The Kenwood Press
: 03/01/2014

Finally a little rain…but is it enough?

George MacLeod

Early in February the ranch and vineyard looked the same dry brown that we reported last month. Then finally the rains came - all 10 inches of it! Within a week, we had discovered that water is the magic ingredient we - as in people, plants, vines, bulbs - were waiting for. The transformation in the vineyard seems instantaneous. Almost overnight, the jonquil bulbs had a bright yellow blossom or two, the long dormant Pink Ladies tentatively, then boldly, began to shoot up their narrow green spear-like leaves, and even a few bright yellow mustard flowers began to appear.

But the euphoria of a little rain was short lived as it is now almost March and the drought worries have returned. We have resumed scouting the skies for signs of rain. We finally received the anticipated call from the County water agency telling us that this year we cannot use any water from the county's aqueduct from Lake Sonoma to the town of Sonoma for vineyard irrigation. We are blessed to have our own deep well at Indian Springs Ranch so we'll be fine this year, but not having the aqueduct for reserve is definitely a hit to this farmer's peace of mind.

Last Sunday on my regular early morning walk, I ran into my grape growing neighbor Bob Uboldi. We discussed what tactics might be most helpful to deal with the drought, and Bob made the pertinent (hopefully not ominous) observation, “George, the history of our planet is one of adjust or perish.” Personally, I'm voting for adjust. But let's change the subject.

Man vs. machine

Typically at harvest, our vineyard manager Chuy shows up with his army of 40 or 50 men to pick the grapes. But, as we've discussed previously, there is a serious labor shortage of skilled pickers. What is more, new technology in the form of machine picking equipment is becoming a viable option. These new machines require only a couple of men plus some truck drivers to drive the grapes to the winery.

In the early years of machine pickers, the quality of the grapes delivered was clearly better with handpicked fruit. But the quality of machine picked fruit has steadily improved so that with the newer machines the quality can be equal, and in some situations maybe even better. There are now hundreds of these giant machines operating in California, and the cost per ton picked is about a third of the costs of human pickers.

We are launching a major research project to assess the cost and engineering issues associated with changing to machine picking. But making the move to machine picking is by no means a foregone conclusion for our ranch.

To make these giant machines work, we would have to install new and stronger metal grape stakes, as well as change the configuration of our trellis design and maybe even change some of our vineyard layout and the varieties grown. Plus, we have hillside sections where these giants cannot go. We can already see that the dollar costs of this change would come close to our original investment when we first planted the vineyard.

Call the Old Patron a softie, but there would be an emotional component to deciding to move to mechanical picking. I've been growing grapes for some 30 years, and at every harvest I would look down a row of men rapidly picking bunches and dropping them in their bins, and I would see the young women and small children in a dusty village in Mexico who would have food, clothes, and school books during the winter ahead thanks to the funds these hard working men would be sending home.

And what would our vines Marie and Javier think? They have had the same men picking and cultivating for years. Is there a relationship there that is part of our terroir, hence has an effect on the character of our wine? For years we have been focusing on having a vineyard of “happy vines.” How will these giant machines affect the vine-friendly ambiance of love and affection that we feel is critical to making great wine? It's a lot to think about.

Victory for our Pink Ladies

When we first arrived at Indian Springs Ranch we found this lovely pink lily (Amaryllis Belladonna) growing here that had been abandoned and left wild for some 70 years. Each year these bulbs shoot up a two-foot long spear with a great cluster of pink flowers just as our grapes are getting mature. So they became our good luck icon and are present now on all our MacLeod Family Vineyard wine labels. Three years ago, I planted a 1,000-foot-long row along one of our fences. Nothing happened. No bulbs came up. Fast forward to this year, and after the recent rains suddenly as if in a chorus line, they all came up. One hundred percent of them! My point… a little beauty and small victories can go a long way toward taking your mind off droughts and labor shortages.