The most important day of the year for winemakers is when harvest begins. Everything is on the line at that moment.
At some wineries, harvest extends for days, weeks and occasionally months, depending on the size and location of the properties.
For smaller operations, such as Marcassin, with just 20 acres and two grapes, Pinot and Chardonnay, the owners can zero in on a more exact day or two. Still, it's a make or break proposition, with little or no margin for error, depending on how exacting the winemaker is.
Marcassin's Helen Turley is never far from her vines as the grapes come off and transition into wines. She makes about 100 barrels a year combined of the two wines, and that allows her to zero in on the right time to pick and continually taste the wines as they go through fermentation and into barrel.
As Turley explains in this video, you only get one chance to do it right and determine if the grapes are sufficiently ripe to harvest.
In our series of interviews for the July 31 cover story on her and Marcassin, she also explained that winemakers only get one chance to plant a vineyard the right way, too. You would be surprised by how many vineyards are poorly designed and ultimately need to be redone.
In this video she talked about that crucial moment when Pinot Noir from her Sonoma Coast vineyard becomes ripe and how she and her husband, John Wetlaufer, determine when the time is right to pick.
The window to pick Pinot Noir is very narrow, as in one or two days, Turley says. Winemakers have more leeway when it comes to harvesting Cabernet and other thicker-skinned grapes. But Pinot is a thinner-skinned grape and once it is ripe, the skin is softer and is more susceptible to damage.
Turley is fastidious about timing the ripeness, and she and Wetlaufer hone in on the exact day by tasting the berries and juice as the berries mature and develop flavor. As the harvest date approaches, winemakers typically taste grapes on a daily basis. Turley and Wetlaufer crush enough Pinot Noir berries to fill a five-gallon bucket and then they study how quickly the must takes on color. Once the must (juice) takes color, it's time to pick.
Tannins, says Turley, are always the "wild child," since green or hard tannins will never soften sufficiently to give a wine the textural suppleness she desires.
During our interviews, Wetlaufer talked about how vineyards compare with golf courses (he is an avid golfer who played on his high-school team in Iowa which won a state championship). One issue for both golf courses and vineyards is drainage, Wetlaufer said. Vineyards and golf courses are both designed to fit the contour of the land, and as a young man he studied many golf courses well before he studied vineyards and how to design one.
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