A club member sent an interesting article a day or two ago on natural wines. The premise was, most wines come from grapes grown in conventionally farmed vineyards, using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and intensive tilling which damages the soil biome – a short term strategy to maximize short term yield. "Most" might be accurate -- probably for sure based on gallons. But for hyper-premium growing areas like the Napa Valley, it’s not necessarily so. Driving up the valley on either the Silverado Trail or Highway 29, you’ll see at least half of the vineyards completely carpeted with cover crop – which means they haven’t been sprayed with herbicides. At Diana’s insistence, we stopped using them about ten years ago and have seen the vineyards flourish. Our vineyards are fully organic – except for one thing – the sandy volcanic soils are very low on phosphorous. We’ve been relentlessly piloting different organic micro-supplements in our Brothers Vineyard – in fact, thanks to the pilots, the Brothers Cabernet has been made from organically farmed grapes since the 2015 vintage. Each pilot takes two or three years. We haven’t found one that works, but we will.
Ranch manager Severiano DeLoera and his small team started pruning on Monday, January 13. Seve has found that a smaller group takes longer but can hit remarkable levels as far as quality and consistency are concerned. They began with the simpler blocks – the older cordon trained vines. It took them a week to make their way to the Brothers Vineyard, where the young, cane-trained vines require very precise work. They are now finishing up in Brothers. That will leave just the single acre of Sauvignon Blanc, which Seve always leaves until the last possible moment – it’s the only spot on the ranch where there’s a frost risk and late pruning will delay budbreak, protecting the vines for an additional couple of weeks.
Santa Clause came early this year, with the Wine Spectator putting our 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon "Brothers Vineyard" at number 91 on its list of the Top 100 wines from around the world in 2019. We're particularly grateful, living as we do in the minority school, striving to produce dry wines in a more traditional, classic style, picking our fruit at moderate sugar levels, avoiding manipultive winemaking techniques, and doing everything we can to let the wines show off place, vintage, variety and nuance. The '16 Brothers allocated for commercial distribution sold out quickly, but it continues to be available for direct purchase at its original release price. It's a lovely wine -- to drink now -- or to set aside -- to evolve -- for a few years.
We are delighted -- and relieved -- to report our harvest is complete. We make our wines in a neo-traditional, terroir-driven style, which means we pick on the early side for the Napa Valley. This happens to keep us out of the line of fire for a lot of late fall risks like frost, rain, and smoke, but our real goal is to make wines at lower alcohols, with tannins and acid structure – wines which let the character of our different fields and the unique idiosyncrasies of the vintage show through to the glass. The Valley came through the '19 vintage without devastating heatwaves or fires, for which we are deeply grateful. It was a long and moderate year which appears to be giving us unusually approachable wines. The photo shows – left to right – CFO Carey Snowden Harrington (duties as assigned), winemaker Diana Snowden Seysses, and wine colleague Maggie Purdue, sorting the 2019 Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon, which came in on Saturday the 5th.
2019 is a promising year -- we’ve had even, moderate temperatures -- which are holding through harvest. Yes, there were some hot days in the summer, but that’s happened every year since we arrived at the ranch in 1955 – days here and there – but unlike the last couple of years, ’19 hasn’t seen any week-long stretches of weirdly hot weather. It varies by block, but most of the fruit is coming in about a week later this year – not a sea change, but more time to mature on the vine without the sugars shooting up. We started with the Sauvignon Blanc on September 9 – that’s the photo. You’ll see a little Botrytis – the “noble rot” – which is not common for that block. We love exploring what the year gives. Then we brought in four boxes of Merlot on the 13th for a rosé – that’s the other photo. The rosé is just for family and friends (including our direct purchasers). The single acre Los Ricos Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard came in on the 24th. It’s going into a small lot, vineyard designated bottling. The Pool Block was also picked on the 24th. It will go into the Ranch Cabernet. We harvested the Cabernet Franc on the 26th. Next up is Brothers Cabernet – the pick starts at 8 PM tonight. Stay tuned.
The photo is just after dawn as the sun breaks over the Brothers Vineyard and the crew is just finishing our first pick for 2019 -- the single acre of Sauvignon Blanc. This continues to be another interesting growing season -- fewer heat spikes than most years, cooler nights, and everything taking a just a touch more time. We're going to bring in some Merlot on Wednesday for a dry rosé, and then it will be time to hurry up and wait for the reds to finish ripening.
We moved our "harvest" party up to late July to make sure our vineyard staff would be able to come -- once harvest actually starts, they're busy almost every day. We were excited to see our vineyardists, wine club members, friends, family, and other Napa Valley wine people partying together under the oaks by our remote "Lost Orchard" vineyard at the east end of the property. This is winemaker Diana Snowden Seysses, in from France, pouring magnums of two wines from the '90s and the rest from the '00s. The food came from both sides of the boarder, the music was Norteño, and the weather was perfect -- which pretty much describes the growing season so far: slow, steady, and comfortable. Here's a shot of Cabernet Sauvignon in our Brothers' Vineyard on August 8. The chances of several curve balls coming up before harvest are near certain, but fingers are crossed.
Ranch manager Severiano Deloera and his team finished pruning our final block last week. We always hold the single acre of Sauvignon Blanc until the end of pruning to delay budbreak in the only spot on the ranch where we've ever experienced a frost issue. Seve keeps his group small so they can stay in close touch while they work. Pruning is one of the most sensitive steps in the annual cycle. Not only are they shaping the vine for this vintage -- they're also defining the universe of possibilities for next year. Budbreak is about a week away -- two weeks later than last year. We like that. The longer the winter dormancy, the more rest for the vines. We've had plenty of rain, which will make it easier to support the vines through the warm summer. I always love the dawn of the the growing season. Everything is still perfect.
We're overdue reporting on harvest 2018 -- it was lovely. The previous year had some terrifying moments -- not just the fires, but also the "heat event" on September 1 when it became crazy hot for a few hours -- among other things, resulting in our redirecting all of the Petit Verdot into a rosé. 2018 had none of that -- a calm, long harvest, with lots of time for decisions. Many people are talking about it being a large crop, which is true -- overall yields were above average -- but the story varies by block. The block for our Brothers Vineyard Cabernet actually came in below '17. So far, we like what we're tasting in barrel -- time will tell.
Vintages are unique -- and 2018 is no exception. So far, the weather has been temperate and kind resulting in a more gradual final maturation than the past couple of years. Our harvest got underway on September 7 with a little over two and a half tons of Sauvignon Blanc from the "Sunninghill" block -- here's Scott setting an example in a suit and tie. Yesterday, we picked two tons of Merlot for rosé -- the photo shows the juice draining into the press pan. It looks like it will be another week or ten days before the serious reds start coming in.