Posted by Josh Bergström
As I traveled up California’s Highway 101 through Santa Rosa last week, I couldn’t help but notice all of the deeply colored fruit hanging on tired vines, the picking bins stacked in vineyard rows and the harvest trucks with juicy payloads cruising back and forth between busy wineries. I was on a sales trip, promoting my wines to some of the area’s great and exciting new restaurants, and as I talked to these chefs and sommeliers, I couldn’t help but be excited about the smell of harvest in the air, and anxious about the fact that my vineyards’ Pinot Noir grapes up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley were, at best, a dark shade of pink—at least two weeks behind whatever is considered “normal” for this time of the year.
On the plane ride home, as we descended over the lush and fertile Willamette Valley toward Portland, I looked out over the volcanic Cascade mountain range to my right and the fog-covered Pacific Ocean to my left. I thought about how it would soon be chanterelle season, and how the heirloom tomatoes in my garden were so ripe and sweet. Many of the local fine-food purveyors at the marketplaces would soon be presenting their end-of-season bounties: pole beans, sprouted-grain breads, corn, honeys, mushrooms, oysters, artisan cheeses and so much more. I wondered what my wife, Caroline, and I would cook for dinner.
For us, food and wine go hand in hand. So many comparisons can be drawn between the business and culture of food, and those of wine. Some vintages are fast and hot, others are slow and cool, and the flavors we discover and enjoy will change with each year’s circumstances. I predict that this is going to be a “slow-cooked” vintage.
Oregon’s Pinot Noirs are best known for capturing wild, fresh, earth-driven berry and spice flavors and aromas. These characteristics are enhanced and electrified in long, cool vintages in which fruit hangs on the vines into the late days of October. The longer the fruit can wait to achieve balanced flavors and structure, the better the wines. But the later we wait in Oregon, the greater the risks we face. Bad weather can mean dilution, molds, split berries, inhospitable harvest conditions and a general frenzy. Hot weather can also cause a frenzy, but for a different reason. Overripe berries lead to high alcohol levels, quickly falling acids, shriveled berries and, in extreme cases, raisins. Migratory birds can decimate vineyard crops within hours. And there is no underestimating the catastrophic results of running out of cold beer during the harvest period.
I have often likened great winemaking strategy to that of the downhill ski racer—you either take the gold or crash and burn trying. The risks are great, expensive and sometimes terrifying. But if the waiting pays off and the risks do not become greater than the reward, then the greatest wines are made. These are the wines that provoke the kind of passion that brought us into this business in the first place.