Bruno D'Alfonso, who graduated from the enology program at University of California, Davis, in 1980, has been the winemaker at Sanford in Santa Barbara, Calif., since 1983. Though his true love is Pinot Noir, for this series he has agreed to talk about Chardonnay, a variety for which Sanford has earned some of its highest scores on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Here he talks about picking, just as Sanford's Chardonnay harvest was getting underway.
"We had good rains for the winter that helped leach salt out of the soil. We were at the end of a 7-year drought, so there was a lot of salt accumulation. But this last series of rains we got was twice the amount of normal rainfall, and it really cleansed the soil of all the salt, and the plants responded very nicely. The season was mild--no heat spikes or windy conditions to make a lot of shatter, so we had a good set. The season has been stretched out quite considerably.
"The issue here is there's a large crop that was set on the vine. What that does is it distributes the flavor profile over more clusters. So the potential is for a nice wine, but I don't know just how good. Even though the sugars go up very high, the flavor profile seems to be restrained somewhat. So we're just going to have to see how the wines turn out. [In time] we'll be able to taste the wines and see where they're going as far as the body and the intensity and the extract. So right now, the jury's out. The grapes are clean and beautiful and had a lot of hang time, but there was a big crop on the vine. I've never seen it like this before in my life. We're getting between 6 and 9 tons an acre--probably three times more than what we've ever made before, I imagine.
"Because there was such a large crop and we had to get this stuff off--on the flat parts of the vineyard we pick by machine and on the hilly parts we do it by hand. (The grapes we're going to use for the vineyard-designated La Rinconada Chardonnay, we picked by hand.) There's no real issue with the quality of the wine, it's just the speed at which you can process. You can process hand-picked fruit much faster than machine-picked in the press cycle.
"For the machine picking, we do 50-ton increments, so last night they started at about 9 p.m., and this morning when we got to work at 6 a.m., there were 50 tons of fruit out there. That's pretty much all the machine guys want to do. You can get two or three machines in there and kick ass, but we only have two presses, so we're limited in the way we can absorb the fruit. But for hand-picking we can get up to 30 tons a day.
"We go direct to press with the grapes, and [the free-run and pressings juices] are combined. I've been doing it the same way for 26 years. We don't press it very hard, so we do leave a little bit of juice behind in the berries. It's not a perfectly dry pomace that comes out. We could crank it up a lot more and get a few more gallons out of it, but if we did, that's where your bitterness would come out."
Next week, while his wines are fermenting, D'Alfonso will talk about the techniques he uses and the decisions he makes as his Chardonnay transforms from juice to wine.
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