The annual odyssey begins
We begin our 16th year writing about the annual journey we make from dormant vines to wonderful wines on Indian Springs Ranch. Much continues the same from earlier years. I am still sitting in my upstairs office looking out at the Hood Mountain range across Sonoma Valley from our ranch. On this particular morning, fog has obscured all. I can just make out the shadowy shapes of the giant eucalyptus trees that line Sonoma Creek. As the fog silently recedes and morning light increases, the lines of some of our vineyard rows slowly emerge into view. Just looking out on this only partially visible scene is somehow heartwarming. It is our 42nd year on this ranch and though the view ahead is not perfectly clear, I have a sense of security that all is still OK in the vineyard. And I can look forward with optimism to the beginning of another journey for us, for the vines, and for the land that does not forget.
As vintage 2016 begins its journey, leftover issues from the 2015 drought trump all. All details looking back on 2015 are focused on the fact that rainfall was only 30 percent of what our vines typically receive. This lack of water had a profound effect on crop size, crop quality, and ranch operation revenue. The overall harvest was some 30 to 40 percent below normal. This showed up as fewer bunches, smaller bunches, and smaller individual grape size. And the impact of the drought was not unique to our vineyard, but was felt countywide.
But all is not lost. While the reduced crop may not have been great for the bottom line on the balance sheet, the flavors and aromas we see developing in our wines from this vintage are outstanding. You are reading this correctly, volume smaller but quality and intensity of flavors and aromas better. We may go broke, but we’ll do so drinking some of the best wine we have ever made!
And speaking of flavors and aromas, it continues to amaze me how subtle differences in the terroire of our ranch can produce such delightful variations in the wines. For example, the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc was made from two different areas of the vineyard. One has aromas and flavors of stone fruit and citrus, while the other features notes of pineapple.
A similar story unfolds in the Zinfandel. Our final volume of 31 tons was off sharply from our in-the-field bunch count estimate of 44 tons. After complaining about the overall crop size we overlooked the spectacular beauty of the individual bunches. No sunburn, no raisining, no irregular fruit set. Just beautiful, even, balanced ripening, with fruit flavors developing that may be some of the best we have ever tasted.
The “so therefore” is that despite the problems of continued water shortage of about 50 percent all season, the vines sucked it up and gave us (and you) some spectacular quality fruit as a running start for vintage 2015, wines that will gladden the hearts of all of us. Way to go, vines!
Readers of this column last year may remember that we are trying to learn what I call the graduate-level course of grape growing: to learn to grow and make Sauterne wine. We started the project last March, planting some 600 new rootstock vines. All these new members of our vineyard family are of course now dormant, but a visit will tell you they had good growth over the summer. That means that this spring we will be able to graft them with our chosen bud wood from Chateau d`Yquem from Bordeaux, France. Our goal is to produce the exact wine grape we want to make a blend with our present Sauvignon Blanc.
Why, you may ask, do I call the growing of Sauterne a “graduate level” endeavor for grape growers? Well, growing grapes for Sauterne is particularly complicated. You need to leave the grapes on the vine long past normal maturity to generate the special bunch rot critical to make a good Sauterne. We did that, but since we are new to this product, we discovered that before we could pick, the bees had consumed some 75 percent of these overripe grapes. We were supposed to cover these special grapes with a fine netting to give them shelter from the hungry bees. As a result we got only about three gallons of potential Sauterne. The bees got the rest of this crop for Sauterne, vintage 2015.
Somewhere outside on this foggy morning I’m imagining that there are still some very hung over bees! But perhaps also some great tasting honey in our local farmer’s market. When I get my Master’s thesis in grape growing, I will write you.