Thanks to everyone who’s reached out to see how we’re doing in the midst of this new year of wildfires. We’re okay … so far. The Hennessy fire broke out two miles east of the ranch, but the prevailing breeze for the four days since then has been from the northwest, heading southeast – which has pushed the fire and its smoke steadily away from us … so far, in both the chronological and geographic senses. The winds could shift and bring the fire to us. And so far the fire has traveled 20 miles, to the peril of the cities of Fairfield and Vacaville. No one can be at peace if their good fortune means other people and a vast amount of wildlife and woodlands are being devastated. And, as to that good fortune … so far.
If you’d like to help, please consider the disaster relief fund at the Napa Valley Community Foundation.
Until four days ago, this has been a lovely, smooth growing year. The last four days were really hot, but not as hot as in 2017. Now that temperatures are returning to normal, we can say, the fruit and the vines appear to be sound and healthy.
We’re hoping our first picks from the 2020 vintage will start around 4 tomorrow morning – the one acre of Sauvignon Blanc, plus a little bit of Merlot for a dry rosé.
We’ll do our best to post as the harvest progresses. In the meantime, the photo, taken this past Tuesday morning, is from a vineyard we call either the Lower Vineyard or the Pool Block, depending on which side of the bed we’ve gotten out of.
Ranch Manager Severiano Deloera has been farming this year with a small, full-time team of five experienced and skilled vinyardists. At the risk of inviting some new catastrophe, I’ll go ahead and say – the vineyards have never looked better. The team been able to stay ahead as the growing season has progressed. Right now they’re putting the last touches on the canopies before veraison arrives. Then they’ll visit each vine to check the crop, remove clusters that aren't ripening on schedule, and anything else they don’t like the looks of.
Our thanks to everyone who has been checking in as the very peculiar larger situation unfolds. Ironically, we had spent about a year getting the permits to open a private tasting room on the second floor of a historic building on Main Street in St. Helena. We were all set to invite our mailing list and club members to begin scheduling visits, but our planned “go live” date turned out to fall in the first week of the Napa County “shelter in place” order. Although the order was eased a few weeks ago to allow tasting rooms to reopen, we took the conservative “wait and see” path – and are happy to have done so, as the County has once again prohibited inside tasting.
So, until we can offer safe and legal tastings, you’ll just have to trust us – our wines are all simply amazing and delicious.
We wanted to share this quick "home movie" tour of the ranch, which includes winemaker Diana Seysses' explanation of how she brings it through to the glass. We're all looking forward to the day when we can once again walk the vineyards with our members and friends and share our wines together.
We’re thinking about our huge, extended wine family – our customers, the folks who tend the vineyards, the staff at the winery and our office and the bottle aging warehouse and our fulfillment shipper, the front and back people at the restaurants and shops where our wines are sold, the staff of our domestic marketing company and our distributors in each state, everybody working for our importers in Japan, Québec, Ontario, England, and Scandinavia, the wine writers and event planners – and then, looking further, everybody has their own families and friends and colleagues to think about.
The vineyards are a reminder that this will pass. The vines woke up about a month ago and look flat-out terrific. The shoots in our two acre “Lost Vineyard” Merlot block are among the most advanced on the ranch. Last fall we spread organic compost and planted a nitrogen-rich cover crop. A couple of weeks ago it was time to mow and lightly till to capture the natural nutrients for the vines.
From all the Snowdens -- hang in there, everybody.
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.