Saturday, October 22, 2011

This Year Vineyards Need Divine Intervention

One of the great and complicated things about wine is that it is two complete fields of business all wrapped into one product. On one hand you have the winemaking, which is so incredibly artisan in its approach. The winemaker and their assistants spend weeks, months, and years perfecting the fermentation, aging and blending.

On the other you have a very agriculturally based product that, like all agricultural products is subject to Mother Nature. Some years the climate cooperates and creates amazing wines. Other years become nightmares, destroying entire crop yields in a single day.

This year is one of those years that makes the vineyard operators consider going into saner professions such as deep sea scuba welding or racing airplanes in Nevada. I joke, but seriously this year has been a weather nightmare for vineyard owners.

As you remember, the Pacific Northwest had a very cool spring and early summer. Record levels of rainfall, combined with cool temperatures made for very small and heavy grape clusters. It wasn’t until August that heat units started to build in Eastern Washington and Oregon that the grapes desperately needed to mature. A few hundred degree days came finally in September before the fall rains hit again.

All of this rain and lack of warm weather has made grapes not ready for picking throughout the Northwest. In many areas the race is on to get the grapes up to the required “brix” or sugar level in order to harvest before the first freeze sets in.

It all seems so simple, but the science of grape growing for wine is actually kind of complicated. During a normal growing season the spring and winter moisture gets pulled from the ground and in healthy soil and climate just the right size of grape clusters grow from the vines. Not to big and not to small, with just the right number of berries per cluster.

Sometime in early summer the Northwest suddenly dries out. As the summer warms, the grapes grow and mature. By the time September hits the grapes build in sugar levels and are ready for picking.

Depending on the grape variety the “brix” level needs to be somewhere between 24 and 28 before fall freezes set in. This year the grapes just aren’t getting there.

So, what’s a grape grower to do? Turn to the heavens of course!

My friends at Gordon Brothers Winery just outside of Pasco, Washington each year host a small celebration and have the local Catholic Priest come out to the Vineyards for a blessing of the vines. The blessing, combined with a great taco lunch makes for a great afternoon. This year we walked the vineyards, talked, and laughed. If nothing else it eased the mood of those present.

The Gordons aren’t the only ones asking for a little help from above. This month I’ve talked with many vineyard owners about the need for divine intervention. One vineyard owner walks his vineyard, reads his bible and prays each morning. Another sheepishly admits that he’s said a few prayers this season. Some just laugh and say it’s all up to Mother Nature.

Regardless of the outcome, this year’s crop of grapes has definitely got a lot of people in a scare. Hopefully somebody up there is listening and we’ll end the year with some good juice in the barrels. If you are into wine and don’t mind having a conversation with God, would you mind asking him for a few more sunny days?


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