Summer in the Russian River Valley is such a beautiful time of year. Foggy mornings and warm afternoons make this an ideal time to visit wine country. Summer marks the arrival of grape clusters, which begin forming on the vines as the leaves soak up the summer sun. From new plantings to leaf pulling to cluster development, here are just a few of the activities that are taking place right now in the vineyard.
Flowering- Depending on temperatures 40-80 days following bud break the process of flowering begins with small flower clusters appearing on the tips of the young shoots. It is during this stage that the pollination and fertilization of the grapevine takes place with the resulting product being a grape berry, containing 1-4 seeds. The flowers are very susceptible to high wind and frost making this an incredibly sensitive stage of the growth cycle of the grapevine.
Rootstock- Planting a new vineyard is an exciting activity in wine country. Our new planting is located on the Frost Ranch, which is situated right next to the Russian River Valley. The new planting will be the Wente Clone Pinot Noir on the Riparia rootstock pictured here. Riparia is known to perform better near riverbanks and bottomlands. Because of where this vineyard is located, Riparia is the best fit for this environment.
Legumes- Legumes grow intermittently in throughout our vineyards. They are easily spotted in the dry grass because they are a rich green color. Many legumes contain symbiotic bacteria in their root systems. This bacteria has the ability to fix nitrogen into the ground, making them relatively rich in plant protein. When a legume plant dies in the field after harvest, its remaining nitrogen is released back into the soil. In the soil, the amino acids are converted to nitrate, making the nitrogen available to other plants, thereby serving as fertilizer for future crops.
In farming they say “feast or famine” and with this year’s harvest there is no shortage of celebration in the Russian River Valley with a fantastic vintage now resting peacefully in the cellar. After a pair of unusually cool seasons in 2010 and 2011, vintages which resulted in lower than average yields and lower than average ripeness levels, 2012 looks bountiful, with good-sized yields and excellent fruit quality. After a relatively dry winter, bud break in the valley was earlier than normal, but berry set was quite good. The summer progressed with mild temperatures which led to extraordinary hang time, and as a result, excellent flavor development. A few extra heat pushes in late September ripened our Zinfandel and Petite Sirah with a final convergence of high quality and yields. Here at the end of October we are hopefully looking at a year that will rival other highly acclaimed vintages in the Russian River Valley such as 2007 and 2009.
Read our entire Fall 2012 newsletter here
Celebrating 55 years of grape growing in the Russian River Valley
The 2011 vintage, a roller coaster of highs and lows will be remembered as one of the most climatically challenging vintages in recent memory. Our 55th harvest started out in the very early hours of the morning on Monday, September 19th, almost 3 weeks later then average after weeks of cool weather delayed ripening of the crop already thinned by mid-summer rains. Those rains knocked the flowers off the vines producing “hens and chicks” which are very small berries and very large berries on the same bunch.This caused the overall yield to be down 30% however the cooler weather allows for longer hang time than usual, which contributes greater depth and more complexity to the wine. Mid-way through harvest another hurdle to jump is the early fall rain combined with warm days, a perfect environment to encourage botrytis or bunch rot in the clusters. More thinning in the vineyards and hands in the bins during picking will ensure only the best grapes in the bottle.
We have and always will pick all our grapes by hand and at night. The cooler temperatures at night gives the fruit brighter flavors, higher acidity and lower sugars. During the daytime, the sugars increase meaning more alcohol after fermentation. We want to ensure the fruit and acids are complemented by lower alcohols, which make for a more food-friendly wine. Ensuring that the clusters arrive at the winery in the best state is only possible by the traditional age old method of hand harvesting. Although more expensive, hand harvesting is the most delicate way to harvest the grapes from the vines.
To celebrate this milestone and take a look back I asked my Grandma Helen what are the biggest changes she has seen in the wine industry. “The amount of wineries and vineyards in the area. Back then there were just a few; the Foppianio’s, Pedroncelli’s and the Seghesio’s. Even in Napa only maybe half a dozen. Gallo was here in the 50’s but he was buying bulk wine from the wineries.” She explained how the business of selling grapes has also progressed. “Gallo sometimes wouldn’t even tell you what they would pay until you harvested the grapes. Rod Strong was one of the first to start making contracts with payment dates and prices. We liked that change a lot.” Our family has come along way from our first harvest in 1956. Wood prune picking boxes are distant memories, but will remain a part of our history.
Written by Katey Bacigalupi
Quotes by Helen L. Bacigalupi
The beginning of summer, sunny skies, sandals and shorts are what I have come to expect every June living in Sonoma County. To my dismay, the clouds are still lingering on this 8th day of June as if they are confused to what season it is. Wine grapes, like all crops are very sensitive to the weather and much of what happens in the later months is a direct result of what occurs in present time. At this point in the 2011 season our concerns revolve around just experiencing one of the coldest Mays in history and the fact that it continues to rain even in early June. Cold weather and rain is a problem at this point in the season for a few reasons. In the blocks that are in bloom, it reduces set and makes the ripening irregular. A solution to uneven ripening is to do a green drop at verasion to eliminate the late (green) clusters. This step can actually improve quality as it helps all of the vines stay on track.
Due to cool weather, vine growth and cluster development appear to be about two weeks behind the “normal” schedule. We are seeing the start of bloom and flowering in our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which are some of our earlier ripening varietals. The cooler weather will also slow down growth and potential extend harvest into the later part of fall. Slow ripening can be very good for quality, but bad if it is too late and rain comes in the fall. Moisture from the late rain also tends to cause more disease pressure, especially leaf botrytis and powdery mildew. Risk of loss of crop is also a concern as the berrys will not form
So as we anxiously await the warm weather you better believe the grape growers are keeping a sharp eye out on the vineyards!
Gloves- check, head lamp- check, multiple layers- check. Its nearing 12 am and I am on my way out the door to start my day, or night rather of picking. Hand harvesting is by far most meticulous and pain staking way to harvest grapes, however it is also a great way to get an idea of the what the crop looks like. Quality control is huge here as each grape cluster goes through several different hands even before reaching the winery and is likely sorted an additional time.
The process of preparing for hand harvesting begins several months before hand. Our standard farming protocol is performed; shoot suckering, canopy leafing, weak shoot fruit removal, and verasion thinning. Most of the members of our picking crew have been with us for many years. They are well trained in identifying ripe, good, clean clusters and will pick through them, leaving poor quality ones on the vine. The clusters are carefully examined by several leaf pullers who stand at the bin and are responsible for pulling all the MOG (Matter Other than Grapes) out of the bins. This job can be full of surprises as you never know what will be thrown in the bin along with the grapes; mice, frogs, caterpillars and even the occasional baby snake as they like to hide in the vineyards and eat the insects.
We make sure to not overload the crew according to each varietal and each lot that needs to be harvested. We move slow and steady through each row which is why hand harvesting takes much longer than machine picking but it also gives us the ability to pay more attention to the details. Probably the most common question I get asked is why do you harvest at night? Harvesting at night benefits both the grapes and employees. It’s beneficial to bring in the fruit to the winery as cold as possible. It stabilizes the sugar and make the berries more resilient to early breakage which means you get more free run juice, the highest quality juice when you crush at the winery. The fruit is fresher and the stems are stiffer and easier to cut. In addition it is better for the workers as conditions are cooler and much more manageable. Hand harvesting may seem traditional or behind the times. Technology being what it is these days everything seems to be moving at high speed, but when it comes to quality, nothing beats doing things by hand. Its like the saying goes, “many hands make light work.”
The 2010 vintage experienced some of the most unusual weather patterns of the past decade. Whether it was the abnormally cool summer, the unexpected heat wave or the surprising Indian summer that came in late September, 2010 was a year for the record books. Everywhere you went in our little town of Healdsburg the subject matter seemed to be the weather and how incredibly late harvest was this year. June, July and August were cool and foggy for the most part, but the grapes continued to ripen slowly, taking on color and flavor. A severe heat wave in the third week of August caused some sunburn, but more importantly gave a jump start to ripening. Only a few days in August reached the 100 degree mark making 2010 one of 5 coolest summers on record. Unseasonably cool weather can be one of the main causes of concern for growers of any agricultural product. It really puts in perspective how sensitive this industry is to Mother Nature and the weather vane.
Rain was predicted for the third week in September which eventually fizzled out for the most part and measured about .02 inches in Sonoma County. By later on in the week temperatures were in the low 80’s and the impact of the rain was quickly behind us. We saw good ripening in all the vineyards and a fall heat wave at the end of September that helped to push the grapes along to maturity. We finally picked our Pommard Pinot Noir the first week of October, sugar levels were at a balanced 25 degrees brix and acid levels were looking good as well. At this point we are patiently waiting for the Zinfandel and Petite Sirah to ripen up and expect to have those lots in by mid-October, just in time for Halloween!
A lot of talk has been swirling around about the upcoming 2010 vintage in the Russian River Valley. This harvest is expected to be one of the longest growing seasons in recent years which can present a sort of cause and effect scenario. On one hand cool weather means slow ripening and extended hang time. This can result in intensely flavored fruit, and sugars developing at a more balanced pace, which in turn equals yummy wine!
The down side is that when growers are still bringing in fruit in November, the threat of rain can be a real issue as mold and rot can devastate a crop. The waiting game is one that growers would prefer not to play, considering there is a small window of opportunity to harvest the grapes in such a cool season. Growers can work all year long tending to vineyards, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on labor and maintenance costs only to have it ruined at the end of the season by bad weather. Already 2-3 weeks late there is no doubt that growers will be looking intensely at the clouds come late September.
There’s also some worry that the whites and some red varietals may mature at the same time, resulting in a monster workload at the winery. Typically whites will arrive first; Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay ect. Lighter red varietals such as Pinot Noir are next and closer to the end of the season come the heavier reds such as Zinfandel, Cabernet and Syrah. When many different varietals are ready at the same time it usually becomes a race to get the fruit off the vine, crushed and in the tank so there is room for the next load.
There is no doubt that 2010 has been a challenging growing season. In our 54 years of grape growing we always strive to produce the finest quality fruit we can, this year will be no different and we look forward to sharing this harvest season with you!
A new photo from one of our Chardonnay vineyards shows some great cluster development as we start the month of July. With a successful bloom period we are now in the stage of fruit set where berries start to form where the flowers use to be. The berries then increase in volume, primarily water which occurs during warmer weather. The sugar content of the berries also increase with the start of verasion
Other vineyard maintenance during this time includes canopy management and removing leaves from around the clusters. Leaf pulling encourages sunlight exposure and better air flow which reduces the potential for rot and mildew. This is also a time when we would do our first pass of crop thinning. Thinning by hand removes a certain amount of clusters to achieve the optimum tons per acre and vine balance.
Yes, it’s bud break time in the vineyard. The bare vines, dormant all winter, are just starting to spring back into action. The fuzzy white buds in the early ripening varietals (Chardonnay and Pinot noir) are now bursting open to reveal the very first of the tender green leaf tips. This is the first emergence of growth that will eventually bear fruit. Most often vines in the Russian River Valley will break later because of the cooler climate and fog cover that can linger in the early morning. The timing of bud break can also be influenced by rootstock and clone. This is an exciting yet delicate process as threats of frost can come as late as May as seen in past years. The transition from dormancy to bud break comes as the days lengthen and the soil is warmed by the sun, awakening the vine from its dormant state. The vine uses its stored energy and food to start producing new growth. From a pruned vine this new growth pushes out into the light eventually using the sunlight as its energy source. The next step after bud break is bloom when the buds begin to flower and we get the first glimpse of what this years harvest will bring.
The wet winter of 2010 was a pleasant surprise for growers after several years of less than average rainfall. However, with farming there is always room for concern as a potential late Spring rain can damage crops by knocking blooms and buds off the vine. I asked my dad about his thoughts on the threat of late rain and its affect on this years crop, his response:
“Like so many things in farming it comes down to Mother Nature’s
sense of humor.”
Here’s hoping for a warm Spring and a great 2010 vintage!
~ John and Katey Bacigalupi
It’s here! The first sign of bud break for 2009. I was walking with my dad the other day and noticed the first buds breaking out from one of our Chardonnay vineyards. This first emergence of growth that will eventually bear grapes. Most often vines in the Russian River will break later because of the cooler climate and fog cover. This is an exciting yet delicate process as threats of frost can come as late as May as seen in past years.
The transition from dormancy to bud break comes as the days lengthen and the soil is warmed by the bun, awakening the vine from its dormant state. The vine uses its stored energy and food to start producing new growth. From a pruned vine this new growth pushes out into the light eventually using the sunlight as its energy source. The next step after bedbreak is bloom when the buds begin to flower and we get the first glimpse of what this years harvest will bring.