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Harvest time 2021

By Squire Fridell

Happy BIRTH-Day

Unless you are still sequestered in your house these days, you must be aware of the numbers of vineyard trucks driving around our county roads, laden with two-ton Valley Bins or half-ton Macrobins full of just-harvested grapes, headed hither and yon to a winery to begin the process of making wine. That day is literally the “BIRTH-Day” of those grapes! As I type this, however, it is about three weeks before GlenLyon’s wine-grape harvest begins. So, it’s time once again to ask myself:

When will our harvest begin?

That’s an easy question to ask but a very complicated one to answer. Why? Because Mother Nature is very fickle. George MacLeod, my wonderful predecessor for “Journey to Harvest,” used to say, “Growing grapes is like dancing with Mother Nature — but remember that she always leads. You are Ginger Rogers and she is Fred Astaire … and you gotta do her dance backwards in high heels.”

Even though I keep very exacting notes of each year’s date of harvest, tonnage from that block, Brix (sugar) and pH (acid level), and conclude with averages for each block, there will be weeks between now and harvest dates and a lot can happen during that time of ripening. But let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that Mother Nature is going to cooperate, and in this harvest nothing unusual is going to happen; no unexpected late summer rains, hurricanes, floods, locusts, earthquakes or devastating fires…

How do I know harvest is just around the corner?

Mother Nature gives an “early warning” indicator called “veraison,” a word that simply means “the change in grape color” and is literally the trigger for countdown.

In red grapes, veraison is very easy to spot; the berries turn from green to red, almost overnight. It’s harder to see in white varieties, but the green fruit changes from a dull green to translucent green. When my wine grapes are pretty much uniformly finished with veraison, the clock has started and hopefully harvest for that block will occur in 40-45 days.

Dropping fruit

At about 70% veraison in any given block, we walk up and down the rows, from vine to vine, and “drop” any fruit clusters that are still green on the ground. Why throw that fruit away? To narrow the ripening variable of the remaining clusters to produce better wine. Just after veraison is complete, it’s also the time when we begin sampling and testing the grapes to discover the perfect time to harvest.

How do you sample and test the grapes for ripeness?

In the “old days” before we had tools to test grape sugar and acid, the farmer would walk out in his vineyard, taste the grapes, and decide when those grapes would be perfect for harvest — very subjective, for sure. Then technology took over and tools were invented that could determine exactly what the hard numbers were — very, very objective. But then we discovered that being totally objective wasn’t perfect either, as it eliminated the actual subjective tasting of the fruit.

For the past couple of decades, we now combine both the subjective analysis (taste) and objective analysis (hard numbers) using a technique called “berry sensory analysis.”

What’s “berry sensory analysis”?

A week after veraison is completed and the less-ripe fruit has been dropped, I start a weekly, then twice a week, then daily ritual where I travel to that vineyard site and walk up and down the rows of grapes (wearing sunscreen and a sun hat so Suzy doesn’t yell at me). I have a pocket full of Ziplock baggies with me, each marked with the block I am sampling. I skip the first row and the first and last three vines, walking from side to side, skipping every three vines, and (without looking, because you tend to take the prettiest berries) pick two berries to put in the Ziplock. Two bottom, two top, two inside, two outside, two front, two back, then start over. This way, I’m not simply taking a cluster of grapes, but collecting a pretty accurate sampling throughout the entire block.

What then?

When that is finished (very timeconsuming, with a lot of exercise and sticky hands), I then take the baggies back to our lab for both sensory and hard numbers analysis. I do the sensory portion first and wait to check sugar and pH last, because if I know those very objective sugar and acid numbers, they will influence my subjective sensory evaluation.

The sensory analysis

First thing, I remove five “typical” looking berries from each baggie and place them on a paper towel, then set the rest of the berry baggie aside. One at a time, I take each of those grapes and squish the berry between my tongue and upper palate. What gushes out are the two to four seeds, the skins, the juice, and the pulp. (Hard not to swallow because it tastes awfully good!) I remove the seeds and place them on the paper towel and push the skins up between gum and cheek. I do that with all five berries, trying not to drool. Then I analyze what’s in my mouth and give a number value — 1, 2, 3, or 4 — in four different categories and mark down those results. The first category: Is the juice/ pulp acidic or sweet? The second: Is the juice/pulp herbaceous or fruity? After I spit out the juice and pulp, I then chew those five skins fifteen times and evaluate for skin ripeness. That’s the third category: Are the skins herbaceous and hard, or are they fruity? After I write down that number, I spit out the skins and evaluate the ripeness of the seeds. I put one seed between my front teeth and bite down (it should sound like a kernel of popcorn popping.) I chew the seed and evaluate the taste; astringent would be a 1, whereas a 4 would be the taste of toasted almonds. After I spit what’s left of the seed out, I’m finished with the subjective part and ready to begin the objective analysis.

The objective analysis

After I squish and pulverize the baggie berries to make as much juice as I can, I then test the juice for Brix (sugar) and pH (acid) using my lab tools, and write down those numbers.

What then?

Now that I have all that subjective and objective data, I can compare where we are right this minute to where we were last year, the year before that, etc. Using those years of collected data, I can begin to guesstimate the date we should harvest that block of grapes.

How long does this take you?

To check our nine different blocks, both here at GlenLyon and as far away as Russian River and Sonoma Coast, it takes me an entire day; a lot of driving and walking, a lot of tasting and testing, a lot of energy and a lot of sticky hands. But it’s worth it. The date I choose for harvesting that block of grapes is the most important decision I make all year long. And one day can make a huge difference in the eventual quality of the wine.

Happy harvest!

– Squire Fridell, GlenLyon Vineyard