With harvest underway and more to come, I’ve been reflecting on all that harvest means.
As growers, it’s the culmination of all our efforts over the past year. This year’s harvest began at the end of last year’s. A post harvest spray to control overwintering fungus and increase micronutrient levels in the vines is the beginning of this year’s harvest. Pruning in the late winter/early spring is the next activity that will help determine the success of this year’s harvest. And then comes spraying at critical times throughout the spring, summer and fall(even organic grape growers need to spray for mildew and botrytis). Canopy management—including hedging and fruit thinning are also critical activities during the growing season. Pest control can also be an issue. We fence to keep the deer out. But birds are another issue. We have birds nesting in our vines, and that’s OK with us. We’re willing to lose a little fruit to support the local bird population. It’s the migrating flocks that can wreak havoc on our vineyards. In our area, the main migratory flocks are robins. It can be both awe inspiring and frightening to see hundreds of robins swirling in and out of the vineyard!? We use electronic bird distress calls, and a variety of noisemakers and a strategic use of bird netting to help reduce the damage and impact.
But the most critical factor for any harvest—over which we have no immediate control is the weather. Weather during bud formation, during bloom, during cluster development, during ripening can make or break the quality and quantity of the grapes.
Rain during bloom can severely limit fruit set. Rain as harvest nears can spell disaster. Cool, humid weather, especially followed by warm humid weather can cause mildew and botrytis to spread before your eyes. Rain during harvest can dilute the sugars and throw the acids and ph off. On the other hand excessive heat can cause leaf and fruit burn.
The weather can also influence bird pressure. If the weather in the areas where the birds spend the summer is good, they may not come our way until at the end of harvest. If the weather where they summer turns bad earlier, they can come earlier and hungrier. Some years bird damage can be minimal and other years we can lose half our crop to birds—even with all of our control measures.
But when the weather cooperates harvest can be a thing of beauty! Watching abundant, healthy fruit grow and mature to be harvested under dry, sunny skies is what keeps us doing what we do.
Winemaking adds another dynamic to harvest. We want healthy, ripe fruit with a good balance of sugars and acids. Diseased, unbalanced fruit means more winemaking intervention. We also want dry fruit. Water can dilute the sugars and acids. A good friend and fellow grape grower says that winemaking is basically “glorified dishwashing”. And I think she’s right!? Before processing the grapes all the equipment has to be cleaned. And after processing, all the equipment needs to be cleaned again. We also have to clean between red and white grapes and between varietals.
But when we get ripe, well balanced fruit in good condition, you can practically let the wine make itself. Well, OK, there might be a bit more to it than that. But good, ripe grapes make the winemaking a pleasure instead of a challenge.
We harvested our Leon Millot on September 29th under sunny skies. The fruit was beautiful and ripe. It made the “glorified dishwashing” aspects of harvest worth the effort. We’re hoping to harvest the Chardonnay the second week of October and the Pinot Noir the following week. The weather in October can be problematic with the return of the rainy season usually occurring during the month. We’re keeping our fingers and toes crossed that the rains will hold off for a couple more weeks.