Wednesday, Oct. 13, 7:30 a.m.
"Things are definitely winding down for us," says Michael Beaulac. "Today, we are bringing in Cabernet. We have at most 150 tons to do. That should all be done before the middle of next week. The Sauvignon Blanc has been done for a while, Chardonnay is finished and in barrels, and we were done with Merlot a couple days ago. It's really just this bit of Cab that we're buying, and some from our own property."
Also, the winery is finishing up Semillon today. "It may be some of the best Semillon we've brought in. Usually, it doesn't get very ripe. We've been fortunate to be able to let it sit out. We're back to having heat again -- it's been 95 degrees the last several days."
Now that he's had time to look over the grapes Markham has brought in, Beaulac is able to back up earlier suspicions that yields would be down significantly in California. "We forecasted for 2,400 tons, and I'm not sure if we'll break 1,900," he says.
The rest of Napa Valley has quieted down along with Markham. "When I'm calling growers now about picking my Cab, I hear 'Sure, what day do you want to do it?'" says Beaulac. "The difficult thing for many of them is that a lot of pickers have started to leave. If there's work to do, they'll stay, but if they're down for several days, they'll move on. That'll be an issue with my Cabernet. The grower is hoping he'll have four crews."
So what is Beaulac up to in the winery in the meantime? "Most of the things that are happening now are determining when we should be pressing out our reds. I don't do any long skin contact, any long maceration -- I personally don't care for that. Our wine style is more fruit-driven. We press fairly early in the overall scheme of things. Anywhere from 5 to 8 Brix is when I want to press. By then, we've achieved the tannin and color we want."
Aside from that, he continues, "Yesterday was our last day of putting Chardonnay into barrels. We're building up our ML cultures [for malolactic fermentation, done to soften the acidity]. We'll start inoculating and topping barrels soon.
"Right now it seems so quiet. Yesterday, we didn't take any fruit in -- the first day that's happened in weeks, except for Sundays. This Monday, I think we brought in 25 or 30 tons."
Beaulac concludes, "We gear up for this big thing, and it took it a while to get going, and then we're so busy we're out of breath, and now we're winding down, and we just want to wrap this up."
Wednesday, Oct. 6, 12 p.m.
It's been drizzling and raining for much of the morning around Markham and in other parts of Napa Valley. "If you're trying to do a botrytised dessert wine, today's a good day for you," quips Bryan del Bondio.
Fortunately, Markham has little to fear from unwanted rot. "Most of our grapes are in the door or scheduled to be in the door," says del Bondio. He and winemaker Michael Beaulac expect to have all of their Chardonnay, which is susceptible to rot, in by the end of the week along with the Semillon, wrapping up their white harvest. The Syrah, which also tends to rot, will be in tomorrow. Most of the winery's Merlot is done also, with only one more block left to come in. That leaves Cabernet, which is hardy enough to withstand a few rains without rotting.
If the weather improves as predicted (and indeed, the sun was just beginning to peek out from the clouds), the two think they may finish their harvest by this coming weekend. "By the end of the week we're expected to reach 90 degrees again, so any grapes that are hovering on the edge should be done," said del Bondio. "We're just trying to make sure we don't pick any grapes in November."
Monday, Oct. 4, 10:30 a.m.
"We're working 12- to 14-hour days now," says Michael Beaulac. "We had three really busy days last week -- Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We brought in a lot of red grapes; now we're in the process of getting those through the winery. Today is the first day of pressing out reds. A week ago, we brought in Merlot; that's finished fermentation, and we're pressing that out today."
How hectic is it in the winery right now? "We are crushing grapes, we are going to the bell fermenter with Chardonnay, we are pressing three tanks of Merlot, we are lees-filtering Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, we are crushing Zinfandel," reports Beaulac, rattling off the list. "Everyone's jumping today."
Fortunately, the weather has cooled off. "That high heat last week hurried things up and was dehydrating the vineyards as opposed to just ripening them," he comments. "Not only were those hot days taking a toll on the grapes, the pickers were having a hard time. One of our vineyards rented lights and started picking at 3 or 4 a.m. so the guys wouldn't burn out so early. They got that vineyard off quick and clean, which was nice."
Beaulac notes that he has seen more mechanical harvesters in the valley this year, which he thinks is a result of the hot spell following the long period of cool weather. "Everything is ripe right now. There aren't enough crews to go around. If your vineyards are trellised properly, you can machine-harvest and get everything in faster."
Winemakers across the valley continue to see the effects of the cool growing season in the quantities of grapes they are picking, says Bryan del Bondio. "We told you how short the Sauvignon Blanc was. I don't think we're seeing that as much in the Merlot. It's looking normal to a little low, so that's a good thing. It's too early to tell with the Cabernet, but that may be a little light," he says. "The Sauvignon Blanc was pretty awful -- about 25 to 30 percent below what we would have liked. There were some pretty horrific numbers; some growers were off as much as 40 percent."
What can we expect in the coming week? "We'll continue picking Merlot and Cabernet all through the week," says Beaulac. "Now, part of it is trying to figure out where to put it in the winery. Inside the winery I've got 74 tanks, and almost every one is full. If we can process and get something down to the barrels, that frees up a tank. Sometimes a vineyard is too big for one tank, so we'll break it into two or three tanks, then when we press it off, we can consolidate.
"We'll be really busy for another week," Beaulac predicts. "Well, we'll stay busy until Thanksgiving, but last week and this week are probably the peak for us."
Tuesday, Sept. 28, 11:15 a.m.
So how is everything over at Markham now that September is drawing to a close? "I'm adjusting to getting back from a trip to Santa Fe," says Bryan del Bondio, "and Michael is pulling his hair out."
"Well, not quite, but it's starting to go," Michael says with a laugh. "It's been real warm here, in the upper 90s, hitting 100 in various spots. That jumped everything up quite a bit. We started picking reds on Saturday. We've got Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay all ready. We're pretty busy right now -- it feels good. The winery is starting to smell like fermentation. We're still all in good moods, so that means it's still early in the harvest; tempers aren't flaring yet.
"The fruit is spectacular," he continues, with more enthusiasm than he's shown so far this season. "The whites that we brought in a while ago are halfway through fermentation, and they smell and taste great. The reds -- well, we panicked a little when we got the samples, but from the crusher and hopper they've been right on, with great flavor. I'm very optimistic about this harvest right now, which I wasn't when we started this dialogue."
Why did the earlier samples have Beaulac worried? "We check the sugars and acids, and those numbers on Saturday were pretty high," he explains. "Usually when we check, the response is, 'Oh, we'll pick in 10 days,' instead of, 'Gee, I wish we could get someone to pick on Sunday for us.' We had been out sampling earlier, and the grapes were a ways away. The numbers came up quickly, and everyone's calling their growers and saying, 'We want to pick now.' You want to be the first to call in, because the growers have other people to pick for too.
"Logistically, we're trying to figure out how to get everything in here," Beaulac continues. "We're picking our reserve Merlot that's ready to be crushed right now. We're going to be picking Cabernet on Thursday. We have fruit up and down the valley that's ready to go right now. We may be thinking about Zinfandel by the end of the week." However, the winery hasn't finished with any single variety yet. "We have one small vineyard of Sauvignon Blanc left that will hopefully come in by the end of this week, and we have Semillon out there also that usually comes in a little bit later."
The weather looks like it's going to stay warm, he says. "There's a pretty good breeze going that dries things out faster than normal. Everyone is watering pretty heavily."
Beaulac is interrupted by a message that a truck has come in with more tonnage than expected. Before heading off to deal with the situation, he explains, "Our problem is that one vineyard manager wasn't giving the vineyard enough water. I looked at it yesterday and was trying to say what we would and would not accept here. I'm trying to keep a handle on what's going into the wines right now."
Friday, Sept. 24, 10:45 a.m.
Napa winemakers got a bit of a scare earlier this week, but the harvest is now progressing nicely. "Wednesday morning at 2 a.m., it started thundering and lightning," reports Michael Beaulac. "Fortunately, Oak Knoll got no rain at all, but Yountville got a good rain. Here at the winery, it rained pretty hard. There were really weird clouds, a weird sky and that ominous feeling in the air. All morning long we kept looking up at the sky, wondering what was going to happen to us, but it cleared up. By 2 p.m., it was a pretty nice day, and there was a nice breeze going to dry up what was wet. I was out yesterday and today in the vineyards, and things looks pretty good still.
"We've been harvesting the past couple days," Beaulac says. "Today is kind of a moderate day, but tomorrow we have quite a bit coming in. We're finally getting some red grapes, some Merlot. We'll start Chardonnay on our own ranch tomorrow, and we've been bringing in some that we buy yesterday and today.
"Now it's really feeling like harvest," he continues. "In our lab, which is command central, we have sheets up with each day of the week, listing the vineyards that are coming in. Saturday has five vineyards up -- the way it should be. We'll take this Sunday off, and I think that'll be our last Sunday off for a while."
He adds, "While I was out today sampling a lot of the vineyards, there were a lot of people around picking, and there are grape trucks on the road. In the middle of St. Helena, somebody dumped some Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc -- which gets kind of slick on the roads, actually."
"Next week, the weather is supposed to be great; it'll be in the 90s this weekend. It looks very positive," predicted Beaulac, who is eager to get things over with. "Someone said this harvest is like watching a marathon in slow motion."
Tuesday, Sept. 21, 8:45 a.m.
Things are heating up, literally, in the Napa Valley vineyards. "It's sunny here, and it's only quarter to nine," says winemaker Michael Beaulac. "It looks like the weather may be making a small change for us, and we may hit 90 degrees today."
He predicts that Markham will be picking again on Wednesday, starting with 45 to 55 tons of Savagnin Musque from one of its vineyards, then moving on to about 8 tons of Sauvignon Blanc from an older vineyard on Thursday. He's hoping for a little Chardonnay from the Oak Knoll area late this week and some Merlot next week.
"As long as the heat continues, we'll be really busy," he says with enthusiasm. "We have so many vineyards at 22.2 Brix. The acids are coming into line a lot more. We could be very busy Friday and Saturday."
In the meantime, Beaulac adds, "There's always cleaning to do. We're prepping the red barrels; we rinse them out once a month. And we're sanitizing the presses, pumps and lines. There's also lots of sampling going on. I sampled 19 blocks yesterday. I figure I walked about 6 miles and was out about 6 hours.
"We were also checking for damage from rain and wet mornings, looking for rot," he continues. "I'm looking at the health of the vineyards: Are the leaves staring to turn color, or dry up, or are the vines losing leaves? If everything looks healthy, then you can let the grapes hang out longer. If not, then I have to consider what I am gaining by leaving them out. Am I getting added flavor or am I risking losing the grapes due to a rainstorm or having logistical problems when I end up needing to pick seven vineyards in one day?"
"Hypothetically, there is that one prefect day," Bryan Del Bondio chimes in. "We try to get as close to that point as possible. But many people would argue about what the perfect day is.
"Everyone's really ready to go," he says. "I was talking to other vintners at the grocery stores, and some haven't picked a grape yet, and they're pretty antsy."
Sept. 14, 3 p.m.
So how is Markham's winemaking staff doing a few days into the harvest? "We're bored," says Michael Beaulac. "We have hurried up and are waiting. Only 12 tons of Sauvignon Blanc are coming in tomorrow, along with some Chardonnay. We are sampling everything every day, and everything is just below being ready. Everything is going to come right at one time; probably at the end of the next week, we'll be busy. It's nice that we're getting the longer hang time. I have high hopes for things."
Napa Valley's cool weather has continued through the month. "We're only getting four to five hours of a nice day, so to speak," says Bryan Del Bondio. "The temperature doesn't warm up until noon. It depends on where you are; if you're on a slope or a hillside facing the wrong direction, you might not have even that long. It was 52 degrees this morning, and today's high was about 79. Some September mornings in the past, we've woken up to 75 in the morning and it's 90 in the afternoon."
Del Bondio has changed his earlier estimate that the harvest would run two weeks later than usual to anywhere from three to five weeks later. He quips, "Maybe one of these calls will take place at the end of October, at the New York Wine Experience, with me sitting there live beside you calling back to Michael, who will still be getting in Chardonnay.
"The weather in the fall could really make things interesting," Del Bondio says. "In late October and November, we often get storms, though there's always the potential for a problematic storm in late September or early October. We've seen it all here."
Sept. 8, 11 a.m.
Harvest is finally underway at Markham. "We are receiving grapes from five different growers today," reports Del Bondio. "It's more of an official start than our false start last week. "But things aren't exactly speeding along. "The fog just cleared here about 30 to 45 minutes ago. That makes for a long time for the day to warm up. The number of hours in the sun and warmer temperatures have a lot to do with the grapes ripening.
"I've been talking with other people in the area, and the wineries that are focused on reds aren't even thinking of picking grapes for a while," he says. "In the past, Merlot could have been ready now. But we are two to three weeks behind normal." He pauses for a moment, then adds, with a laugh, "We know there is no normal. We remember 'normal' from the olden days, but it seems to be an ever-changing thing nowadays."
"We are bringing in 80 tons today, which is a small day," says Michael Beaulac, who is periodically interrupted by radio reports from the cellar staff. Most of what's coming in is Sauvignon Blanc, with a sugar content of about 22.5 to 23 degrees Brix, right around where Beaulac likes it. "But it all goes back to what the grapes taste like," he remarks. "This year seems to have pretty high acid, so the game plan is to let them get little riper than usual to drop some of that acid and increase flavor.
"We could get some nice warm weather today," he continues. "It may hit 80 degrees -- and today is supposed to be the warm day of the week. A good day would be fog until 9 a.m. and then 90 degrees during the day, with it cooling off at night. We had a heat spike two weeks ago, which is why we brought in grapes that Monday, but since then we haven't had any warm days.
"Most of these grapes I think we could have picked last weekend, if we were just looking at the numbers," he adds. "But we knew that the weather would be nice -- there's no hint that we'll get rain. The longer the grapes get hang time, the more flavor is going to develop."
Markham is also bringing in some Chardonnay today from a vineyard in Rutherford that Beaulac calls "an anomaly" because its Chardonnay comes in much earlier than elsewhere. Markham's Oak Knoll vineyard Chardonnay, for example, is only at 21.2 Brix today, about 10 days away from harvest, he predicts. Later in the week, he'll be sampling the Petite Sirah, and by next week, those grapes, plus some Merlot from another early-ripening vineyard, could be coming in.
Beaulac expects yields to be down this year. While the winery won't be able to get the amount of grapes he'd wanted, the one advantage is that he'll have more tank space available, which makes it easier for him to process the arriving grapes in a timely manner.
"Today is little extra hectic because we're all trying to remember how we do everything," he says. "Our cellar master has been here 20 years, but we only do this once a year, so it takes some time to get the organizational skills back."
"But the valley is quiet," says Del Bondio. "If you're out doing the winery tours this week," he quips, "the traffic jams are surely not caused by grape trucks."
Sept. 2, 3 p.m.
Like other vintners in California, Bryan Del Bondio is anxiously waiting to get into full swing with this year's late harvest. "We picked some Sauvignon Blanc on Monday," he says. "That little piece came in perfect, and we've picked nothing else since. We're still two to three weeks behind. It's been very cool the past few days; the earlier heat turned on the ripeness of the young Sauvignon Blanc, but everything else is plugging along.
"It was kind of a false start to the harvest," Del Bondio continues, with a rueful chuckle. "That's frustrating because everyone gets excited. Everyone comes down from their offices to watch the first load come in, we have a glass of Champagne, and it was all over by Monday at noon. Next week we'll start rolling again."