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On Harvest with …Ted Seghesio

Zinfandel specialist talks about harvesting California's signature grape in Sonoma

MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: September 19, 2007

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.

Ted Seghesio is winemaker at Seghesio Family Vineyards in Sonoma. Founded in 1895 by Edoardo Seghesio, the company has made many different types of wines over the years, spanning four generations. But the winery reinvented itself to become primarily a Zinfandel producer in the 1990s, and has four estate vineyards: Home Ranch, San Lorenzo and River Road in Alexander Valley and Cortina in Dry Creek Valley. Some of these sites have produced Zinfandel for over a century. Seghesio spoke with WineSpectator.com last week (and left an upbeat message over the weekend when the fog showed up) with his observations of the hot harvest conditions and how best to work through them.

The Grape: Zinfandel

The Geography: Sonoma County

A growing season that suddenly turned hot at the end: "What led up to harvest was pretty spectacular weather, just a really mild summer, and a small crop. Things were looking really exceptional. Going back to the beginning, we had an early budbreak, a dry spring, requisite cool nights, really no heat spikes in the summer. We're always looking for a certain amount of hang time, and we had it. Low rainfall, everything. It looked like it would be spectacular. And then ... and then it got hot about two weeks ago. It lasted 10 to 12 days, essentially staying 100 degrees, but low humidity. It dried everything out. If you have [irrigation], you can delay sugar accumulation and dehydration, which is especially important with Zinfandel. We have been giving our vines 2-4 gallons a day every two to five days in this weather. We have a good idea of the moisture they need. We could never saturate the vines to get berries and get dilution.

The hard part about harvesting Zinfandel in hot weather: This heat means you get fruit high in sugar, but the grapes are not physically ripe or mature—they can be on the green side. In California we never have trouble achieving sugar in fruit. Our challenge is to delay the sugar accumulation. Zinfandel has a prolonged bloom phase—at least three times as long as other grapes. The potential for unevenness begins there, right at bloom. We have our vineyard staff go through [to thin uneven bunches in] the vineyard multiple times during the year to overcome the variability of Zin.

But sometimes Mother Nature gives you a break: In growing grapes, we understand that nature rules, but she finally threw us some crumbs by bringing back the morning fog we so look forward to. It really helps temper ripening. The morning fog arrived [Sept. 8], ending a string of many hot days and low humidity that spiked the sugars, so we are grateful for the fog. Those nine days of 100-degree weather were rough. I was concerned. We only get one chance each year to do this. The sugars are somewhat elevated, but the fruit flavors are fresh.

Flexibility and good food are the keys to survival: We should do about 1,500 tons total, and we'll do 200, 300 a day if we're crazy. It was happening so fast last week, we weren't even counting. We have 10 new punch-down fermentors to help allow us to pick fruit when it's ripe because we have the tank space. You'd be surprised how many wineries cannot do that [because they don't have tank space]. We thought about getting a sorting table, but it's painfully slow. None of us have the patience to sort individual berries, so we do the sorting in the vineyard. Eventually, it will become a necessity. What fuels me through harvest? Beer! I know I'm not alone in that one. Mostly, it's Mexican food and pizza from Bovolo, a great pizza place in Healdsburg. My favorite is the Rolando, with prosciutto, arugula and fontina.

And then there's the most exciting part of harvest: I'd say the end of it! [Laughing] It's really the challenge that every year brings. My hands take a beating. I work 13-hour days, for 6 weeks of serious hands-on work. Whenever consumers see [wine-stained hands], they think it's cool, [but] the hardest part is making sure each wine gets in the right tank. It sounds simple, but it's really the hardest part.

How 2007 is turning out: I've been making wine for 20-some odd years. Every year is different. Maybe this year is like '04: a small crop, blasted with heat at harvest. The '07 Zins are deeply colored, darkly fruited, with nice briary spice notes and good acidities. It looks good.

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