Time to catch up! -- so many distractions -- an interesting spring, a new tasting room, and constant change.
The 2023 growing season is great ... so far. Take everything from here as provisional -- beginning in 2017, most of the things going wrong have happened between now and harvest. But we'll enjoy the moment while we can. So far we've had mild summer weather. There were two episodes hitting around 100F at our place on the valley's eastern slope, but they weren't outside normal -- meaning typical weather over the 68 years we've been farming here. There have always been occasional, short spikes in the high 90s and low 100s. Not talking about the "heat events" of the past few years, just hot weather, when you might consider serving a dry white wine with ice and sparkling water.
Budbreak came on late -- mid April. The photo of the cane tied to the fruiting wire was taken on April 11, pretty much at outset. There had been a lot of rain over the winter and the organic green manure cover crop loved it. The tractor photo is our ranch manager, Severiano Deloera, who is largely managerial unless it involves a tractor, in which case he prefers to be largely hands on. Seve is working Block D of the Brothers Vineyard on April 17. Note there's a lot of green, but almost none is grapevine.
Reel forward to May 9 -- the cloud photo is our single acre, eastern-facing Los Ricos Vineyard. By this time, the cover crop has been incorporated into the soil and the green is from the vines, rather than the carpet. If you notice a thinness to the green along the right edge of the block and the upper few rows, that's because we're working on a refresh. We dug a deep trench around the perimeter to cut the intruding forest roots (so far, all trees remain healthy, if a bit grumpy), and are replanting vacant and ailing vine positions. We census our blocks, so know we aren't removing any vines which have been significant contributors to the Los Ricos vineyard designate wine. More on this later, maybe.
The blue sky photo is looking up the vine rows in the Brothers Vineyard on June 12. The 2023 growing year is now expressing itself -- generous canopies and lively floor growth. We've had the honor to work with several world-class viticultural consultants over the years -- Danny Schuester in the '80s when we were supplying to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars -- Daniel Roberts, whom we met when we were supplying to David Ramey, and who carried us into a new era -- and now Scott Knippelmeir, to whom Daniel introduced us as the right person as we continue our evolution toward environmental farming. Where this is going is, Scott tells us, the best farming doesn't look neat. We could have a clean and fluffy look if we wanted -- but we'd rather have improved soil health.
Jumping to July second -- the shot is our Lost Orchard Vineyard (named by our family matriarch Virginia because it was the site of an abandoned plum orchard when we came to the ranch in 1955.) Located at the eastern end of the ranch, the Lost Orchard lies at 800 feet of elevation -- if you were to walk a few yards into the trees at the far end, the hill drops off sharply into Conn Valley, and straight across Lake Hennesey is Pritchard Hill. The vineyard is mainy Cabernet Sauvignon, which goes into the Ranch cuvee; but our one acre of Sauvignon Blanc is in the middle of this block, right at the bottom of the little swale. As you can see, the vines continue to look very healthy this year.
By mid-July, we were finally into "green drop" -- where the crew visits every vine and removes some of the crop. The main rules are to match the number of clusters to the length and health of the cane they're growing on (and never leave more than two clusters per cane), remove the "second crop" (which are smaller clusters that bloom and set about 3 weeks after the primary crop; second crop produces lower quality fruit and isn't ripe when the main crop is ready to be picked); take off any damaged fruit, or clusters that are snarled together; and overall make sure the crop and vine are in balance. Green drop is one of the many times during the growing year when we're grateful to have a team of extremely proficient vineyard workers -- as Seve mentioned during our green drop meeting, "if we make a mistake, it's hard to put the fuit back on." The photo shows the drop for a Petit Verdot vine. Nobody likes to throw fruit away -- but it's absolutely necessary for the ultimate quality of the wines.
Now we hold our breath to see what the rest of the growing season has in store for us.
Overall, 2022 was a good to great growing year. Rain was below average again, but there’d been a real soaker in December – enough to saturate the vineyards, which made all the difference. It keeps the vines out of panic mode, which was the story in ’21, when the fruit was lovely, but there was about 50% less of it. In ’22, the weather was moderate and relatively even – basically smoke free with ideal temperatures. Harvest began very early on the morning of August 27 with the Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot Rosé. On September 1, the red Merlot arrived in a field blend with 357 pounds of Grenache, the tiny first crop from the Grenache in our new test block of Rhône varietals. On the 7th, the Cabernet Sauvignon came in from the Los Ricos and Pool vineyards (the Pool Block is part of the Ranch Cabernet) along with the Cabernet Franc. But by this time, forecasts were predicting alarmingly high temperatures from September 11 through 15. Based on our experience with a similar “heat event” in 2017, Diana knew the only outcome from the temperatures we were looking at would be dehydration, with little true ripening continuing after they came down. Fortunately, Block C, which gives us The Brothers Vineyard Cabernet, had entered the window, so it came in the overnight of the 9th-10th. Two nights later, we finished up with the Cabernet Sauvignon from the Lost Orchard (also a part of the Ranch Cabernet), along with the Petit Verdot and the test block of Mourvèdre. By the grace of God, these final blocks were also ready, like runners just over the line, and everything was in the cellar by the time the heatwave went into warp mode on September 12 (the high was on the 13th when it hit 116F). For our fruit, not only was the quality what we were looking for, but the quantity as well – we harvested a total of 38 tons, up from the 30 tons we managed in 2021. While less than our rolling average of 45 tons, we were delighted and relieved, given the minefield that global warming is laying for farmers everywhere.
The grapes are beginning to show color -- what's called veraison. So far only a few percent of the berries have turned, but it's earlier than usual, even in these days of worrisome climate change/global warming, or whatever euphemism best fits the consequences of not taking sufficient care of our planet. The good news is, so far, the weather has been simply ideal for growing grapes in the Napa Valley. But for the past five or six years, it's the period from now to the first winter rains when all of the challenging cards have been dealt, so we're counting no chickens.
We're now fully organic and much of our vineyard surface is no-till, so besides managing the vines, we also have to manage the gopher population. As with most farming challenges, the best way to manage gophers is to let the natural world fall into balance. For us this means owls, which we always have; same with hawks; and there's always one carnivore. This year, it's a family of red foxes living in the woods within the fences surrounding the Brothers and Lost Orchard vineyards. We recently spied the mother playing with her three kits beside the Sunninghill Sauvignon Blanc block in the Lost Orchard. They appeared to be really well fed.
The vineyards are much healthier than they were at this time last year. This shot was taken in late April – since then, the green shoots have lengthened to 18” or more, clusters have finished forming, and bloom is underway – we can catch the subtle perfume of grape flowering as we walk the blocks. The Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the farthest along, almost everything at or past full bloom; the Cabernet Sauvignon is in the middle; and the Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc bring up the chronological rear, as it should be. Last year, the drought was so severe, we never had a storm which fully saturated the soil, so the vines were very careful not to overextend themselves. The quality turned out to be superb, but the yield was just over 50% of average. The shot below shows the Cabernet Franc this morning. So far this year, it all looks good – but farming is farming and only time will tell.
2020 was a challenge, but against all odds, we’re coming come out with some lovely wines.
They’re reminiscent of the ‘17s – approachable and balanced at a younger point than, say the ‘15s were or the ‘18s will be.
We dodged loss from fire or smoke ... mostly. It helped a lot that as traditionalists, we harvest a little earlier. When the Glass Fire broke out at the end of September, the Petit Verdot was all we had left on the vine. The fire burned in our direction for several days before stopping less than mile away. It was our first experience with smoke coming directly off an active fire. The grapes tasted fine, but sugar tends to mask smokiness. We decided lay the fruit on the ground to compost and go around until the next vintage.
This winter the vineyards got more than no rain – but we’re on track for a little less than half normal. And for the first time in our memory, we didn’t get a single storm with enough rain to be sure we hit total field saturation. This will require extremely careful farming until next winter.
Fortunately, there was enough rain at precisely the right moments for the invigorating cover crop to thrive. We’ll mow and lightly cultivate to incorporate the legume-heavy cover crop (and the pruned canes from winter) into the soil to fix natural nitrogen, sequester carbon, and strengthen the structure of the soil and the subterranean ecosystem it supports. And make better wines.
We're overdue on a harvest report, but events have intervened. Our heartfelt thanks to all of you who have reached out. So far, the ranch has been spared by the Glass Fire, just to the north, and the winery where we ferment and barrel age our wines has been spared by the Boysen and Shady Fires, which were on the doorstep. Tonight should tell -- if the flag is still there at dawn's early light, we have a good chance of living to farm another day. Stay tuned.
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.
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.
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.