The Kenwood Press
: 02/01/2010

Journey to Harvest 2010 – Opportunities and obstacles

Indian Springs Ranch

George MacLeod

When our four children were growing up, I always preached that “problems are just opportunities in overalls.” Later, when I was a manager at Monsanto, I had a sign behind my desk which pointed out that the Chinese written character for “problems” and for “opportunities” is the same. Now days, with the awful state of the worldwide wine grape industry (including Sonoma Valley) I find myself hoisted on my own petard!

There’s no way to disguise it. There’s a huge oversupply of wine and wine grapes worldwide. Plus, many wine consumers are buying cheaper wines. This presents a huge vineyard production cost problem for grape growers, i.e. cheaper wines must be made from less costly grapes. As I sit here this morning there are giant ships in San Francisco Bay with huge bladders filled with cheap bulk finished wine from all over the world. This product is being sold to domestic wineries at a fraction of the cost of bulk wine produced here. And every million gallons of imported wine means that some 1500 acres of local wine grapes will not have a home. Each one of these gallons means one less gallon made by a domestic winery with grapes grown here in California. It is estimated that here in Sonoma County last year 15 to 35 percent of the normal crop was either sold at a significant discount, or just dropped on the ground for lack of a winery buyer. Many grape growers converted their unsold grapes to wine with the expectation that they would be able to sell this bulk wine in 2010. This local finished wine inventory will be an overhang on the regular 2010 harvest.

Photo by Katie Perkins

David Marales pruning the Zinfandel at Indian Springs Ranch on Jan. 6, 2010.

And now the “So therefore”

With great family discipline and determination, we have been discussing this all winter, to see if we can discover the “opportunity” in this otherwise bleak problem. We know from our 30 years of harvests that our rocky hillside vineyard does indeed have a unique and great terroir that produces great wines. We are reinforced by the knowledge that great vineyards in France have survived hundreds of years through all manner of disasters. So we have decided to add new muscle to our ongoing “Quest for Quality” program, looking for ways to improve in every aspect of our cultural program – weed control, fertilizing, discing, use of mulches and composts, pruning, thinning, disease and insect control.

I am reminded of a story attributed to President Ronald Reagan. When confronted with a huge pile of troubles he told of a small boy whose everyday dream was to have a pony. When he saw a huge pile of horse manure he is reported to have said, “there must be a pony in there somewhere!”

“Marie” and “Javier” – the two vines here at MacLeod Family Vineyard that we have “personalized” to give voice to vineyard issues from the vine’s point of view – are back for this year’s Journey to Harvest. First, let’s hear from Marie and her Sauvignon Blanc Club.

Marie’s Sauvignon Blanc Report

All of us are delighted with what we have been seeing from manager Chuy in our cultural program: A change from cordon pruning to cane pruning that will increase both quality and quantity; an ongoing commitment to sustainability (and progress to organic) will gradually eliminate all weed sprays through use of mulches and composts; continued use of organic sprays and fertilizers; and finally experiments to evaluate the quality aspect of reducing the amount of grapes required of each vine.

I would like to add that the new Sauvignon Blanc block, resulting from grafting on the old Merlot block trunks that we completed last summer, will be in good production this season. Production in this block will only be some 12 pounds per vine versus typical production in the rest of our Sauvignon Blanc blocks of 16 to 20 pounds per vine. This will give us a good chance to see if this reduced productivity does indeed result in greater quality.

But I would like to comment again that as I write this, the pruners are here again with their stinking Port-A-Potties. Plus, as an added insult to injury, not a one of those pruners speaks a word of French. Terrible!

Javier’s Zinfandel Report

We also are delighted with the changes underway. Chuy will be planting a small experimental plot of vines that will depend entirely on natural rainfall, i.e. no irrigation. In addition, he will be blocking off a small section of our existing vineyard to see if we can wean our vines of added irrigation water and become dry farmed. Finally, we hear that the old Patron is going to try to find a winery customer who would like to partner with us to increase wine quality by leaving only one grape bunch per vine cane, instead of the typical two bunches per cane. This sharply reduces the pounds per vine produced. But allowing each of our vines to focus on ripening a single bunch may result in an exquisite Zinfandel wine for our customers.

Patron’s Report

Note that the theme in both Marie’s and Javier’s reports are extensive programs to improve quality and at the same time reduce costs. With all this extra work we may discover that in this giant, industry-wide pile of manure (aka grapes, aka problems, aka opportunities) there is indeed a pony!