During each year's harvest, Wine Spectator asks numerous winemakers to share their thoughts on the challenges of the season and the quality of the grapes they're picking. Since there are so many factors that can influence the timing and quality of the harvest, ranging from the region to the variety to even the experience or opinion of the individual winemaker, it's often difficult to get a true sense of what's happening in the vineyards. This year, Wine Spectator found winemakers who specialize in certain varieties to sound off on their individual, grape-specific experiences—right in the middle of harvest.
Paul Hobbs is one of the most reputable American winemakers. Hobbs got off to a flying start early in his winemaking career, working for Robert Mondavi, Opus One and Simi, and later consulting for labels such as Lewis and Peter Michael. Today, not only does Hobbs have his own winery in Sebastopol, Calif., which sources fruit from some of the most prized vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, he continues to work as a consultant winemaker for brands as close as Napa and as far away as Hungary. His work also takes him to South America, where he is a partner in Argentina's Viña Cobos, and consults for other wineries in Chile. Hobbs pulled to the side of the road to speak with WineSpectator.com, when he was driving from vineyards in Sonoma to others he works with in Napa.
The Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon
The Geography: Napa and Sonoma
One thing at a time: "Let me just get pulled over here."
A sensational season: "We're just really beginning to bring [the grapes] in, but as a growing season, it's been outstanding. Awesome, in fact. We had dry weather in the spring and it's been fairly warm so we had a good set. The season was mild, just ideal, with no big shifts in temperature. A little bit of heat in September clipped the fruit, particularly around St. Helena, with a little shrivel from dehydration with the warm weather we had for five or six days, but nothing like the events we had in '03 or '04. So my expectations are very high. The berry size and cluster size are smaller than normal, so it looks like it's setting itself up for very intense wines. And now we just need the weather to hold together for the next two or two and a half weeks. We're really very close to the peak picking window in the top-quality vineyards, from Rutherford to Oakville."
Maintaining a steady pace: "We've brought in somewhere around 25 percent to 30 percent so far. I expect [the week of Oct. 8] and the week after to be the big weeks. We'll be busy, but not overwhelmed, which is great, since then we can really tend to the details of the wine in a manageable way. We may not be picking every day, but we'll process somewhere between 10 to 15 tons per day. We can do more than that in an emergency situation, but that's the speed we like to run—about 20 or 30 bins per day. We sort everything, and normally a bin takes 20 to 30 minutes to sort, so that's a pretty full day at that pace. We're mostly sorting for stem jacks because the fruit itself is pristine. Any parts of the stem that get broken loose when [the grapes] are destemmed is primarily what we're after. We want to avoid any of the green elements the stem may contribute."
It's not just what you sort, but how you sort: "We want very healthy fruit going into the boxes. We do all the sorting on the vine and then it's picked, so it's pristine before it goes into the box. But once it's picked it's very difficult to sort. That's why we only sort for jacks, because they're green and easy to spot and we can pull them out. But if you have rot in with good, black fruit, it's almost impossible to see that. This is an easy year because everything is pretty uniform, but in challenging years, like '05 and '06, with wet springs and late-season harvests, we had a lot more variability in the vineyard and that required multiple picks."
When to pick? Depends … One of the most difficult decisions of them all is the picking decision. I agonize over it. It can take a tremendous amount of suffering to figure out when the perfect moment is. Vineyards aren't always 100 percent uniform, so you're looking for the best average. Even though we may do two or three picks in a single block, it's still a rather complicated, exhausting and agonizing effort. Every year is different; nothing ever looks the same. It's not like, 'Oh we did that last year, so this year we can apply the same methodology.' It's just a 'je ne sais quoi' type thing. How you know it's the right moment, sometimes it requires going to the vineyard every day when it gets close, and it's a 24-hour decision. Sometimes it's even a 12-hour decision. Of course, it's my opinion that it's right--another person might think otherwise."
Don't kid yourself … Cabernet is tough to get right: "Pinot Noir is given a high profile for being a challenging variety, but I think Cabernet is equally challenging. It requires attention to detail and a meticulousness at the highest level to get it right. Perhaps at the same sort of level with Pinot Noir. It's not an easy variety to get right primarily because of the green element in it and the herbaceousness it can have. If you're looking not to have that, and to have everything ripe and not go over the top, that I think is a very narrow window and a very tricky thing to manage."
And the weather can really throw a spanner in the works: "It's always a game with the weather. What's exciting about a year like this is everything does look so spectacular, but you still have the unknowns. Like tonight, there's some showers that just came up on the radar screen late yesterday. I don't know what the hell happened, but suddenly they're calling for possible showers this evening. It's always a question of how much weather and whether to wait and go for a few more days, and it's like a victory every time you get [a pick] in."
Minding all the details, all the time: "I have some good helpers who are very astute and have worked with me for a number of years. We put a lot into preparation and organization so we gather as much information in advance to try and understand the vineyards and track them, so when harvest comes we're just down to execution. The logistical component is run with military precision. In my preharvest speech, I don't know if I've given a speech like Patton, but I've talked about harvest having elements of war. When certain things happen, it can be with such ferocity that if you're not awake and you miss it, you lose, it's gone."
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