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Ken Brown's Harvest Diary

Posted: November 2, 2000

Ken Brown's Harvest Diary

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Nick Goldschmidt

Michael Beaulac

Dirk Hampson

Frederic Engerer

Nadine Gublin

Emanuela and Roberto Stucchi Prinetti

Tuesday, Aug. 29, Noon

Byron Vineyards & Winery started its harvest yesterday, in cool weather. "We will be in the high 60s for the rest of the week and weekend," says Ken Brown. "The Santa Maria Valley is not like other California appellations; it's better in warmer years. Ideally, the upper 70s or lower 80s would be perfect."

The Santa Maria Valley is an anomaly in California, says Brown, "because the valley opens up directly to the ocean." The slopes, which run east to west, are perpendicular to the coast, and the salty breezes wafting off the waves keep the valley cool.

"The coolest appellation after us is the Sonoma Coast, and they aren't even close," Brown says. The weather is good for Burgundian varieties, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, he continues, but Bordeaux grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, couldn't survive.

So far, Byron has picked its 15 acres of Pinot Gris and has kept the grapes separated by individual vineyard blocks. "No mildew, no botrytis, just truly pristine grapes," says Brown. "Better flavors at lower sugars means lower acids, with alcohol in the low 13 percent [range]. It's perfect wine -- a hallmark vintage."

This is Brown's first harvest in which his Pinot Noir was not ready first, and the grapes may not be ripe enough for picking until early next week. If the weather warms up, he says, "later this week, the Chardonnay may be ready, especially our higher-density Dijon clones. It's a fairly leisurely pace, but it will be short-lived. Next week it could hit 80 degrees -- then we're off to the races."

So far, Brown says, he can sum up this vintage in one word: "blessed."

Tuesday, Sept. 12, 9 a.m.

Things are good in Santa Barbara County, reports Ken Brown. "The outlook is for clear and sunny skies. It's exactly what we needed -- no rain so far, knock on wood. We are lucky, though I know other vineyards in California have not been so lucky."

Brown says he hasn't felt such high levels of excitement for years. "This [harvest] is the best of the best of the best," he says, advising any skeptics to "take a look at it."

Brown has just wrapped up his Pinot Noir harvest. "The numbers are just ideal: acids right on, incredible flavor in the fruit ... This is a very unusual year -- all of these factors are lining up."

Now that the Pinot is off the vine, Brown is turning his attention over to his "old vines" Chardonnay -- the variety with which Byron has had the most success. "It takes awhile to come around in barrel and bottle," he says. "[The grapes] are getting a long, cool ripening period. It's not going to be too hot. A very slow maturation is what really brings around the flavors."

Friday, Sept. 15, 9:00 a.m.

"After doing this for almost 25 years, I've found that every vintage has its own personality," says Ken Brown. "You never know what it's going to be in the beginning -- it takes this long to understand where it's going. The things we knew at the start were that this vintage would be early and that yields were a little above average. So we did quite a bit of trimming on the vines to get the balance between the fruit and the canopy, so we felt we were in good shape coming into the harvest.

"But this has been the most unusual situation I've seen," he continues. "We always talk about how everything looks like it's going to come in at once -- well, this time it really did. We have two estate vineyards: One is the Byron Estate vineyard, and the other one, Sierra Madre vineyard, is further west, in the same appellation, about 5 or 6 miles away. It's probably one of the coldest vineyards in California. Byron is a little warmer, and it always comes in first, but this year they both came in at the same time. In addition, in the Byron vineyard, the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir came in at the same time.

"It's been a gigantic effort, but this is our last big day," Brown adds. "Fortunately, we haven't gotten any rain, and the weather has been ideal temperature-wise. But every day we had to maximize our capabilities for harvesting and processing fruit. It's been nonstop."

Fortunately, he estimates, Byron is about 85 percent finished with picking. "Last year, we hadn't even started at this time. The back-to-back vintages turned out to be absolute opposites. Last year, it was late, with low yields, and we were challenged by high acids. This year, the acids are just perfect. We're pretty excited.

"The quality of the vintage far surpasses our earlier estimates," he says. "Usually, when the crop is larger, the berries are a bit larger and have less flavor potential, but all the grapes that we have pressed so far have incredible character. At this early stage, this is a potentially outstanding vintage for us.

"I think the Chardonnays are really going to be nice. We got flavor development earlier than normal. ... We're trying to get alcohol levels down. We'll have alcohol levels easily within the mid-13 percents, but the wines looks like they are incredibly balanced. The Pinots, without exception, are phenomenal. You can tell a lot from the color of the juice, and it's very dark."

Brown hopes to finish picking the last of the Pinot Noir this weekend and Monday. And he expects the last of the Chardonnay from the Sierra Madre vineyard to come in at the end of next week, wrapping up Byron's harvest. Then it's time to move on to his Io blend. "We haven't started that yet. The Rhône varieties are always later," he remarks. "We'll probably start next week."

Brown can't contain his enthusiasm for the 2000 harvest. "This is the first vintage I can ever remember that both the vineyard side of the equation and the winery side of the equation are going to be happy. Usually, it's one or the other. We have low yields and high quality, or high yields, which make growers happy, but lesser quality. Here, the yields are above average and quality is above average. It's good news, and it's not just here.

"One other thing I didn't mention that's unusual is that the fruit is extremely clean. We didn't have any rain. We have lot of botrytis problems in this area, but there is no botrytis or mildew this year. We are still sorting the high-end grapes by hand, but at the [sorting] table, we're maybe seeing 1 percent of the grapes with rot, compared to 2 or 3 percent. It's the best I've ever seen," he concludes. "That's a real advantage for this vintage -- the wines will be purer, cleaner, fresher expressions."

Tuesday, Sept. 26, 11:30 a.m.

"I always try to hold off my enthusiasm when the vintage begins," says Ken Brown, who tries to avoid jinxing the harvest. "If I were to ask myself, 'What else could make this a perfect harvest?' I honestly couldn't think of anything to say. I think you're going to hear a lot of glowing reports. This vintage is the first one since 1995 where we haven't had any rain. It's remarkable."

Brown estimates that 95 percent of Byron's harvest is in. "The Pinot Noir is fermenting and just getting pressed. I just love to walk by the fermenting vats -- the aromatics are intense. Black cherry, blackberry aromatics. The acids are still pretty high until the malolactic fermentation, but it's still the best Pinot Noir we've ever had.

"On the Chardonnay side, the alcohol will probably be the lowest of all. That means exquisite finesse with great complexity."

Brown is not in the clear yet: He still has 10 acres of Chardonnay in his Sierra Madre vineyard left to pick. He's also hoping for a little sun to shine on his Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, which he combines to make 1,500 cases of Io, a Rhône-style red. Extra sun, he says, "will slightly dehydrate the Syrah, giving its flavors more intensity."

Thursday, Oct. 5, 9:30 a.m.

"We haven't picked a thing," says Ken Brown, referring to the last 5 percent of Byron's grape crop still left on the vines. "No rain, still very cool -- it's been an average of 70 to 72 degrees [Fahrenheit] each day. That's not an excuse not to pick, but to be patient and wait for the reward in the end."

The reward in this case, he says, will be low-acid Chardonnay from his Sierra Madre Vineyard and mature Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre for his Rhône-style red, called Io.

"In the case of the whites, the acids are slowly dropping," he explains. "Everything is going along very nicely; it's just a very slow process. I was expecting to be picking the rest of our Chardonnay at this time last week. Maybe next Monday.

"As for the Rhônes, they're still out there," says Brown. "The advantage that reds have is, the longer they hang, we get better color development, but also much more maturity. All we need now is a little heat here someday and we'll start picking, but for now, we're on hold."

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 9:30 a.m.

"Today marks the first day we're starting to pick the Syrah -- in about 15 minutes," says Ken Brown. His Rhône varietals, used in his red blend Io, can stay on the vine until mid-November. "One of the things about this area is the varietal expectancy of an incredibly long hang-time. The thing now is to keep rains away and hope for a ripening temperature of 70 to 75 degrees [Fahrenheit]. It can happen this time of year. It's a waiting game."

Brown is also picking the last of the Chardonnay from his Sierra Madre vineyard. "We brought in a little more Chardonnay -- about 20 tons," he says. "There's about 10 tons left." By allowing it to continue to ripen, he says, "We're letting it get the super flavors we want."

He continues, "It's been a clean year -- very little botrytis, very little mildew. The weather has been perfect, but for the Grenache and Mourvèdre, it definitely looks like a November harvest."

The essential attributes for growing a good grape crop, Brown concludes, are "patience, perseverance and a lot of confidence."

Thursday, Nov. 2, 3 p.m.

"The [last of the] Chardonnays are picked and right where we want them," reports Ken Brown. "At this point, the harvest is 95 percent finished. We still have a little Mourvèdre out there. The Syrah is incredible -- we got the sugars and the flavors.

"We had to drop a lot of crop," he adds, referring to the practice of cutting grape bunches off the vine and letting them wither on the ground. Keeping the yields low in the vineyards forces the vines to devote their resources to the remaining grapes, improving the quality of the fruit. "All of the Rhônes have a tendency to be high yield ... so, in a late year, you've got to cut the bunches off the vine."

Reflecting on the 2000 harvest, Brown says, "This has been a year that started off with a bang, then there was this gigantic lull. We anticipated that it would come in earlier, but it just never kicked in again. This is an unusual year. We didn't get heat spells in October, so it wasn't quite enough [sun] to get you where you need to be."

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