It was a long, hard year in the vineyards of Northern California. I don't know who's more exhausted right now, the winemakers or the growers, or maybe it's the vines themselves. It's the time of year when vineyards shut down, the leaves fade to yellow, brown and red, and finally scatter in the dirt.
Other vineyard seasons get more attention. Winemakers look forward to late-summer and harvest, and after a dark and soggy winter the fields in spring radiate green and yellow from the wild mustard.
For some reason I've always preferred late-autumn weeks like this one. Temperatures reach the mid-60s during the day and there's still a touch of warmth in the breeze. Except for a red maple here and there, the trees in Sonoma don't offer a lot of fall color, so I've always relied on the vineyards to set the autumn mood.
It's one of the best times to walk through the vineyards. In a month or two they may be impassable with mud, and by summer all eyes will be on the grapes themselves.
But right now you can really look at the vines, the shaggy bark and how the shoots grew this season. You'll find desiccated little clusters of grapes—too scrawny to bother picking—still clinging to vines. And thanks to this year's late-summer rains, the ground is littered with fruit trimmed before harvest, whether because it was moldy or the grower hoped to hasten ripening of the remaining fruit.
When I first moved to Northern California it wasn't unusual to see large vineyards with bright red leaves in the fall. All that red made for great photos, but I learned early on that it was bad news for growers.
Leaf roll virus was typically the culprit. The disease is characterized by leaves curled up at the edges and is spread through the use of infected plant material during grafting; it does't kill the vines, but it reduces yields and results in unripe grapes. The virus means a long, slow decline for the entire vineyard. Just about the only exception is the old heritage grape Alicante Bouchet, which naturally sets burgundy red leaves in the fall.
It's not unusual to see smoke rising over the vineyards during the next few months as growers burn trimmings and other scrap from the vineyards.
Entire vineyards, too, are being ripped out as growers race to complete the task before the coming winter storms. I just saw newly barren fields—the vines stacked in giant piles—in Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap. They may be replanted in the spring or lie fallow for a year as growers replenish the soil's nutrients with fertile ground cover.
During my recent travels around Napa and Sonoma I took a few snapshots of the vineyards to give you a real feel for what it's like this time of the year. Summer and harvest may be the high seasons for wine tourism, but late autumn has it's own particular appeal.
Check out some of Tim Fish's photos of wine country in autumn. Click any thumbnail photo to open the slideshow.
Tablas Creek Vineyard — Paso Robles, CA — November 30, 2011 12:44pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — December 1, 2011 1:23pm ET
Tablas Creek Vineyard — Paso Robles, CA — December 1, 2011 11:40pm ET
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