Mid-Harvest Update: To Pick or Not to Pick?!

Since my first harvest upon returning to the Family in 2009, I’ve come to realize that every vintage has its own unique cycles of excitement, nerves, and, knock on wood… relief! In 2009, I drove the fruit truck every night back and forth between the vineyard and our Lompoc winery. That year, relief came when big rain drops started splattering on the wide truck windshield. I was driving the very last empty-load return trip from Lompoc. As the storm front moved in off of the Pacific, it started to dump down in the pre-dawn grayness. I took a deep breath, we had beat the rain!

During the three long harvests since, I’ve left Santa Ynez often to go promote the winery on the road. I realized my talents as a traveling salesman are more useful to the company than my truck driving prowess, as skilled as I am at throwing straps over the load, ratcheting them tight, then maneuvering through the curves of Ballard Canyon in the flatbed. In September and October, ears are more receptive to my “Battle for Syrah” cause as buyers are eagerly anticipating the busy holiday wholesale season. With Sashi and Ruben running the show, I’m free to go motivate our distributors, meet with sommeliers, and host consumer tastings. Even when I’m out flying around the country, I still watch the weather and get frequent updates from Sashi, complete with photo texts.

 

Wherever I might be, when my phone rings and I see “Ruben” appear on my screen, I always pick up. Ruben works at least 18 hour days (mostly nights) through harvest, and I know that if he is taking the time to call me, it must be important. I’m sure to get a succinct summary of how the vineyard is looking, and breakdowns of any last minute decisions that need to be made, usually pertaining to fruit contracts to other wineries.

When Ruben called me on Saturday, September 28th, 2012, we exchanged pleasantries. During these four harvests, I’ve realized that Ruben will always swear he’s not THAT tired, even if I know he’s been running on 2-3 hours of sleep a night for the past week.

Like usual, Ruben quickly cut to the chase: “the vines are all yelling at me, they want water so badly.”

The Santa Barbara Independent just ran a story calling Ruben “the grape whisperer”, and although corny, the title is fairly accurate.

Only now Ruben heard the vines shouting at a much higher octave than a whisper.

“Well, good thing you have Omar,” referring to Ruben’s 3 year old son, “because he yells louder than the vines to distract you.” I could hear Omar screaming for his ‘Pappi’ in the background.

“But seriously,” I asked, “are the vines going to be alright?” I had spoken with Sashi earlier in the day and he was confidant our steadfast stance on dry farming would pay off once again.

Sashi told me, “if we water now, all of our work in the vineyard this year will be for nothing.” The healthy yield and intense summer had combined for a lot of clusters, but they were tiny and concentrated with quickly ripening flavors. For once the vineyard was ripening ahead of schedule.

Then, a heat spike more intense than any we had seen yet in 2012 hit, and it wasn’t forecasted to subside for a few days. We certainly didn’t need this heat to ripen our crop, as was the case after the cool, windy summer of 2010.

Ruben sighed, “I think the vines will be alright, the entire vineyard ripened a good deal before this heat, we are almost there”. If the vines could weather the heat and resume photosynthesis, we would be set. For now, they reverted to survival mode, baking in the sun, all systems down.

If our dry-farming gamble would continue to pay off, we all knew the reward**: possibly the best vintage in Stolpman’s History, surpassing even the revered 2004 Syrahs. The bet was simple, if the vines could live through the scorching heat, we would harvest the tiny, naturally concentrated grapes and whole-cluster ferment most of them to give added texture and backbone. If we had to water, we would dilute the flavors in the grapes, plumping them up and making them prone to wilting immediately thereafter. As it stood, the tiny, tight grapes didn’t have any room to wilt. There wasn’t an extra drop of water inside that could sweat out through the skins, deflating the round grapes.

Without irrigation, the taught, round grapes would keep a vibrant, fresh, and balanced profile rather than a tired “ripasso”, or raisiny, style.

Not only would the flavor and texture profile of the grapes change, but watering would also re-hydrate the stems, ruining the lignification process. It’s tough for a layman to understand how brown, brittle stems excite us so much, but they do. We don’t see just stems, but instead, we envision, we can even taste, the future wine with both beautifully ripe fruit flavors AND a chewy, woodsy, and dry mouthfeel. In short, stem inclusion gives the wine a whole new level of complexity. Stems from vines that have been watered are green, astringent, and downright nasty if included in a wine.

When the intense Indian Summer hit we had already picked Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Ruben’s Block, and the Eastsides of the Hilltops High Density blocks. We planned to pick the Durrell Originals Blocks as soon as the vines could recover from the roller-coaster of extreme highs and cool nights. We were all thankful that at least this wasn’t a Santa Anna weather pattern spinning out of the Desert. The Santa Anna flows stay hot all night, not giving the plants a chance to recover.

Even with cool nights, the sun started to scorch the tips of the leaves and especially along the canopy tops, the leaves turned red and curled. The once vibrantly green, bushy mid-sections yellowed a bit. The vines weren’t only yelling at Ruben, they now showed him their pain. When Omar screams, he gets comforted by Dad, but Ruben sat back and let his other 225,000 children cry it out.

As soon as I got off the plane in Santa Barbara the afternoon of October 1, I headed over the mountain and straight for the vineyard to taste the fruit and see how the vines were holding up. I drove with the windows open to feel the temperature rise immediately after cresting the San Marcos Pass, and then cool slightly as I continued West towards Ballard Canyon. Along the way I passed a vineyard that was actually irrigating using large overhead sprinklers and I scoffed at not only the poor vineyard management, but the gross waste of water!

When I pulled up to Stolpman, the vines looked tired, even exhausted, but they were still alive. The shoots aimed for the sky instead of drooping in defeat. The heat was forecasted to break the next day, and Ruben told me he planned to pick the Durrell clone the following night.

Our mild, Autumn weather pattern returned the next day as predicted, but we still weren’t out of the woods. The warm summer of 2012 could turn out to be a curse, as the whole vineyard seemed to be nearing ripeness at once. This sounds great, but we needed to somehow buy time to free up space in the winery, not to mention the fact that La Cuadrilla can only pick about 15 tons a night.

Sashi and Ruben’s most critical decision of the entire year occurs when they pinpoint the exact night to pick a particular hillside. One night too soon and the wine might turn out a bit on the thin and austere side, one night too late and the wine will sway towards a boozier fruit bomb. We feared perfect nights might slip by because either we couldn’t fit any more handpicking in, or, the winery didn’t have any more capacity at that moment.

Our prayers were answered with high clouds and cool weather. For once we didn’t even mind a few drops of misty rain (not enough to be absorbed by the roots). The entire vineyard could take a cool-down breather. While the vineyard rested, the vines enjoyed a harvest halftime break from ripening. Cuadrilla jumped back into action and meticulously picked the relaxed blocks each night as the grapes hovered at perfect ripeness.

It’s now mid-October and I’m writing from the East Coast once again. Here, the trees are turning colors and the air is cold and crisp. At home, the heat has returned to 90 and the winery will hit full capacity on Friday, October 19th for the first time. The cool snap bought us just enough time to finish the first rounds of maceration and fermentation. Ruben’s block is now in barrel to be followed by the Alban clone Hilltops High Density blocks.

The second rotation, the grapes that weren’t ready before getting beat up by the heat spike and then slowed by the cold snap, are now quickly ripening in the more moderate warmth. These Syrah and Sangiovese lots will fill the newly emptied fermentors. Grenache will follow shortly thereafter along with the Roussanne, which lazily slept through the heat, the cold, and the mist; barely stirring as the grapes gradually, obliviously; turn gold.

While I’m across the country, I still feel connected with the team on the ground. Sashi’s photos of individual clusters and grapes, Ruben’s updates on picking plans, and the excited facebook messages from customers at Harvest Festival weekend all keep my head in the game so I can go out and tell customers what we’re all about. With harvest in full swing and the tasting room packed for wine club pickups I’m prouder than ever of the Stolpman Vineyards team operating 2,500 miles away. If it wasn’t for them – La Cuadrilla, the production crew, and the tasting room staff; these small victories throughout harvest would never be realized.