The Kenwood Press
: 10/01/2011

Harvest time once again

George MacLeod

In addition to making our own MacLeod Family Vineyard wines, we sell our grapes to several winery clients, and each one wants to fine-tune the maturity of their grapes. Some even want to do multiple harvests depending on the maturity of the grapes in different vineyard blocks. Multiply this by our three different grape varieties, and you can see we could easily have six or more harvest days in a year.

With more than 100 harvests over the last 31 grape growing years here at the ranch, you would think we could boringly take harvests in stride. Not so! The activity and anxiety leading up to the actual harvest day are eternal. The issues are surprisingly complex. We check sugar levels (a.k.a. “Brix”), and the fruit acid levels daily. But that's not all. Our winemaker is in the vineyard often, carefully chewing individual grapes to determine flavors concentrated in the grape skins. He wants the skins to easily release interior pulp. He wants the seeds to be uniformly brown and easily separated. Just last week, with grape sugars and fruit acids at almost perfect levels, and expectations running high, I was crushed to hear our skin chewing winemaker say, “George, there is still a hint of greenness. Let's take another sample in four days.”

It is easy for a winemaker to stand there next to his truck and say, “We need four days to get the desired flavors.” But I'm thinking, What if it rains? What if Chuy and his picking army are booked in some distant vineyard? What if we have a heat spell? What if, what if?? With our whole year's revenue hanging on the vine, pre-harvest is more like pre-nervous breakdown. You can well imagine my joy when the phone call from a winemaker finally comes saying, “George, we have the flavors we need. Let's pick!”

The Harvest Day begins about 4:30 a.m. when the first pickers begin to arrive. Family members John and Marjorie have set up a table with fresh donuts and orange juice. The 40 to 50 men all stand around in front of the barn sharpening their knives and waiting for daylight. Chuy and the foreman arrive and take roll and issue picking trays. When it is light enough that you can see your hand in front of your face, the foreman calls out “Vamos, estamos listo!” (Let's go, we are ready!) With a shout, the men grab their picking trays and rush into the vineyard: Harvest 2011 has begun. Normally if there are still grapes to pick, the men will work full-speed until about 3 p.m. If they pick after that, the grapes will arrive at the winery too late to process. The men are paid as a team based on the number of tons the entire group picks. Hence there is a mad fury of picking all day to pick any grape bunch that is not nailed down. This is hot, sticky work with 40 pound trays to carry on your head as you run to the steadily moving gondola.

We expected the Sauvignon Blanc crop to be small and it turned out a little better, but still some 40 percent below budget. All this was brought on by the week of rain we had in early June that coincided with grape bloom time. All the rain during bloom time caused very irregular pollination and the shatter we wrote about last month. But despite this, the quality was superb. No sunburn, no bunch rot! And great flavors. All indicating a very promising vintage.

And now reports from our Sauvignon Blanc spokesvine Marie, and from our Zinfandel spokesvine Javier.

Marie's Sauvignon Blanc Report

From our point of view, all things considered, we vines think we did as good a job as possible with this vintage. Our yield may be down, but the quality is magnifique! Next year Patrón, when we ask for six nice days in June for bloom time…try not to let it rain. We are not responsible for this light crop. And note that our vines with the new cane pruning did very well.

Javier's Zinfandel Report

We Zin vines are feeling pretty pleased with the turn of events as we approach harvest in mid-October. We have a very nice crop with lots of nice big bunches. A typical bunch weighs around 10.4 oz. There is no evidence of bunch rot or sunburn. As of the third week of September, our sugar is at 22.4 percent Brix. With just a little bit of luck we'll have some warm fall days and reach our harvest target of 25 percent Brix in mid-October. Still a couple weeks to go before our grapes are safely at the wineries, but we are all positive that you will be pleased with us and our Zinfandel harvest.