The Quiet Post-Harvest Season ... Well, Not Exactly.
There isn’t a busier time in the wine growing year than the couple of months following harvest. Diana is cajoling the new wines through yeast fermentation, malolactic fermentation, first racking, and into barrels. She's also fine-tuning the blends for last year's wines. The new releases are going out to customers and distributors. Ranch manager Severiano Deloera is putting the vineyards to bed for winter with biodynamic compost, cover crops, and a layer of straw to soften the impact of the rains we’ve all been hoping for -- and which have in fact quietly begun. We’ve been walking the vineyards and inspecting each vine, identifying some as sources for future grafting wood, marking some for removal and replacement. Looking at the vines takes time – in our Brothers Vineyard alone there are 22,000 vines in 17 miles of vine row. But the vines tell us so much at this time of year.
As I look back, there are inevitably some tough seasons where you chase after nature at every step. After those harvests you feel you’ve aged 5 years over six months and you live with uncertainty until bottling. Then there are vintages where everything just happens naturally and easily. 2014 was easy. The grapes enjoyed a drawn-out, cool growing season. They were in perfect condition at the time of picking; ripe, healthy, delicious. We watched the grapes come in and felt energized and excited to see the beautiful, bountiful fruit from the Brothers Vineyard that has been a decade of thoughtful planning and hard work in the making. We were overjoyed to see the Ricos’ fruit, with its smallish clusters and lovely waxy bloom. As I watched the fruit move over the sorting table and into the tank, I appreciated and celebrated the auspicious beginning mother nature has given us this year. The wines are now in barrel and I feel confident about the 2014s.
Our friend Yuri Iiyama, wine writer, educator, and television personality, recently visited the ranch with her son, rock guitarist Masashi Iiyama. Yuri has been to the ranch many times – and a number of years ago did us the honor of introducing Snowden wines to Japan, at the time our first international market. (Today we export to Japan, England, Norway, and Sweden.) We’re crossing our fingers for Yuri and her family – and all of our other friends and colleagues in Japan – as Typhoon Vongfong makes its way ashore there.
The Once and Future Style.
From time to time, we’re approached by people who want to talk about the “style” of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. These conversations mainly imply, “Why don’t you heavily extract your wines and leave residual sugar? Your wines would be more uniform and you’d get higher ratings.” Both definitely true, but the answer is simple. We’re not chasing style – we’re chasing terroir and vintage. Some vintages, our unique site gives us huge wines with a lot of fruit and body; other years we’re given more delicate wines with less heft but more focus and finesse. We could engineer the latter to be more like the former – but it’s difficult to taste terroir behind forced extraction, let alone residual sugar. So we don’t. We make wines the way we like them, which means, how they’re given to us each vintage. We like huge, fruit-forward Napa Valley Cabernets, but we also like the patrician, restrained, long-lived wines that cooler vintages give us. If huge wines are all you like, this probably won’t make sense. But there are a lot of us – particularly in the generations coming up – who believe terroir and vintage trump extraction and sugar.
Our harvest is done – this one intense and lovely. It began August 25 with the Sauvignon Blanc and finished September 20, when we brought in the Cabernet Sauvignon from the Lost Orchard Vineyard and the Petit Verdot from the Levi Philander Davis block. The harvest dates were early, but so was spring bloom – on average, there were about 130 days from high bloom to harvest. This compares to approximately 110 days in Bordeaux (where the days are longer during the summer because of the higher latitude). Every wine starts perfect in the winter before its grapes set – from there on, the only change can be downhill. So far, 2014 is perfect.
2014 harvest got underway with our Sauvignon Blanc coming in on Monday the 25th of August. We were so lucky Fantesca, the facility where we ferment and barrel age, was not damaged by the earthquake the day before, and that we were able to pick our grapes at optimum ripeness, a beautiful 22.7 brix, right on my Sauvignon Blanc sweet spot.
We’re all safe – family, staff, and other friends. We all had a lot of things break, but for the most part we were very fortunate not to have any damage that couldn’t be cleaned up with a broom, shovel, and mop. The exception was Susanne and her husband Matt, who live on the west side of town and lost just about everything in their house that was breakable. The ranch was not harmed. We lost no wine in barrel or bottle, other than in our home cellars. Thanks to everyone who has checked in over the past several days.
"The Return of Cabernet -- California's great wine shows its classic lines."
Jon Bonné’s fascinating article in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, August 3, traces the stylistic journey of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the original legends, to the brilliant come-out wines of the 1970s, to austerity in the early 1980s, to the more extracted wines of the 1990s and oughts. “After a long identity crisis, California Cabernet is becoming Cabernet again,” Bonné writes. We’re delighted to find ourselves among the producers Bonné describes as “Making wines that reflect the traditional spirit of California Cabernet.” We’re in a sub-category he calls “ripe but balanced” – along with such distinguished company as Continuum, Dominus, Forman, Kongsgaard, Saddleback, and Spottswoode. If you asked us whether our winemaker (Diana is quoted in the article) sets out to make a “traditional” Cabernet Sauvignon, we would say no – she sets out to faithfully deliver the variety, our site, and the vintage into the glass. But that's of course the same thing.
The clusters are well on the way to turning red -- continuing their march toward what looks like a very early harvest. The darker berries have already reached the point you can taste them without getting an acid shock. Our farming priority has shifted to strategies allowing the grapes to stay on the vine longer without letting the sugar levels get too high. The challenge: the one sure tool -- liberal irrigation -- is off the table because it can lead to diluted, vegetal tasting grapes. We're left with careful tending of the crop level and canopy. We'll keep you posted.
Wines Available to Members.
One reason to become a member of our mailing list is access to certain wines on a pre-release basis. You'll see we've sold out of the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc and the wines no longer appear on our "Wines" page. The next vintages -- the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc -- are scheduled for general release on September 1. However, they are now available to members. Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on how to access the wines and enjoy the 20% member discount.
Talk about a fascinating growing year. We've had a remarkable run of warm days in the upper 80s into the lower 90s. Warm but, so far, none blistering hot and no long stretches in the upper 90s -- and, nights have been cool, which we like, because it keeps the train from getting up too much speed. The crop wants as much time on the vine as possible, so cooler evenings extend the ripening process without increasing sugar and hastening the harvest end point. Even so, hints of upcoming veraison are appearing in some of the blocks – the Malbec in particular.
2010 Reserve - Crush Wine & Spirits.
We’re sold out of the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from our end, but in some areas it is still working its way out thorough the wine shops and restaurants. If you’re a New Yorker looking for the wine, Crush Wine & Spirits is a wonderful store on E. 57th that still has the wine on hand and is featuring it at a very competitive price. Among other things, they say “the cool, vibrant profile brings minerality, finesse and a detailed edginess to the wine that makes it really, really impressive.” We agree – the 2010 is developing well in the bottle – more weight than the 2008, but like that vintage, distinguished by balance and purity in both mouth feel and aromatics. You can see Crush’s full write-up at http://www.crushwineco.com/current-specials/snowden-cabernet-reserve-2010/
Our rare and racy Sauvignon Blanc 2013 will soon be released! More and more of you have taken the time to come visit our property. A highlight for visitors, as for us, is the 1 acre plot of Sauvignon Blanc in the middle of the vineyard we call The Lost Orchard. It is a small, somewhat unruly jewel. At about 800 feet, with the influence of Lake Hennessy at the bottom of the valley below, and growing on very little top soil, this wine has caught attention for its cut, length and mineral texture.
Weather, weather everywhere...
California grapegrowers have been accused of describing every year as the best that’s ever been, with the result that you’ll notice many of us making a conscious effort not to say things like that. For starters, there is no such thing – some people like sleek, definitive, terroir-driven Cabernet Sauvignons and others prefer big, rich, fruit-forward ones – so it's the rare growing year that is perfect for every palate. But regardless of the side of the aisle you live on, thus far 2014 is unnervingly propitious. With the exception of four very hot days that appear to have done little harm, we so far have a lovely, sunny, moderately warm summer. Odds are, this will be swept away in the many weeks until harvest, but right now there is the possibility of a season that lets the grapes stay longer on the vine without sugars and resulting alcohols getting too high -- the rare year that pleases both sides of the aisle.
The 2012 reds and 2013 Sauvignon Blanc are bottled. Bottling is a high-pressure milestone for a winemaker and her wines; it is the last opportunity to adjust their trajectory. After 15 months of doing nothing, letting nature’s complexities develop under healthy conditions, pre bottling is the only time after fermentation where I act. Everything must be considered; free sulphur, carbon dioxide, turbidity, microbiological landscape, reduction … it is the opportunity do something to make sure a wine is just right. Preparing the wines for bottling is as intense as harvest, though not nearly as fun. But then the noisy day comes to an end and the winemaker’s job is done.
Bloom came on quickly, starting around May 1 in the older Cabernet Sauvignon blocks, then the new Brothers Vineyard, followed by the Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc. By May 6, you could smell the perfume in many of the blocks, which meant bloom was well underway -- perhaps 40%. We're pleased it's been a relatively uniform and fast bloom -- a leisurely bloom that slowly moves through the vineyard can result in uneven ripening all the way to harvest, often requiring hand removal of the less mature fruit. It remains to be seen whether bloom was fast enough: around the 12th, daytime temperatures went up, which can cause "shatter" in berries that haven't yet been pollinated -- meaning, they don't develop into grapes. Weather is of course the big variable we're always tracking. So far, yes, we could have used more winter rain, and yes, we could have done without this week's heat, but overall, this spring has been glorious.
Two clusters per shoot.
That's the general rule to keep the crop in balance with the canopy: two fruit clusters on each healthy shoot, which are the new green canes growing out of the buds left from last year's new growth. Vines will sometimes propose more than two clusters -- which seems to be unusually common this year, particularly in our one acre Petit Verdot block (the "Levi Philander Davis Vineyard" block) where many shoots have put out three or even four potential clusters. We're still a long way from having grapes -- it's still frost season; and bloom, set, and the risk of shatter are all right around the corner. But it does look like there will be an extra "pass" through the vineyard -- that's when vineyard workers visit every vine, in this case to trim the extra clusters. This is a much better problem to have than not enough clusters, with all those risks still ahead.
Every time any of us get to be in Texas, we're reminded how important it is to leave your spurs and your preconceptions on the porch. Last week I visited Dallas, Ft. Worth, and El Paso and was once again struck by how many people in Texas know and love fine wines. The larger Specs stores have remarkable wine collections and many have Snowden on the shelf – we've had more wine sales specialists from Specs visit the ranch than from any other state. In related news, we’re pleased that Cafe Central in El Paso is adding our Reserve, Merlot and a library reserve to their perceptive and comprehensive wine list.
Our bi-continental winemaker.
The Daily Beast ran an item a few days ago where they said “the wine world is evolving. Tastes are changing, and a new generation of women is on the cutting edge of today’s vinous evolution.” Diana is among the featured winemakers and talks about her path from “cellar rat” to making wine in the Napa Valley and Burgundy. Describing her lofty status today, she says “I still spit. Sadly, I no longer roll barrels.” To see the article, you can go to http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/22/yes-women-can-make-great-wine.html
Midway through budbreak -- and Iowa.
Budbreak -- when we pruned in the winter we removed most of the canes that had grown in 2013, leaving just enough of last year's growth to give us the right number of buds on each vine for new shoots to form this year. That ranges from two to thirty buds, depending on the age, health, and circumstances of each vine. In late February, the first buds began to swell and turn fuzzy, then as they begin to burst, they look pink. The Petit Verdot was the first to show tiny leaves in the first week of March. By now, leaves are emerging in all of the blocks -- some are over an inch in diameter. There's more to this than meets the eye: last year budbreak was early but this year is over two weeks ahead of last year. In related news, we just received our license to ship wine to Iowa and the first direct shipments should be hitting the road this coming week.
What a joy to see cover crop in the morning!
If only one could capture the sweet smell in the same way we capture images in photos... These grasses will all be tilled in soon to decompose, giving back Nitrogen and other micronutrients for soil ecology and structure. These brave little sprouts are the foundation for “terroir transparency” in wine.
Pruning is all but complete.
Like many Napa Valley grapegrowers, we are gradually returning to “cane pruning” –- more complex than “cordon training,” but allowing more nuanced control of the vines. The only blocks left to prune are the Petit Verdot and the Sauvignon Blanc – one acre each. Both are at tricky developmental stages, so our ranch manager, Severiano Deloera, will be pruning them himself this year.
2013 -- malos are finished, time to blend.
I love the 2013s! What a relief. When you pick grapes on the early side, before they have metabolized all of their malic acid, it’s impossible to judge what you’ve got until after malolactic fermentation. The acidity exaggerates the tannin, plus the carbon dioxide … you pretty much have to just drive in the bung and let nature and time work their magic.
I made it back to the valley from France in December, a week after the last lot finished malo, to find the wines teeming with energy. They were bright, crunchy, had great length, Californian suppleness with edgy character and ample definition to hold your attention.
It was unnerving to bring in Cabernet in the first half of September this year when so many people were extolling extra hang time, but I couldn’t be more pleased with the results.
Later this month we’ll resume trials and continue exploring where we're going with these strong blending components.
Rain has finally come.
Just one storm so far, but enough to completely change the outlook for the 2014 growing season. This year was the first since the family came to the property in 1955 that we've had to irrigate through the winter. Now we can turn off the water and let nature do its work. The roots stay active year-round, so with this rain they will be able to develop in the areas not directly under a drip emitter. The cover crops can grow. The microscopic critters that live in the soil and in the cover crops -- which are essential to field health and, ultimately, wine quality -- can thrive. Every year is a succession of events, beneficial or challenging, that cumulatively inform the wines. One challenge met. On to pruning.