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Why You Can't Pick Anyone Else's Vineyards

Adam Lee is beginning to pick Pinot Noir in several California vineyards.

Posted: Sep 2, 2008 2:43pm ET

By Adam Lee

Posted by Adam Lee

You can pick your friends, and you can pick your vineyards, but you can’t pick your friends’ vineyards.

Deciding when to pick is one of the more personal decisions that we make as winemakers. Dianna and I consider a whole list of factors when making a picking decision. First and foremost, we collect cluster samples and crush them up in a 5-gallon bucket and taste the juice. The way the juice tastes is more important than anything else. For us, the juice has to get past the point of tasting merely sweet and have some depth to the flavors. It is also vitally important that the tannins taste ripe, not green and harsh.

We then examine the condition of the fruit and see if the seeds are brown and, if we are fortunate, the stems are lignified (woody). We also look at the health of the vine—if the leaves are all falling off, the grapes are no longer really ripening, just dehydrating. We look at the weather forecast, and we measure the Brix (the sugar content), the pH (the strength of the acidity) and the TA (total or titratable acidity—the amount of acids in solution, mostly tartaric and malic) of the juice. Eventually, we also have to consider our schedule at the winery and the schedule of the vineyard manager.

Over the past 10 days, Dianna and I have visited the Santa Lucia Highlands twice and the Santa Rita Hills once, gone to the Hirsch Vineyard out on the Sonoma Coast twice, and sampled at all of our Pinot Noir vineyards and one of our Syrah vineyards in Sonoma County. Dianna will head up to Oregon on Wednesday. We even managed to take the kids and run away to a hotel for a night and spend some time in the hotel swimming pool.

Harvest for us starts today, Sept. 2, with fruit from Amber Ridge Vineyard in Sonoma's Russian River Valley. We are then picking the Big Block at Pisoni Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands on Friday, and then it's back to the Russian River for part of Ewald Vineyard on Friday and Parsons’ and Lewis vineyards next Monday. Those last two picks are subject to change depending on the weather and how the vineyards progress in the interim. Plus there are a couple of other sites we may picks depending on what we find when we sample during the next two days.

There are a couple of interesting sidelights to this year’s harvest. First, our Brix numbers at Amber Ridge Vineyard have been significantly higher than the numbers that two other winermakers have been getting from sections of the vineyard directly next to our sections. Normally, this would be a concern for us. However, our numbers have been consistent and have been moving consistently, over a two-week period of time. More importantly, the juice tastes really good. So, whatever sugars we end up with will be fine with us.

Second, one factor that is playing into the 2008 harvest is fruit condition. As I mentioned in my first blog post, this year's crop has a good bit of millerandage (small, seedless berries mixed in with more normal size berries). Over the past two weeks, warmer weather, lower humidity levels and drying winds have been causing a number of these tiny berries to dry up and wither away. This is not a good thing as these smaller berries have a great deal of concentrated fruit and losing them ultimately leads to a loss in potential wine quality. Thus we are irrigating vineyards when possible, but we also are making some picking decisions based on fruit condition.

These are the types of decisions you can only make by being in the vineyards and by having your own standards as to how much is too much. And it is why you can pick your own vineyards but you can’t make decisions for anyone else.

Al Larson
San Carlos,CA —  September 2, 2008 7:12pm ET
Al Larson, San Carlos CAHi Adam: Love your wines and your insights...How are the 2008 Pinot's stacking up vs. 2006 and 2007? I love the 2006 and I know WS says its not as good "overall" compared to 2004 and 2005.Thank You
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  September 2, 2008 10:23pm ET
Adam, great nuts and bolts outline of your approach to picking grapes. I just finished reading Bruce Sanderson's article on Raveneau, the Chablis producer and all he could get out of Raveneau was, "I pick them when they're ready"! Thanks, T. B.
Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  September 3, 2008 12:31am ET
Adam: As you describe withered fruit with an excessively high level of sugar, I wonder whether you've ever considered making a "late harvest" wine?
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 3, 2008 7:01am ET
Al, right now I would say that 2008 reminds me more of 2004 as far as the rapid fire pace of harvest goes. But the acids are staying higher at the moment and the temperatures are not quite as warm. FWIW, you might want to check out a website a few of us have put together www.pinotharvest.com that describes the Pinot Noir harvest from a number of different points of view. -- Adam
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 3, 2008 8:21am ET
Mark - We've made a late harvest Viognier before but never Pinot Noir. The "withered" fruit refers primarily to those smaller, seedless berries that are part of the cluster but not all of it. Keeping those berries healthy is difficult. When it is too hot they tend to dry up. Under other difficult conditions they can split and lead to botrytis. -- Also, thus far, I don't know that I would characterize the sugars as "excessively high." Certainly, sugars have at some vineyards raced ahead of flavors. But we are picking the Pommard clone at the Hirsch Vineyard today at 24.5 brix and it tastes really good. So that doesn't seem excessive to me. -- Adam Lee
Dominic M Dela Rosa
NJ —  September 3, 2008 10:38am ET
Hey Adam - Thanks for taking the time to explain your thought process in picking grapes. The next time I drink from a great bottle of wine, I can better appreciate the labor and passion in transforming the humble grape juice into something special. I hope to have an opportunity to try your wines sometime.
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  September 3, 2008 4:54pm ET
Adam, thanks for sharing your insights. I really enjoyed chatting with you and tasting the 'Siduri lineup' at the IPNC this year. Gotta love ripe fruit and 24.5 brix by Labor day in NorCal. Be curious to know how those numbers are doing from your Oregon vineyards. We are just about halfway thru veraison, about 2 weeks behind normal. Hoping (praying) for some serious global warming and about a month of 70-80 degree days to drag us to a dry and rot-free harvest.

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