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The Safeway Approach to Determining Ripeness

Adam Lee confesses to sampling grapes in the supermarket.

Posted: Sep 8, 2008 6:01pm ET

By Adam Lee

Posted by Adam Lee

I was fascinated to read James Laube’s blog this week, Chime in On What’s Overripe, and the subsequent comments by readers and a couple of winemakers alike. From my point of view, the timing couldn’t be more perfect as I think ripeness (and overripeness) begins in the vineyard, and that’s where Dianna and I are spending a good bit of our time right now.

That being said, I usually like to start any discussion of fruit character in the grocery store. We all go to the grocery store and purchase fruit for our families. How do we decide if the fruit we are considering is ripe or not? Well, with grapes at the grocery store, I steal one or two (call the cops next time you see me walking into Safeway). I pop a couple in my mouth and, if they taste ripe, then I buy the bag.

With grapes, my problem is often that they don’t taste ripe enough. But, occasionally, you come across some that are overripe. Certainly with plums or other fruits you come across overripe examples more often. And how do you know they are overripe? Usually I know because the fruit is squishy. Squishy fruit means that it is going to taste too ripe by the time I get around to eating it.

The important thing here is that we don’t break out a refractometer in the grocery store to measure sugar levels to see if the fruit is overripe. Nor do we carry around a portable pH meter. Numbers are interesting, but they are truly not what defines overripe character. And, far too often, looking at the numbers alone can be misleading. I think Jim hits it on the head when he says, “Overripe, though, is where wines such as Cabernet, or Pinot, or Zinfandel, reach the raisin, or Port spectrum, of flavors.”

In the vineyard, I like to taste a cluster where the fruit is starting to dehydrate slightly. I can almost always find a few of these, even in the coolest of years, as a cluster with a slightly damaged stem or on a compromised shoot will cause the fruit to dehydrate prematurely. I purposefully taste this cluster and, if that dehydrated fruit tastes raisin-like, then I try to avoid dehydrated clusters as harvest approaches. If, however, that dehydrated fruit simply tastes darker and more concentrated, then I don’t mind if the vineyard has some dehydration when I pick it.

Where I think the overripe discussion goes somewhat off-course, however, is when we begin to discuss alcohol (sorry, Jim) or acid (sorry, Brian). I am not saying that overly high alcohol in a wine isn’t a problem, nor am I saying that too low levels of acidity aren’t an issue. But to my mind, those are separate issues from overripeness. A wine that tastes too hot or too soft may just be that, too hot or too soft, but may not be overripe at all.

Let me share with you a very practical example of what we deal with out in the vineyard. I drove down to the Santa Lucia Highlands early on Saturday morning (left home at 3:33 a.m.—oh, the joys of harvest) and sampled fruit down at the Pisoni, Garys and Rosella’s vineyards. After collecting samples in a bunch of white buckets, Gary Franscioni, Mark Pisoni and I crushed up all the samples and tasted them and then talked about what was ready to pick and what needed more time on the vine.

One section that clearly didn’t taste ready was the Rosella’s Vineyard Pisoni Clone Pinot Noir. The juice still tasted green and underripe. Moreover, the fruit on the vine remained very firm, and the vines’ leaves were still bright green, as were the seeds in the grapes. So we decided to let that hang at least another week. The numbers showed a sugar level of 24.5 (plenty ripe, as that alone would lead to a 14.5 percent alcohol wine) but a pH of 2.96 and a TA of 1.203 (both of these numbers indicate incredibly high levels of strong acidity). So, the sugars are ready, the acids aren’t. And it isn’t hard, from previous vintages, to come up with examples where the acids were ready but the sugars weren’t.

So, what is one to do? The answer is shockingly simple, at least for us. Taste the juice blind. Base picking decisions on how things taste and on how the fruit looks and on the health of the vine. In other words, pretend that every trip to the vineyard is a trip to Safeway and we’ll be just fine.

Brad Kanipe
Atlanta —  September 8, 2008 6:30pm ET
Sometimes a common sense approach makes the most sense. Pick 'em and see what they taste like, hmmm what a novel idea. : )Thanks for taking the time to share some insight. This harvest series is great.
Tim Corliss
livermore,ca —  September 8, 2008 7:24pm ET
Adam, wonderful job of getting to the heart of the issue with the Rosella's example. Even an everyday consumer like myself can clearly understand the issue(s) at hand in making a picking decision.
Thomas Matthews
September 9, 2008 1:39pm ET
Adam, One great thing about your post is that it takes the question of "over-ripeness" out of the abstract, philosophical realm and into the physical, gustatory world where it belongs. Too often, discussion about wine focuses on conceptual issues that ignore the fundamental question: does it taste good? When you go to work in the vineyard, you get back to basics, and remind us that while philosophy and science are interesting and important, wine is ultimately all about flavor and pleasure.
Mitch Frank
Brooklyn —  September 11, 2008 5:44pm ET
"A wine that tastes too hot or too soft may just be that, too hot or too soft, but may not be overripe at all."Very smart point, Uncle Sid. We tend to get bogged down on issues of alcohol, but sugars, acidity, alcohol and tannins make for a very complex mix. Over simplifying things never helps anyone.Always enjoy your posts. Thanks.

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