A harvest from purgatory
This was not the harvest from hell. That was 1989. On Sept. 15 of that year, the day we were to begin harvesting the Sauvignon Blanc off of a local vineyard on the west side of Kenwood, the sky opened up. Our vineyard manager had his crew in the vineyard and the rain didn’t start in earnest until mid-morning. I’ll never forget the grower on the radio hoping that the dire predictions of rain were an exaggeration. “There’s sun on the hills!” he shouted, more a hope than a statement. And it was true. From Kenwood Winery, we could see a small patch of sunlight on the hill just above his ranch. But it was fleeting and soon the clouds moved in low and dark. Before the storm was over, six inches of rain had fallen in Sonoma Valley and throughout the North Coast.
Some rain during harvest is a natural occurrence. Going back to 1975, I can almost count on one of my hands the years that all of the grapes arrived at the winery before the first rain. What made 1989 the harvest from hell was the timing and the sheer volume of rain. The volume was such that tractors attempting to enter vineyards, especially those on valley floors with deep soil, simply sank. Any hope of spraying to protect the crop from molds and mildews sank with those tractors. You know it is a time for desperate measures when you see helicopters hovering over unpicked vineyards to dry them out. If a harvest is judged by the number of tons left in the vineyards when the rain hits, then 1989 was, again, hellish. Some of every variety was waiting to be picked and was damaged. When we resumed harvest in early October, the clouds of black mold rising from the hopper stimulated conversations that began, “So what happens if we just make none of our best-selling wine this year?”
Fast forward 22 years to this harvest: The volume of rain was about one third of what it was in 1989. There were only a few days of stoppage in the vineyards. On the downside, the spring was damp and caused mold and mildew to be poised for an explosion at the first sign of autumn rain. In susceptible locations it came on fast. It seemed that just walking between the vines caused the grapes to fall.
Some grape varieties handle wet weather better than others. Grapes with thin skins that form tight clusters are most susceptible to rain damage, particularly after veraison when red grapes color up and all grapes soften and begin to produce sugar. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are in this category. But they are also early ripeners, so beat the rain most years. Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel also don’t handle rain well. Cabernet and Merlot ripen later but are better suited to foul weather at harvest. Their clusters are loose so that there is room between the grapes if they swell from taking up rain water. They are less likely to crack due to internal pressure. This year Cabernet Sauvignon handled the rain well, as usual, but Merlot less so. We had a hopper of Merlot soon after the rain that looked like grape pulp with the skins scattered over the top like red pepper flakes sprinkled over pasta.
But in the end, it is the flavor of the wine that will be judged and not the look of the fruit. The most obvious effect of the rain on the wine from the 2011 harvest will be lower alcohols from grapes that were still in the vineyards during the rain. The sugars in many cases were picked one full sugar point lower than usual. But they had hung an extra week or two and they were physiologically mature. They looked and tasted ripe. Maybe this is the French secret to making wine under 14 percent alcohol: it rains in the summer.
Another possible effect of the lower sugars is the fact that the fermentations were clean and finished well. High alcohols can kill wine yeast before it brings the wine to dryness, or at least stress the yeast so that off-flavors and aromas are created. So all things considered, this was perhaps a harvest from purgatory. And maybe like purgatory the wines will show well and all will be forgiven.