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Nick Goldschmidt's Harvest Diary

Posted: November 8, 2000

Nick Goldschmidt's Harvest Diary

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Ken Brown

Nadine Gublin

Dirk Hampson

Frederic Engerer

Michael Beaulac

Emanuela and Roberto Stucchi Prinetti

Friday, Sept. 1, 8:00 a.m.

"We started picking some Chardonnay on Wednesday and picked more on Thursday," reports Nick Goldschmidt. "We had done a load of Sauvignon Blanc the week before, and with that, all we've done so far is a total of 60 tons."

So is the harvest going slowly because the weather in Sonoma County has gotten a little cool this week? "A little bit?" Goldschmidt asks incredulously. "This is my 11th harvest, and I've never seen this sort of weather occurring at the end of August. Normally, it's hitting in the 80s to 90s. Yesterday, it was in the 70s, and it looks like it will be again today, if we can even get there. Though the temperatures are cool, we are still getting the fog coming in, and that's unusual. It's completely overcast now, the fog has disappeared a little, there's a lot of humidity in the air, and that's not too good for disease pressure. But this isn't going to last long. I think it'll be over by Tuesday."

At least that means he can enjoy his Labor Day weekend, right? "We've actually had Labor Day weekend to ourselves the last four or five years," he says. "We don't really rock and roll until the week after. We're usually about a week behind Napa Valley. They're done by Halloween, but we're not."

So far, he says, the grapes look good. "The flavors and tannins are very similar to '92 -- by that I mean that the berry size is a little bit bigger, the cluster weights are a bit bigger, although the cluster counts are about the same. There's good tannin development. What we'll be waiting for this year is flavor. The last two years have seen good flavor development, but the tannins have been behind. This year the tannins are soft -- we'll see kind of fleshy, soft, supple wines."

Goldschmidt adds, "The interesting thing is that the growers haven't gotten nervous yet; usually they'd be calling saying, 'What are we going to do?' The grapes are at 19 or 20 Brix [a measure of grape sugar levels], and there's just not a lot we can do but wait. We're all ready to go -- we're anxious because we only get one chance a year to make wine -- but we know it will come."

Monday, Sept. 11, 1:30 p.m.

"We picked a little fruit at the end of last week, but we're really getting started today," reports Nick Goldschmidt. "Today we are doing about 100 to 120 tons of whites, mainly Sauvignon Blanc, and probably 140 tons of reds, mostly Merlot. All the reds are coming form Alexander Valley and all the whites from Knights Valley and Dry Creek, plus a little Chardonnay from the Russian River."

What was he up to last week? "Well, we had some cold days over Labor Day weekend, so what happened is that delayed everything by four or five days. We thought we would have started hot and heavy by Thursday or Friday."

Simi crushed some grapes on Friday, he says, "but we'll be going pretty heavy now. From a personal standpoint, it means everyone had a chance to get their feet wet and then take a few days to recover. It's a different mindset during harvest."

Every winery has a "pinch point," Goldschmidt adds, and "our big pinch point is barrel filling. We can only fill about 70 barrels a day. We have to be careful how many tons of whites we bring in. We're crushing today, so we'll be barrel filling on Thursday, and the Merlot gets filled on Thursday as well. Thursday is going to be big day on barrel filling. Foresight is very important -- we could crush 400 tons a day, but it's not going to be very useful later on in the week, since we'll have nowhere to put it."

How does he figure out all the scheduling? He uses a computer to track the grapes once they come in to the winery and are weighed, but until then, he says, "Most of it's in my head." While he puts together a long-term plan of when he roughly expects to pick the different varieties and vineyards, he says he essentially works on a two-day notice with his growers.

"When the trucks come in, if they're driven by the growers, I come out and talk to the growers to reinforce their importance to the company -- without them, we'd be nobody," he says.

The rest of the week, he says, is "looking really busy. We'll probably do 10 white press loads a day and crush over 100 tons of red a day as well. We've got a lot of Merlot, Syrah and Pinot ready. The Cabernet is still probably a week and half out, which is good.

"The weather is superb. I'm in Carneros looking at Chardonnay right now, and its about 90 degrees. There is a chance of rain on Wednesday, but I can't imagine it's going to be too severe. There's a tropical storm down near Baja, and I've heard reports that we'll get anywhere from three-quarters of an inch to a quarter inch [of rain]. That might slow us down on Wednesday. When it's this temperature, I don't like picking after midday. The fruit gets too hot and dehydrates."

Wednesday, Sept. 13, 3:00 p.m.

"It started to sprinkle last night, and they think it's supposed to rain this evening," says Nick Goldschmidt. "The cloud cover is still here, but it's still warm, so we went ahead and picked anyway.

"Our big focus right now is Sauvignon Blanc, and we're picking as much of it as we can," he continues. "We're almost finished in the Knights Valley; we have one more vineyard there that we'll probably pick next week. We'll probably stop picking Chardonnay in the Russian River Valley for a few days because we're waiting now for more flavor development in the blocks that are left. We still have a lot of Chardonnay, but the weather has been a little cooler and we don't get the same development then as when we have a lot of heat."

As for the reds, he says, "We've continued picking Merlot in Alexander Valley. The flavors and tannins are really good, and the sugars have come up now. We'll probably finish up there this week. We have a couple vineyards left.

"We actually picked some young Cabernet today," he adds. "They're third-leaf vines -- it's the first crop -- so that's kind of exciting. I think young vineyards sometimes show really good flavors. Third-leaf and fourth-leaf Cab tends to be really good, and then it takes a two- or three-year hiatus. It's not really balanced until the eighth year. So we try to take advantage of the first two crops as much as we can.

"Tomorrow's a big day. We're barrel-fermenting red wines. We do it with Shiraz and some Merlot. We're draining some of our rotary fermenters -- we just have four and we're draining three now -- and we'll put that stuff in barrel now. It will go in at 10 Brix, and it will finish fermenting there."

Monday, Sept. 18, 5:00 p.m.

"There's nothing to report except it was bloody hot," says Nick Goldschmidt. "I got up this morning -- it was hot. I drove to work -- it was hot. I had my iced tea, and it was hot. I was going to sit down and have a beer, but by the time I got it out of the fridge and walked outside, it was already hot."

Nonetheless, Simi picked some Chardonnay today. "We picked it nice and early so it came in real cool," he says. "We also picked a little bit of Pinot Noir. We were pretty much done crushing by 10:00 this morning to try and stay on top of it.

"Tuesday is going to be pretty much similar sort of action. We're expecting more hot weather. It got into the hundreds today. I think it got to about 103 [degrees F] when I was down in Carneros and about 101 when I was in the Russian River.

"It'll be about the same tomorrow," he predicts. "We're going to pick a little Chardonnay in both Carneros and in the Russian River. We won't be picking any reds -- I'm waiting a little bit for the tannins to ripen. With this amount of heat, I think it really emphasizes dry tannins. One thing I do in this sort of weather is I try not to taste the grapes late in the afternoon; I try to taste a little bit earlier. But if the grapes taste good at 1:00, they're going to taste good five years from now.

"Anyway, hot was the key thing," he concludes, "and we certainly miss having cool beers around harvest time."

Saturday, Sept. 23, 7:30 a.m.

"The weather, of course, continues to play a big part in what we're doing," says Nick Goldschmidt. "Other than the heat we had at the beginning of the week, we had much cooler and unsettled weather later in the week. In fact, we had a little bit of rain on Thursday night, and that made the [grapevine] canopies very wet, so when the chaps were picking the grapes, they were getting quite wet. In the end, we didn't pick any red grapes on Friday.

"Today is one of the biggest Chardonnay days yet for us this harvest," he continues. "We're also going to be picking Cabernet from the Alexander Valley. We've got 1,500 tons out there, and we've got a couple blocks that are young vineyards, where the sugars are a little higher, so I wanted to pick those.

"This cooling trend is pretty good because it has rehydrated all the grapes from the three days of heat we had at the beginning of the week. Although it's a little bit cooler than I would have expected, we see that those temperatures are going to start coming back up Sunday and Monday. Hopefully that'll keep the flavors going.

"Zinfandel we started to pick, but we've held off on picking any more, sort of waiting for the sugars to come back up after it cooled down the last three days -- it's amazing how much the sugars went down.

"We still haven't really picked much Chardonnay in the Carneros district. I don't expect we'll see most of that until the end of next week, which will also coincide with us starting to pick Cabernet for real in the Alexander Valley.

"All in all," Goldschmidt concludes, "it's a pretty exciting time, a busy time, and things are going pretty well right now."

Thursday, Oct. 5, 11 p.m.

"Things are just whizzing by, and I never seem to sit down," says Nick Goldschmidt, who has obviously had a long day. "We're now at 63 percent done -- we've taken a big leap forward in the last two or three days.

"The weather out here is a little inclement," he reports. "We're holding in the 70s. It was supposed to warm up over the weekend, but we're not going to see that trend now. The last three mornings I've had my wipers on coming to work, due to the fog. That's driven the sugars down, when we do our sugar sampling in the morning, probably by a tenth of a brix. It takes a little while for the vines to come back."

The cool weather has its benefits, though, "because we have had a little bit of dehydration going on with some of the extreme heat we had earlier on last month. We've seen a little bit of rehydration going on, with the berries swelling back up, so that's pretty good for us in terms of flavor development. Tannins and sugars are pretty good, but flavor's what we're hanging on for."

Out in the vineyards, there's still a lot of Cabernet left, says Goldschmidt. "Berry weights are holding steady, so that's pretty good. With this weather in a holding pattern, we're not panicked about picking anything red. Got a little bit of Chardonnay left in Carneros, probably a couple hundred tons left in Russian River, which is looking pretty good, and we'll pick that next week. We even have a tiny bit of Sauvignon Blanc that we'll finish up over the weekend."

Goldschmidt and his staff are excited about some new equipment in the winery. "We started up a new crush area last week, which is a belt-feed instead of an auger-feed in the bottom of the hopper," he says. "So hopefully things will be going well next week. We're getting pretty excited. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's been a pretty awesome vintage."

Thursday, Oct. 12, 5 p.m.

"Today we didn't harvest any fruit at all," reports Nick Goldschmidt. "This cooling spell has really knocked us about in terms of sugars. Tannins, as I've said before, are really good. Flavors have really come on during this cold spell, which has been encouraging, but the sugars are a little bit low for us right now, so we've decided to bite the bullet and hang on. Some of our competitors have decided to go ahead and pick, but we're 75, 80 percent through, so we're not in too bad a shape."

In the meantime, he says, "We've pressed off a lot of Zinfandel, and it looks pretty good -- better than I anticipated. I was a little bit nervous about flavors with Zinfandel earlier, but it's looking pretty smart. We'll get ready to put some of that stuff to barrel in the near future.

"We've been putting Sauvignon Blanc in the barrel as fast as we can, and as much Chardonnay as we can. That's finishing up in tank as well, and that's looking pretty good," he continues.

"We've picked a lot more Cabernet, as you can probably predict. We have a lot of tanks full, but still have a lot of tanks ready to receive more fruit. Not really an issue as far as that's concerned."

Goldschmidt concludes, "Really it's just a matter of watching the weather. We believe that we're not going to see more rainfall in the near future; perhaps middle to late next week we might see something. But we certainly got into the 70s today, and we're looking forward to a little bit more warm weather over the weekend, so hopefully that prevails."

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m.

"Today was a huge day for the year because we finished our white grapes," says Nick Goldschmidt. "We finished with another 17 tons of Russian River Chardonnay. There's still a lot of Chardonnay out there with various people around the Russian River and in Carneros, but that brings us today to a total of 87 percent of our fruit. We finished all our Carneros Chardonnay, all our Russian River Chardonnay and also all our Sauvignon Blanc.

"That still leaves us a fair chunk of Cabernet and Cabernet Franc out there," he continues. "But the weather is looking really good now. It's been steady in the 80s, and it's supposed to continue like that through early next week."

Right now, the staff at Simi is busy draining and pressing red wines. "A lot of these red wines have spent three-plus weeks on skins now, so we are starting to take them off," says Goldschmidt. "Our capacity constraint comes in terms of having enough places to rack these tanks to. We've got plenty of tanks to crush grapes into, but we have a shortage of tanks to drain to once we start taking [the wines] off their skins.

"We're starting to put all the rest of our Chardonnay to barrel," he adds. "We probably have five or six tanks that we couldn't get to barrel during the harvest. By the end of next week, hopefully all of the Chardonnay should be in barrel. Pretty much all of our Sauvignon Blanc is in barrel; that stays in neutral barrels for about three months before we start getting ready to bottle it."

Goldschmidt concludes, "All in all, things are looking smart right now. People are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. People are getting a bit chirpy. The night-shift is still going at full strength because we still have a lot of red pump-overs and barrel preps as we wrap up the rest of these whites."

Monday, Nov. 6, 5 p.m.

"I've been really busy finishing up the harvest, but we did finish last Monday," reports Nick Goldschmidt. "We crushed on about 48 days of harvest this year. Normally we would crush on about 35 days. It's the longest harvest I've been part of since I've been in California, which has been 12 years now.

"It was our second-biggest harvest since Prohibition. We don't know what happened pre-Prohibition, but we understand there were some pretty big harvests back then. This is second only to the '97 harvest." He adds, "It's the biggest harvest we've ever done of Cabernet. We did over 1,000 tons of Cab. We did about 530 tons of Merlot, and a lot of Chardonnay as well, and Sauvignon Blanc.

"I think the harvest overall was a pretty damn good one. We had this rain issue at the end -- we still had three vineyards out there, which is a relatively small amount of our total program. I think it was about 8 percent. By the last rains, last weekend, we were down to about 4 percent. But by all accounts, there was heck of a lot of fruit still out there even last week as I was driving around Napa and Sonoma, and that should be wrapped up by now, I hope," Goldschmidt says.

"The wines are looking pretty smart. I think the Sauvignon Blanc looks pretty killer, and Pinot Noir and Cabernet also. Normally we take our Cabs off [the skins] after about three weeks, but the tannins this year are a lot softer, and we're actually going to hold our wines on for a little longer. We're going for closer to 30-plus days rather than 21 days. The flavors are really good. It's going to be a killer wine for Cabs."

As for Zinfandels, "Obviously the big issue is making sure you can finish [fermenting] your Zins in terms of sweetness. We've been very lucky in that all of ours have gone dry, which is not the case when I've asked around other wineries. It's that old saying: 'It's better to be lucky than good.'"

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