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Michael Beaulac's Harvest Diary


Posted: October 31, 2000

Michael Beaulac's Harvest Diary



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Nick Goldschmidt


Ken Brown


Dirk Hampson


Frederic Engerer


Nadine Gublin


Emanuela and Roberto Stucchi Prinetti


Thursday, Aug. 24, 3:00 p.m.

Harvest has kicked off at Markham -- well ahead of last year's late harvest, when many Napa Valley winemakers waited through the first week of September before picking grapes. "We started today with Sauvignon Blanc in Rutherford," reports Michael Beaulac. "It looks about where we anticipated it being as far as tonnage: up from the last few years; about as big as '97. The sugars are right where they should be; the acids are right where they should be."

As it has been for much of the growing season, the weather in Napa Valley is beautiful today. "It's about 90 degrees," says Beaulac. "It was still foggy this morning, but that burned off early. We got the first load [of grapes] at 9:30 a.m., and it was sunny and warm at that point. The temperatures are going up a little bit through the weekend, though."

Beaulac said today was a nice, mellow start to the harvest, which he and the staff particularly appreciated. "We have new crush equipment, and we've been going real slow trying to learn how to use it," he says with a laugh. "But so far, everything's working fine.

"We're looking at bringing in 25 tons today and another 25 to 30 tons tomorrow, and then we'll take the weekend off and start up again on Tuesday. From there on, we might just be rolling along," he says.

He expects to be bringing in more Sauvignon Blanc and some Chardonnay on Tuesday, while he predicts they'll be picking some reds, such as Petite Sirah, later in the week. "My big fear is that all the varieties are going to come in right at the same time," he says, "and with a larger-than-usual harvest, that puts tank space at a premium."

Just then, Beaulac is paged: Another grape truck has rolled up, and his presence is required immediately. Just wait until things get really busy.

Wednesday, Aug. 30, 8:30 a.m.

"Today we are bringing Chardonnay," reports Michael Beaulac. "It's been quite cool here. I don't know what the temperature is, but yesterday I wore shorts and was quite cold. The sun never came through yesterday, and they keep talking about drizzle in the evenings and a chance of thunderstorms Friday and Saturday night.

"Once we finish picking this one vineyard today, we aren't planning on picking for a while. Nothing's getting ripe. A lot of stuff is almost there but not quite ready to be harvested.

"We're actually going to get a three-day weekend, which we're pretty excited about. We'll come in and check the few Sauvignon Blanc fermentations we have going, to make sure they're going the way they should be -- not too hot and not too cold -- so we can sleep at night. That should only take about 45 minutes, so that's basically a day off.

"It's unusual -- we haven't worked on Labor Day since 1997. I thought we'd be going great guns by now, but I was talking to some friends over in Sonoma, and they have the same thing going on."

What's next, after the holiday weekend? "The Chardonnay we're picking is historically one of first things that comes in. We won't be picking Chardonnay again for more than a week," Beaulac says. "When we return next week, we'll sample some vineyards, and we'll probably start up with Sauvignon Blanc again on Wednesday from our own ranch."

Beaulac isn't too disturbed by the unexpected delay -- yet. "Even though it's very worrisome to look out my window here and see only gray, until we actually get some rain, we're fine," he says. "The grapes will get more hang time, and that's OK."

Thursday, Sept. 7, noon

"After a terrible last week and an even worse weekend here, things are going quite well," reports Michael Beaulac. "I'm sure you heard about our little rumbler this past weekend. Luckily, the winery wasn't affected, but some employees' houses were a little bit damaged in the quake."

Although last week's cool weather slowed down the harvest, right now, he says, "The weather is beautiful -- it's supposed to hit 94 degrees today. It's nice and breezy. Today is really the first real day of harvest for us. We're going to bring in about 100 tons of white grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc from our own ranch. We have a busy day here, and it looks like it's going to stay that way for quite a while. We have 100 tons scheduled to come in every day through next week.

"We are bringing in Zinfandel on Monday and maybe some Merlot on Saturday, depending on whether we can find enough people to pick. It's a difficult year to find workers." That job, Beaulac says, is left to the winery's vineyard manager, who handles several properties and has to hire several hundred employees. "It's out of my realm of responsibility -- we become very focused at this time of year," he adds with a laugh.

Fortunately, he says, "The new crush equipment is working quite well. The other equipment had two options: on and off. This gives us about 15 different options: We can whole-cluster press, whole-berry press and just destem; we can decide how vigorous we want to be on the fruit.

"The fruit quality seems to be good. We have Chardonnay from a new ranch that's coming in Saturday, and we're very excited. It's nice and ripe but still has a lot of acid, giving it good balance. And there are plenty of grapes. We've been underestimating a little bit, which is better than overestimating. We're probably 10 percent up from what we expected.

"Hopefully, we're not going to see any Cabernet for a while," he adds. "We still have a lot of Chardonnay to pick. But right now, the red grapes are catching up to whites a little faster than normal. Usually right now we'd just be focusing on sampling the whites. But we're out looking at all the Merlot vineyards -- they're close [to the right sugar levels]. It could become difficult down the road, but I'll probably be saying that every year that we do this."

Tuesday, Sept. 12, 8 a.m.

"I thought I'd let you know how busy we all are out here," says Michael Beaulac, checking in early before his day gets too hectic. "We went out and sampled last Saturday and found that 70 percent of all the vineyards we own are ready to be picked. We made the decision to work Sunday, and yesterday, we brought in about 180 tons of grapes, which is tremendous amount for here."

Over the past couple of days, Markham has been bringing in Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel and its first Pinot Noir. "We thought we'd get 4.5 tons, and we got 8 tons. We're in the Pinot business! The grapes look really good. I made Pinot Noir years ago, but at that point, I was a lowly cellar worker. This is kind of the first time I've made it. We have 5 acres with five different clones, and it's been amazing walking through the vineyards and tasting the differences between the clones." If all turns out well, Beaulac hopes to make about 500 cases of Pinot this year.

"Today we are going to scale back a little bit -- we'll bring in maybe 120 tons of Chardonnay and Merlot," he continues. "The forecasters are saying there's a small chance of rain for Wednesday, followed by big heat -- above 90 degrees -- for the end of the week and the weekend. That can make things interesting for Chardonnay and any varieties susceptible to bad weather."

Does the winery have enough room for all the grapes coming in? "Right now, we still do," he says, laughing. "Bringing in this much Chardonnay slows us down, though, because some of the Chardonnay is going into barrel, and you can only get so much juice into barrels each day."

He adds, "Our vineyard manager was out driving through the valley and said he had never seen as many grape trucks on the road as yesterday, even compared to 1997 [a very large vintage]. I heard St. Helena had three accidents yesterday and two of them involved grape trucks."

Adding to the overall craziness yesterday, Beaulac reports, Markham's hoist -- which picks up the grape gondolas and dumps the fruit -- broke, the crusher broke for a little while and the press would periodically stop working.

"And here we are standing around waiting for more trucks to come in," he adds, with a rueful chuckle. "Fortunately, we have a maintenance person who is fantastic. You give him an electronics problem, a mechanical problem -- he can fix it. He's definitely earning his keep this year."

Tuesday, Sept. 19, 8:15 a.m.

"The big thing out here is the weather," says Michael Beaulac. "At the winery yesterday, it was 103 [degrees F], and we're expecting it to be slightly higher today.

"Today we will finish our Chardonnay," he continues. "Our Sauvignon Blanc is finished. We're bringing in Merlot, and we brought in our first load of Cabernet on Saturday. The fruit coming in yesterday still looked good. With the high temperatures, we're a little worried about dehydration -- even though the sugars go up, the flavors don't go up. But we're watering the vineyards to get them through this little spike. Today is supposed to be the warmest day, and it'll be back down to the 90s later this week."

Markham began pressing its reds on Saturday. "We pressed some Zinfandel, and yesterday, a couple tanks of Merlot," says Beaulac. "Today we'll do three tanks of Merlot. We're also bottling today. A week ago Monday, I said that was going to be the busiest day in terms of tons. Today we're not doing as many tons, but we're doing everything you can do.

"This is where it's getting tricky with tank space -- bringing in the reds that you want and having them ferment as long as you want before you press them, and every day more and more grapes are coming in, so the tanks are filling rapidly."

So how does the first Cabernet from the 2000 vintage look? Beaulac replies, "The Cabernet I brought in on Saturday wasn't quite to where I would normally have it, but my concern with the heat spell was that some other vineyards might get dehydrated. I wanted to be sure to get some fresh fruit flavors into the wine, so I brought that in. That fruit was beautiful, from 8 acres of Cabernet down in Yountville. We don't have a lot of fruit left on that ranch, but we do have our best Cabernet. We've been watering the fruit there."

To combat the heat, Markham's staff has been doing all the picking early in the morning. "Not only will the fruit get hot [otherwise], but also it's not reasonable to expect that the pickers are going to do that work past noon," comments Beaulac.

Beaulac himself, on the other hand, hasn't been getting home before 8:30 p.m. lately, and he usually leaves the house at 6:30 in the morning -- a typical schedule for him during harvest. But, he says, with a note of relief, the end is starting to come into sight.

"This is the big week where we're still keeping up with processing the whites -- lees-filtering, getting Chardonnay into barrel, moving tanks as quickly as possible -- while still bringing in a lot of grapes. By the end of this week, we'll certainly be well over halfway done."

Thursday, Sept. 28, 1:30 p.m.

"Last week, we had a little bit of rain on Thursday evening," reports Michael Beaulac. "We were scheduled to be bringing in a small amount of Merlot. We postponed that for a day. A lot of people were picking, but the sugars weren't high enough to afford any water in the bins."

Since then, he says, the weather has been really nice, and for the first time, it really feels like fall. "We've had cooler weather that's given the grapes time to rehydrate after that earlier heat spike. We're just cruising along right now."

The staff had a rough day on Tuesday, however. "We had a lot of trucking problems," says Beaulac. "The grapes were picked, and some of the trucks went to the wrong place -- one truck ended up in Vallejo, and we had no idea where they were. We didn't get out until 11 at night, and that's far too late."

Yesterday, Markham picked some Merlot. "It's just 25 tons here, 30 tons there," Beaulac comments. "[The temperature is] supposed to get into the 90s this weekend, so that'll be nice. We have some Cabernet that doesn't seem to be moving too quickly -- it's at 21 Brix, and we'd like to see it at 24 and a half."

Beaulac appreciates the slower pace. "At this point, I have not seen a newspaper in weeks. The only news I get is on the local radio station. I have no idea what's happening in the rest of the world."

Fortunately, he says, "We have probably less than 25 percent to go -- about 600 tons or so. Today's the first day we're not getting any grapes. We have three vineyards of Merlot left, and then it's all Cab and one more vineyard of Zinfandel, and that usually comes in real late. I'm predicting that on Oct. 14 we'll be pretty much done."

So how is the quality of the red grapes? "Everything looks really good. We get out, we sample, we get the 24 or 24.5, and we bring it in, and that's right where it is. Acids have been a little weird because of those heat spikes in the summer. The pH balance is a little strange sometimes, but the flavors are good. We've pressed off a lot of tanks, and that's the first time you get a good grip of what the wine's going to taste like.

"The Pinot Noir looks great -- for the 500 cases I'm going to make, it's getting a lot of attention," he continues. "We have just a little Cab in the winery, and we're pretty happy with that also. My best block is probably ready to pick, but I'm going to let it get real ripe, and bring it in on Monday after the expected heat spike."

Although Markham isn't receiving any grapes today, things are still busy in the winery. "We're pressing seven tanks. We're getting ready to top off Chardonnay barrels. We are racking some Chardonnay off its lees and inoculating that. Lots of pump-overs -- the poor guys who do pump-overs come in early in the morning and go all day, then come in the next morning and do it again. We'll start racking tanks that we've drained and pressed already. We're still real active. Today a reasonable goal is to be out of here by 6:30 or 7:00."

Monday, Oct. 9, 10 a.m.

"It's raining here," reports Michael Beaulac, sounding a bit less cheerful than usual. "The forecast is for rain today, tonight and tomorrow. I think it's a little heavier over in Sonoma right now, but it's moving this way. We were scheduled to pick a Cabernet vineyard, and we stopped that. We have everything on hold right now.

"I talked to other winemakers today for various reasons, and they said they think it'll be fine if it clears up and gets sunny and warm again," he continues. "We basically have Cabernet and one more vineyard of Zinfandel left out there, and Zinfandel does tend to rot. There's about 350 tons of Cabernet left -- a good half" of Markham's Cab crop. Beaulac hasn't heard any weather forecast beyond Tuesday, so he's not sure what to expect next, but he hopes to wrap up the harvest in two more weeks. "This is really the first rain of the year, so it's making the news right now," he adds.

How have things been going over the past week? "We're definitely slowing down, as I said before. We get 20 tons of fruit one day, eight the next -- very slow days," Beaulac says. "Usually just one vineyard will be coming in, as opposed to the multiple vineyards we get in the heat of things. We're still topping up Chardonnay barrels and pressing a red tank every other day or so."

And how do the wines look right now? "I'm really excited by the Chardonnay. And the Savagnin Musqué smells fantastic. The reds are all good. We brought in the best Cabernet vineyard last week, and that was perfect."

So what does the staff do when it's raining out? "We still have our pump-overs, we're pressing one tank, we're topping Chardonnay barrels, we're giving the red wines that have been pressed their first racking. We're not going to barrel with anything today, but we will be. The only thing rain does is stop the incoming fruit and make us really depressed and think it's too early for this." But, he acknowledges, "We usually get a rain right around now, and it clears up and everything's fine.

"I'm just glad that we just have Cabernet out there," Beaulac concludes. "I wouldn't want to be in the position of my Russian River friends who still have Pinot and Chardonnay hanging on the vines."

Thursday, Oct. 19, 8:45 a.m.

"Not much is going on," says Michael Beaulac. "It's been nice weather here since the last time I talked to you. Last Saturday, we had a very busy day, with about 120, 130 tons of various reds coming in. I was pretty happy with that. But this week things have just stalled out.

"It's taking a full week for Brix to move up 0.2 or 0.3 points," he explains. "During September, when it's warm, things will jump a full point during a week."

Although the weather has been pleasant, it isn't staying warm enough long enough to bring the grape sugar levels up further. Beaulac comments, "I live in Sonoma County, and on my drive to work today, it was beautiful sunshine the whole way until I got a mile from work and it was socked in with fog. It's just clearing now.

"We're picking one vineyard today -- bringing in about 25 tons of Merlot. That's a little further south so I'm sure that's still fogged in right now. That makes it harder for the pickers -- the vines are wet, and the berries are wet. It also means the day isn't going to get as warm as quickly. Yesterday, it was 82, 83 degrees. But only for three hours; it takes a while to warm up and it cools down quickly."

Beaulac notes, "I still have 280 tons [of grapes] out, which is a fair amount. Hopefully, we can finish by Halloween. Last year, we finished on the 18th of October; the year before that was November 8th or 9th, so hopefully we'll at least be able to beat that. My staff is getting tired; they are sick of working the weekends. But we have at least a few more to go before we get two days off.

"Things have been quiet around the winery. There are only a few tanks that we're actively pumping over; we don't have anything to press off at the moment; and we're going to barrel with some of the red wines that are finished.

"This morning, I'm giving a tour to 20 seven-year-olds from the local school," he adds. "Every year, they take the second-graders to a winery to see the harvest. This week, they've been calling in asking when we are going to have grapes and we keep saying, "Not yet." We'll bring in some grapes and have some grape juice. That may be the highlight of this week," he says, laughing.

"I'm still pretty happy with everything," Beaulac says. "I'm a little concerned now that some of my best Cabernet is only at 22.5 or 22.8 Brix. But we're not supposed to get rain; it's supposed to stay warm. Maybe by this time next week, we'll have another 150 tons in -- but that's being optimistic."

Monday, Oct. 30, 1:15 p.m.

"As you might have heard, we're having just beautiful weather here," says Michael Beaulac. "It was raining, and then it rained some more, and then there was more rain. I've scheduled all the grapes left to come in on this Wednesday."

Last week, it rained on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, says Beaulac. "Friday it cleared and was stunningly beautiful -- a nice, warm fall day. Then Saturday it started raining again, and it was pretty heavy. We had everything scheduled to come in, but we cancelled almost all of that. We picked a few tons -- about 20 -- from down in Carneros. They kind of dodged the bullet down there. But just as they were wrapping it up, it poured." The workers had to cover the grape trucks with tarps, and Markham staff crushed everything in a light rain.

"This has been a really long harvest," says Beaulac. "It's been going on in four months; we started at the end of August and we're going to the first of November." He adds, "Everyone here at the winery is pretty happy to see the end. Our last weekend off was in August."

What will Markham be picking on Wednesday? "We probably only have 50 tons of Cabernet out there. It's not a significant amount of our total program. It's from our own Calistoga ranch. We were able to get most of it off, but it's still pretty disappointing to see what is 'A-minus' fruit getting rained on and rained on. We also have maybe 10 tons of Zinfandel out there at a different ranch."

Despite the rain, he says, "I've been surprised by the sugars and flavors we're getting in the tank, and I'm not just saying that. It seems like it should have had more of a negative effect. We had one Zinfandel vineyard where the flavor just wasn't there, and I don't think we'll recover that one lot.

"But given the stuff we brought in on Saturday -- from tasting it on Sunday, it was still pretty good. The sugars weren't quite what we want, and the acid balance wasn't quite what we want, but since it's not a lot of the blend, I don't think it will have much of a negative effect." He notes that Markham generally blends in small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc into its Cabernet, and both of those varieties were picked before the rains.

Any final thoughts on the harvest? "I still think that the Chardonnay I have here is some of the best I've ever made, and the Sauvignon Blanc is looking really promising," Beaulac says confidently. "The Merlot is very good, but we'll have to see what happens with the Cabernet. My Pinot Noir is sitting happily in barrels, all 500 cases of it." He concludes, "This year has been fantastic for whites, and it doesn't seem like we've had one of those in a while."

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