country

A bobcat walked by the door at dawn and trotted down the hill and off the property as I reached for a camera. Nice way to begin a day. Frank came over to spray the vines and as we discussed sharpshooter activity (making an executive decision to do the treatment next week to keep the bugs away) two daredevil hummingbirds split the three feet of space between us traveling so fast we couldn't see them, their sonic buzz and chirps the only evidence of their stunt. (Had the birds grown up watching movies of the pilot who flew under the Arch de Triomphe in Paris? Were these the same birds that starred in the movie Pocahontas?) We looked at each other and said, "Whoa."

The crazy lady managed to persuade the gophers on her side of the fence to infiltrate our side so I set traps as Bluey snorted among the rocks foraging for dried leaves (he thinks they're truffles). "Get over here," I called as it's warm now and they're out there. I thinned some of the strong Aglianico vines near the gopher holes and moved some 3ft. long wayward shoots inside the catch wires of the trellis system and spotted a full grown glassy wing sharpshooter and clamped fingers around it but he got away, the first one of the season. (These bugs are vectors for a disease that will kill your vines.)

I gathered up the shovel and extra gopher traps and making jingling noises as metal hit metal walked onto the path to head down the hill as Bluey led the way which he always does and I wished he'd stay behind me. Inside the squirrel hole by the path a black mass the size of large dog's turd was partially in the sun revealing a diamond pattern. I told Bluey to stay and I could only see the coiled girth of the vulnerable serpent without view of head or tail and unsure of his size. I brought Bluey back to the house and picked a weapon of choice (a metal spear) which I could thrust into the hole but the Queen was there and after explaining to her why I was putting Bluey inside she said "Don't kill it. It didn't bite you. I will go and tell it to leave."

It's her birthday and I'm trying to be nice and respectful and listen to her and tomorrow's Mother's Day and so why start a fight? I marched up to the shed to get a 32-gallon trash container which we call wine fermenters in September and a long stick to scoop up the snake and release it in the wilderness and when I got to the spot the Queen was there telling the snake not to come back. I inserted the long handle of a shovel into the hole and the reptile woke from its slumber and moved into the tunnel out of reach. Though that network of underground passageways the snake could show up anywhere. (Yes Lera, Brian, Ginny, Steve, Katie and the Earthy Woman Under The Yellow Tennis Ball this is exactly where you were walking the other week and now you see why I usually carry a shovel in the vineyard this time of year and it isn't just to cut down weeds.) Personally I don't mind snakes and we share mutual feelings towards ground squirrels and gophers but snakes and dogs don't mix.

We started working the 3rd block of 30 "sad vines" which had put out more green shoots and with the warm, longer days and cool nights everything in the vineyard is growing rapidly. To work in a vineyard is entering a time machine and two hours passed before we snapped out of our trance and noticed we were hungry so the Queen went back to the house and I went back to the squirrel hole and Mr. Snake was back again. It's the Queen's birthday and I let him be and we'll keep Bluey on a short leash.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Troubling Signs In The Vineyard: Time To Call in Disease Sleuth

Approximately 100 vines in the vineyard are showing troubling signs: dormancy; stunted growth; dried baby shoots; discolored yellowish leaves. Managing a vineyard requires being a sleuth to discern what's going on. Four cases, with accompanying photographs, are discussed below. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

Case #1. Two blocks of 3rd leaf Petit-Sirah vines (about 50 plants) are not putting out shoots along the cordon. To paraphrase Monty Python, are they dead or just resting? It's late in the season for them not to have budbreak. At first, I thought we had burned the vines by applying too much lime sulfur mixed with organic JMS Stylet oil during their dormant spray. (Repeat, the vines were dormant, no green showing when we sprayed in winter.) Pete Anderson, who teaches vineyard management at Mira Costa Community College, assures me that is impossible. (On the other hand, in our backback sprayer the sulfur concentrates at the bottom and I'm sure these vines received an extra fortified dosage.) Pete asked me to clip the "deadwood" of the vines back to see if they are alive, and when I cut the ends of the cordon, I find that the sap is flowing. The vines seem to be alive, and shoots are coming out from the bottom of the trunks. Pete said another possibility is Pierce's Disease (PD), but to my understanding, to test for PD you need leaves, and these vines are not putting out leaves (except some new shoots at the base). At first, I didn't think PD was likely for this block, because it wasn't an area where we had seen many glassy wing sharp shooters (GWSS), which are vectors for the disease (plus, we had administered AdmirePro in the spring to ward off the GWSS). Could a pair of gophers have wiped out the vines? I began to see PD as a real possibility, so I called the San Diego County Dept. of Agriculture and left a message. My call was promptly returned (excellent customer service!) by Ms. Pat Nolan, an expert on PD whom I had heard give an engaging, authoritative lecture on PD at Mira Costa Community College last year. Ms. Nolan suggested I dig up a whole vine with roots intact so that she could run some tests to see what's bothering it. (The picture at left shows the spot where the sacrificial vine came from -- along with its colleagues down the row with no leaves). Mateo dug up the vine in protest saying it was healthy. I drove the vine down to the county office and dropped it off for Ms. Nolan's department to conduct the autopsy.

Case #2. Similar to the above, except that the vines are not dormant. They have put out shoots. However, many of the shoots have wrinkled leaves and are not vigorous. And, the leaf color is not as deep a green as healthier cousins. A whole block (30 vines of Petit-Sirah) looks similar to this. I invited Matt Hand of Southern California Entomology, a disease expert, to come and inspect. He suspects PD, but to be sure, he suggested we test it. I took leaf samples from this vine (shown at left) and brought it to the County for evaluation.

Case #3. Case three involves a row of Tempranillo vines which is the most vigorous row in the vineyard as it is at the bottom of the hill where there is actually some top soil, and, some vines may have tapped into the nutrients and moisture of the leach field. Of 25 vines in this row about 20 are impacted. The signs are little growth (which Mr. Hand calls "witchbrooming"), uneven growth (with shoots concentrated at the center of the vine and not pushing out the ends) and discoloration (which Mr. Hand calls "chlorosis"). This was an area of heavy sharpshooter concentration at the end of last year's growing season, and Mr. Hand strongly suspects PD. I'm preparing the chain saw to cut them down and a crew to dig them out and placing an order to Novavines for replacements. I sent a sample of leaves from the vine shown at left to the County for analysis, just to be sure. (PD can be transferred from an infected vine to a healthy vine by sharpshooters; hence the need to remove infected vines from the vineyard.)

Case #4 is not as clear cut. This involves the Grenache block on the opposite side of the vineyard. Very few sharpshooters have been observed in this area. Yet, to borrow a phrase from Sesame Street, "some of these vines are not like the others." The vine at left is showing slightly off colored leaves, and some very weak shoots. Could the small dead shoots be caused by too much wind? Did compost I place around the vines in Winter rob them of nitrogen? Has a dodgy gopher been attacking the vine unknown to us? Is the vine not getting enough nutrients? Concerning nutrition, it's almost time to take a petiole sample to conduct an analysis of the vine's uptake of nutrients, which is done when the grapes are "flowering." Meantime, to find out if PD could be the cause, I took a sample of leaves from this plant and sent it to the county.

So, you want to be a farmer?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Thinning The Shoots

San Diego's weather the last few weeks has been what you imagine it to be: beautiful. It's been warmer the last few days than most days in June and we're finally thawing out after the cold and storms that visited us in winter. The new green shoots of the vines are loving the sun and growing inches by the day. As the globe celebrated Earthhour on Saturday we were the last of "the wave" that circulated round the world turning out our lights. So it is with ringing in the New Year with California among the last populated time zones to cheer the clock strike twelve. But when it comes to vines it's as if budbreak in North America starts here first, right in our backyard. And as some of the first shoots reached the first wire, it's time to thin them, the idea being to have more or less two shoots per spur, approximately sixteen shoots per vine (on our 6' ft. spaced vines), more or less. It being early in the season, and with the possibility of El Nino's last desperate gasp at rain (the little baby seems to have disappeared in March), I leave extra shoots, just in case. The objective is to have proper spacing between remaining shoots to improve air flow making powdery mildew easier to manage. Also, we're not trying to grow the "most fruit" but the "best fruit" and thinning reduces yield.

Saturday was also Bluey's birthday. He's now a robust 8 years old about the same age as me in dog years and for an Australian Shepherd, he's mellowing out and aging quite nicely, just like the wine in the barrels.

The Queen spied her first snake of the season this afternoon among the rocks of the Protea Garden. "It was a nice snake,"' she said.
"How do you know?" To her, any snake that doesn't bite her is nice.
"It didn't rattle."
"Could it have been one of the new deadlier breeds that doesn't rattle?" Darwin has been working his laws of evolution with the snakes of this region. Since those that rattle tend to get killed, survival of the fittest is resulting in snakes that don't make noise.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

At Spring, Looking Back on Winter's Vineyard Mistakes

The first day of Spring with three-quarters of the vineyard in bud break and some shoots five inches long. Spanish and French lavender are in full bloom. It is a period of renewal for the vines and for the United States as well, I hope. In the vineyard's case there is a threat lurking underneath the serene picture of green shoots: mildew. Since hope is not a strategy I'll take decisive action to implement a spraying program in upcoming weeks to control it.

In hindsight, we made serious mistakes managing the vineyard this winter that could easily have been avoided. Novice vineyard owners and future grape growers pay attention. It is yet to be seen how grave the mistakes will be, but we have definitely made our vines susceptible to fungal infections this year. In hindsight, it is better to:

1) Wait until pruning as late as possible in the season. We started pruning in mid-January, but there is no reason why we couldn't have waited until mid-February. One reason for waiting is rain encourages mildew and other fungi to enter the pruning cuts in the vine. Our error this year was pruning early. After we pruned, the vineyard experienced heavy rains -- and strong fungal growth around the pruned spurs.

2) Immediately after pruning (i.e., the same day), apply a fungicide to the cuts. This is easily done with a paint brush. Next year, I will make this brush application part of the pruning process: prune a row then paint over the cuts. This is to protect the wounds from fungi (and the health of the vine). Think of it as washing your hands with soap and water after a cut to reduce the risk of bacterial infection.

3) A day or so after pruning apply dormant spray and oil, soaking the entire vines. (Our error this year was waiting two weeks before spraying, allowing fungi to grow.)

For a compilation list of errors in the vineyard & winery, I invite you to click on this link: http://www.winemakersjournal.com/lessons.html

What's done is done. Once again we've become a laboratory for unwanted vineyard experimentation. Our consolation will be topping off the barrels this evening (and tasting the 2009 wines). The last time we did this the Tempranillo was to die for.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

New Weapon For Weed Control: Flame Thrower

I pulled into the vineyard's driveway and noticed one of the staff donning a protective face shield as he carefully sprayed around the bottom trunks of the vines. As I got closer I was surprised to see what seemed like fire spouting out the nozzle. In the tasting room I asked if a flame thrower was being used? They didn't know so pointed me to the vineyard manager who explained they were experimenting with new weed control techniques this year. Instead of using Roundup adjacent to the vines, they were trying propane gas. Are you planning to become organically certified? No, but as a sustainable vineyard we're trying to use less chemicals, he said. As he spoke the distinct essence of propane made it's appearance outside the tasting room. Don't strike a match, I joked. I wonder how that device would work pointed down gopher holes?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Jumping Is For The Dogs

The sun shone early this morning as Bluey and I went for a run through the vines. As I jogged along the rows cut into the mountainside, he zigzagged and slalomed around poles demonstrating the agility of an Olympic skier. The way he lept over irrigation lines and obstacles going downhill impressed me. I came to a bale of hay on the course and had a brilliant idea: make a jump for him, with the image of equestrian competition. I called him over and asked him to pay attention and as I jumped over the bale of hay he trotted around it smiling, acknowledging he had made me follow the command to "jump." Smart dog. I thought I would give it one more try so walked back up the hill above the hay bale. Let me set the picture for you. We are on an 35 degree incline on a curved path above the vineyard with the vines below us on the left. I built up some speed and tookoff into the air as Bluey watched me land on one foot, the first step in an unplanned triple jump with step two taking me over the side of the "cliff" and step three with me flying towards the wires of the trellis system....
(Post script: My fingers are intact and I'm able to type. The careful forensic observer may notice in the photograph my foot prints and bodyprint below the vines. The dog just smiled knowing he had won.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Masterpiece: A Perfect Row of Vines

In the six years we've been writing about winemaking then grape growing these pages have recounted countless mistakes, obstacles and disasters which is to be expected as I have no natural ability to succeed at such endeavors as make wine or farm land. But as I tied and primed a row of newer Aglianico vines on Sunday I observed something I've rarely seen before and certainly never recounted on these pages: a row of perfect vines. Well balanced, with good plumbing. Well formed, with no mildew nor mold. These are vines we did by the book. After the first year, we pruned them back to two buds just above the ground, so that last year they sent out strong shoots we could lay down as cordons. In this particular row, we decided to train one arm, a single cordon, for straight plumbing. As these vines enter their third year now, they are picture perfect. A success story. A masterpiece. Next quest: the perfect glass of wine. On that score, I was inspired this week by Andrew Lloyd Weber. I'm dreaming of creating a "Phantom" wine, whomsoever drinks of it will experience the full power of a love that never dies. Would you share a glass?

Hey, What's That Green Stuff?

Something is rotten in the state of Blue-Merle Country. A greenish, blackish moldy substance, which I might be pleased to see in blue cheese or a penicillin petri dish, is growing on the vines right where the woolly cotton buds are bulging in preparation of sending forth new shoots. I'm wondering if this is good stuff or bad stuff and in the worst case what impact this might have on the grapes and how am I ever going to control it?

It so happened that a county agricultural inspector was out our way and I asked her about it. She said all the rain and moisture we've been having has encouraged fungus to grow (which makes sense because this is the wettest I've seen it in the 3 years since we planted the vines). We've had 13.7" of rain season to date, with more on the way later this month. Her thought was once the weather warmed up the fungus would dry and fade away. (If only it were that easy.)

I took a picture of the growth and sent it to Pete Anderson, a vine expert in San Diego and always willing to offer advice. Here's what he said:

"There are three types of fungi that invade our vines: uncinula necator (powdery mildew); aspergillus niger (black fungus); penicillium (green or blue fungus). I have all three in my small vineyard. Treat it like powdery mildew; use the oil to eradicate."

I wonder if Pete brought us the penicillium during his last visit? Well, now that the county inspector has paid us a visit it's legal for us to purchase and use organic stylet oil to try and control it. I'm also thinking about pumping milk from some neighboring goats to make cheese.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sweet Grapes, Salty Grapes but Never Sour Grapes

"I want to buy lots of grapes this year," she said, "Lots!"
"Whose going to make the
"I will."

In mid-August, a long, long time ago, we cut water to the vines in the final stage before harvest to encourage final ripening. The sugars in the grapes were rising steadily and the Tempranillo would be ready for picking in two weeks with the rest of the vineyard following a couple of weeks later in mid-September. Then it struck: a massive heat wave with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and while I kept my eye on the Tempranillo the sugars in the Zinfandel shot up with the once plump grapes turning into soft raisins and prunes. I took a sample of 100 berries to measure the sugar. 26 brix: Too high! I turned on the water in a futile attempt to slow down the ripening and decided to harvest the next day, two weeks ahead of our plan.

No time for picking party. No time for vineyard blessing ceremony. No time to be the perfect host to our friends from France who had just arrived for a relaxing vacation. I sent out an SOS call to the neighbors. It's time.

Merlot Mike said he'd bring the Gator, but called back later to say he had promised to make sandwiches for the tea ladies and could only come for an hour. Coyote Karen was harvesting her own grapes and couldn't help. I didn't have the number for Rodrigo or Augustine. And, as I did my best to spend time with our dear friends from France I wasn't on the phone as I should have been recruiting help for the next day. Well, I thought, being French and the Kings of Wine they ought to be expert pickers and two more bodies would be needed.

At midnight on the last Saturday in August 2009, I sent an email requesting a blessing to our patron the Bishop and pledged a tithe from the harvest. Bluey and I then hiked up into the vineyard holding a solar powered accent light, said our prayers , banged the ground with a shovel to clear away the rattlesnakes (it must have been close to 90 degrees outside, even at that hour) and began the first night harvest (and the inaugural harvest) in the history of the Blue-Merle Vineyard. We worked for an hour, gathered 50 lbs. and returned with our fingers and paws intact. (Friends, it's hard to pick grapes at night with a flashlight. The dog has trouble holding it steady. Next time we'll use miners' helmets.)

At dawn, as I prepared to head back into the vineyard, Snakeman James arrived. He had cleared a monster rattler earlier that summer. "Sorry I'm late. I got your message last night after getting back from an evening with the Commander. Afraid we enjoyed ourselves a bit too much."

"You are our cavalry and savior. Good to see you. Welcome aboard!" I saluted him and gave him a quick lesson in grape picking 101 (rule #1: Don't clip your finger), then sent him on his mission.

Then the neighbors above us Peter & Pam arrived. I hugged her and shook his hand, grateful for the help.

The Queen awoke from her slumber. "I'm calling Fidel."

"You're what?" She hates Fidel.

"It doesn't matter. You can't do this by yourself. You need more people." So she called her enemy who takes Sunday's off. No, he couldn't help. But he gave her Augustine's number. It was 7am by this time. I called Augustine, and he didn't sound pleased to hear from me at that hour on a Sunday. Fortunately, I couldn't understand all the names he called me in Spanish (something about madre and carumba). He called Rodrigo and by 8am they arrived and we were rescued. Meantime, Merlot Mike dressed in a sleeveless yellow tank-top arrived with Mark.

"Mike, why is it that you always where a muscle shirt during harvest?"
"I might get lucky."
"I think you wear yellow so the bees will think you're the Queen and won't sting you." Now we were making progress and the grapes were filling the bins and the bins were stacking up. Since the vineyard is on a hillside I just slid them down the hill, like sledding.

The house guests from France made an appearance and went and picked for an hour. Then low and behold Joe the Wino himself showed up (after Merlot Mike had left because he had to go and make tea sandwiches for the tea ladies) with his 4-wheel drive vineyard mobile and the grapes were coming in and we got the press cranked up and found out the chute didn't function properly (in fact, the stand I was given had no chute) and grape juice started splattering out all over the place except where it was supposed to go but by 1pm we were done and the French guests were back in their chambre resting and the Tempranillo and the Zinfandel had been crushed and everyone was a hero and we were so grateful because we couldn't have done it alone. It was not well planned but we did what we could do to get the grapes in and we survived and more than five months later (in early March as I edit the final verses) the wines have been settling in the barrels and for three-year-old vines the wine is tasting pretty good and I'm pleased and Bluey gives them four licks. In fact, the wine is tasting damn good. That was the first pick and crush of the season and just the beginning.

"I want to make a lot of wine this year," the Queen announced. She said this with the same authority she used 10 years ago when she woke up one Sunday and said we're bringing the children to Church. You couldn't argue against it. I tried to reason with her.
"Who's going to make it?" I asked, knowing it would be me. It takes a lot of work to make lots of wine. She's a 98 lbs. weakling and takes showers and sprays herself with Channel No. 5 before going into the vineyard. She's a vineyardista who doesn't get her hands dirty.
"I will," she said. Yeah right, I thought. "Call Pete right now and ask him for grapes," she commanded. "I want one ton of Nebbiolo and a ton of Montepulciano. I really like Montepulciano."

"How about Agliancio?" We gave up on our own Aglianico grapes this year. Too much mildew damage.

"Yes, that too." So I got on the phone left messages and sent emails and was somewhat surprised it being late in the season when I got the response that our orders had been confirmed.

"Our orders?" I asked. "I was asking if they were available."

"Don't you want them?" Pete asked.

"OK, we'll take them."

Merlot Mike called, "How much Merlot do you want this year?"

"Mike, I've got so many grapes coming in I don't know what to do."

"OK, that's fine. We have too many buyers and not enough grapes and I wanted to give you first shot."

A week later Paso Robles Bill called. "Craig, do you want any Paso grapes this year?" Well the Queen was getting her grapes and how could I give up an option to purchase grapes from Paso Robles, one of my favorite wine making regions. It was the first sign I might be catching "crazy lady disease," most likely infected by our neighbor Coyote Karen who broke every zoning law in the county and every federal regulation protecting wetlands by putting a 40' container in her front yard to house her winemaking operation.

Then there was the annual trip to Valley Center with Merlot Mike to pick the Petit Sirah. "Mike, do you want me to drive up there to test the grapes before harvest?"

"No need to. Don's tested them. Says they're 24 brix. We get them on Sunday."

"Sunday? I won't be here. I need to go to Texas on business."

The Queen said, "I'll go. I can do it."

"Well, you'll have to. I'll be out of town. Be careful what you wish for."

So with me out of town, our women folk stayed behind and harvested the grapes and put the must on ice until I got back. First thing I did was test the grapes. 22.5 brix. Only, 22.5 brix. You don't make bold, award winning kick ass wine with low sugar grapes. I was disappointed but only had myself to blame. Oh well, I'll blend it with some other grapes and it will be fine, I thought. Never again, I said. Next time, I'll do the testing myself.

Crazy Lady Disease is a funny thing. It starts with planting a few vines. The next symptom is you plant a few acres. And the next stage is when you get a container and put it in your front yard and the property values in the neighborhood start to plummet. It happened to Coyote Karen. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the disease can mutate and cross genders.

We had reached the point where we'd had just about all the grape picking, feet stamping and pressing this crush season when Celestial Sandra called and asked, "Would you like our Brunello?" Without hesitation I said yes. She had negotiated this contract with a grower (Bill Schweitzer) in the Ramona AVA for his famed Sangiovese clone of Italy's Brunello grape. We aren't supposed to call it Brunello or the Italian Carabinieri will descend upon our winery and confiscate all the goods, so let's refer to it as "Bluenello" after Bluey, the Blue-Merle Australian cellar master, and yes, a canine, who accompanied us on this most beautiful of picks, him chasing Coyote scat while the Queen and I brought both of our cars to haul away 500 lbs. of grapes. Bill himself was there to greet us with a smile. I hadn't seen him since the great fires of 2007 about which he observed "a vineyard makes a pretty good fire break" and it's a good thing. His residence overlooks the vineyard and a magnificent valley. It's not work to go there. It's a vacation. I could have been in Tuscany, picking these grapes. But I was just 25 miles from home, and when we got back to the ranch I did my measurements which confirmed what I had been afraid of. The grapes didn't taste very sweet when we picked and I sighed as I read the hydrometer: 22 brix. Not ripe at all and I only had myself to blame. Oh well, I'll blend it with some other grapes and make a Super Italian wine, I thought.

After all that effort negotiating that contract and after all the awards they had won making Bluenello in past years, why would the ladies suddenly give it up? Was there tension fermenting beneath the smiles? Were the hours of backbreaking winemaking leading to a quarrel? Was a long-term friendship being tested? Were there sour grapes? The warning signs were there, but those two grape gals had been friends too long to let a little grape juice come between them. There might be a batch of wine or two that turns into vinegar but not a friendship, not in Blue Merle Country.

Next up, the Petit Verdot harvest, the varietal that's so fragrant the ladies of Blue-Merle Country want to spray it on instead of Coco Channel. The 2007 Petit Verdot was so fragrant Salude Scents is figuring out a way to bottle it. For the 2008 vintage, we improved the flavor and complexity by harvesting the grapes a bit later. And for 2009, we tried to harvest even later. This was our third year harvesting at Arroyo Dulce vineyard and we have the routine down and the nubile maidens from the local community college came out and did a foot stomping while Bluey picked up remnants of grape bunches between the rows.

Now grapes for a dog is like rat poison for a human. And by evening he was moving kind of slow and in the morning I thought he was a goner and the least we could do was rush him to the emergency room of the pet hospital. Here we are making some of the finest wine in the region and the trade off is your dog. Bluey is a grape fiend and although we enrolled him in a 12-step grapes anonymous program he fell off the wagon.

We think we're living in a dream world planting vineyards, picking grapes and making wine and then your dog who'd rather chew a grape than a filet minion is in the emergency room, Coyote Karen and Celestial Sandra are about to screech at each other like two felines in heat and I read this story about a couple living an ideal life in winemaking country and the whole thing ends in divorce just as there are tanks of wine and boxes of bottled wine filling up every nick and corner of their house and garage needing to be sold.

This is not easy. I used to say "the family that makes wine together sticks together." On the other hand, the tensions can tear relationships apart. So, I'll refine that to say that the family that makes wine together and sticks together can stick through anything.

The tests showed Bluey's liver was still functioning and he started recovering the moment we took him to the doctor and pulled out the credit card; Sandra and Karen patched things up and the gal who lost her winery to divorce has bounced back and is writing a book about the experience.

Next up were the Guadeloupe grapes, which have yielded some of the best Nebbiolo in the world. There's one word to describe how the Mexican grapes came out this year: salty.
"They're always salty," Pete explained. "You must have the ability to discern the salty taste" he said of my taste buds. That's great, make me the official taste tester, but before committing to buying the grapes. I insisted I had never tasted a hint of salt in the dream 2006 vintage. Ah well, sweet grapes, salty grapes, but never sour grapes. We made the wine, and we'll see how it comes out.

Next up, Paso Robles Bill with the Paso Robles grapes. By this time, everything was organized. We had the crews. We had the trucks. And the Queen was supervising everything. In fact, I was out of town while the Baja grapes were fermenting away and I left the 98 lbs. weakling in charge of punching the cap down and even pressing the juice and it ends up that she pressed more wine than Coyote Karen from the same amount of grapes. Imagine that!

We bit off about as much as we could chew with the Paso Robles grapes and all the crew was there including Fidel, Augustine, Rodrigo and Rodrigo's son (we let Karen hire Fidel). After we finished crushing at our place we went over to the Coyote's to check on things and to help out. (Now it ends up that the Paso grapes were "overripe" and the pH was too high. If you recall we had other grapes that were "under ripe", so by blending we may just come out with something just right.)

As we shoveled the grapes we heard a band in the distance strike up a tune.

"Sounds like someone's having a party," I said.

"Joe the Wino's son is getting married," said Coyote.

"What, Joe's son is getting married? Fidel, what are you doing here? Weren't you invited?" I asked.

"No," he replied. I was incredulous. "You should be over there celebrating Fidel. You practically built that estate," I said.

"Only family was invited," said Coyote.

"Well, if the Godfather could invite Luca Brasi to his daughter's wedding couldn't Joe the Wino invite Fidel to his son's wedding?"

Well, mi casa es su casa and family is family and even if we're not technically family we always felt like we were family out there planting vines and tending the vineyard and picking grapes with Joe and drinking wine with him and joking about getting naked after drinking 1.2 bottles of wine.

"Fidel," I said, "When my daughter gets married, I'm inviting you to the wedding. But, behave yourself, you rascal."

Our work was slowed by picking out leaves from the grapes and everyone was complaining about how slow we were. I became the chief leaf picker and Augustine had a pitchfork and that pitchfork was working very close to my hands and my eyes but I trusted him and we did the best we could picking out the leaves and pitchforking the grapes and dropping them off the flatbed truck directly into the crusher destemmer while the Coyote put on lipstick and supervised. As she powdered her nose a 32-gallon juice filled container on wheels demonstrated Newton's laws of physics and started rolling down the driveway when Augustine leaped from the truck with exclamations in Spanish I don't comprehend and put himself between that rolling container of grape juice and a ravine and kept it from spilling. This time.

The runaway container was a clue to a mystery: How is that with 1,200 lbs. of Nebbiolo grapes our Queen was able to extract 77 gallons of wine not knowing how to use a press while the Coyote, an Amazon woman with the power to press stronger then Merlot Mike and Muleman Jim, barely got 60 gallons? Was she short shipped? Did Fidel spill a container of wine? Did a container careen down the hill? Or, did Fidel, that rascal, siphon off a few gallons to bootleg to Tijuana for a Friday night soiree with a cute senorita?

I suspect an accident. I was a victim of a similar incident as we transferred a ton of grapes from the bottom of our driveway up to the winery. The pickup truck couldn't negotiate the hill so Rodrigo and Armando bucketed grapes from the immense pickbin into smaller containers and then trucked these up the hill to the crush pad. And while I poured grapes into the machine, I heard for the first time that day exclamations in the Mexican tongue I had not heard since I called Rodrigo at 7am on the first harvest day and looked over to see a pickup truck halfway up the driveway with two containers of Paso Robles grapes on the ground and a stream of purple juice flowing down the pavement. Spilled grapes. No sour grapes. "Just pick them up, and hose it down." No use crying over spilled grapes.

We were back on the stake-bed truck and the afternoon was waxing on and Paso Robles Bill was making noises about how slow we were and I was picking leaves and Augustine reached in to pick up a leave and for the 3rd time that afternoon I heard such expressions of the Mexican language that I didn't understand. He had been stung by a yellow jacket.

"No big deal," said Fidel. "I got stung so many times the other day."
"It's OK, it's OK," said Augustine.
"Fidel, you deserve it. But not Augustine," I said, tending to my friend.

We finally finished and we divided up the grape juice and Fidel was pushing the container up the driveway of Coyote Oaks. "Come help me," he called.

"What's the matter? Can't you push that uphill yourself?" I kidded.

I went to help and we pushed the juice up the incline and a yellow jacket landed on my left pinkie and stung me and I let fly an expletive Fidel heard from me for the first time that day.

"What happened?"
"I just got hit by a bee that was aiming for you!" I said.
"You deserve it," he said.
"Because you said I deserved it." I detected his feelings had been hurt. A complaining, no good, cheating son of a bitch with feelings. And he was right, I did deserve it.
"Amigo!" I said. I took his hand and shook it.

At work the next week I was in a meeting with a client and Joe the Wino brought some empty cases of wine into my office (I work for Joe at his high tech company). "Thank you Joe," I said and explained to my client that he was witnessing a case of "trickle down economics." I sell millions of dollars of software for Joe and Joe gives me his discarded empty wine cartons, which I recycle by sending wine to friends. The system works and that's what makes America great. But Joe is pissed as hell because his taxes are going up and he keeps threatening that when health insurance reform passes he's going to cancel our insurance plans so we can go on the government plan.

That weekend back at the ranch the crush is finished and for the first time since the end of August we can relax. The full moon of Halloween Eve is rising and the Queen and the Coyote and Bluey and their servant (me) are enjoying a glass of wine looking at the sun set behind Catalina Island out there in the Pacific.

For the fifth time since Michelle Obama become First Lady and was so proud of America I was even more proud of my wife. She was a winemaker. She supervised the harvest and the crush of the Valley Center Petit Sirah. She supervised the crush of the salty Nebbiolo. She managed the pick up of the Montepulciano and the Aglianico when I was called into important meetings. She pressed the Nebbiolo by herfself and got 75 gallons from the press (while Coyote Karen got less). And, while I was at work, she pressed most of the Monty, the Ugly, the Moudvedre and the Cabernet Franc by herself. And, she even caught her first gopher. Well, if I could teach her how to rack wine, I'd be home free. She said she would do it and she did it.

"Follow me. I want to show you something." And in the amber light under the full moon of Halloween, following the same path that Bluey and I took when we picked grapes under the full moon at the end of August, I lead the two ladies to a spot where I had set a ceramic tile of a blue-moon onto the retaining wall and we drank the wine like water and admired the moonwine and life was good.

The crush season is over and we made it and we're thinking never again but it's a funny thing about that crazy lady disease. It goes into remission until next harvest season and erupts with a vengeance. I haven't heard from Coyote Karen in a while. I wonder if she's in Canada trying to score some frozen grapes to make ice wine?