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.
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.
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.