Veraison has begun
By George MacLeod and Ed Murphy, Indian Springs Ranch
While the total grape yield for vintage 2017 will be reduced due to the shatter that occurred during bloom (as discussed in July’s “Journey to Harvest” column), the remaining crop is coming along nicely and has now reached veraison.
Veraison is a French word that literally translates to “getting ready.” As in, the grapes are “getting ready” for harvest. At veraison, the vine begins to mobilize all its resources to get the grapes mature. If you were to chart the amount of sugar in the grapes, the onset of veraison would jump right off the chart – the classic hockey stick shape, having been flat (no sugar increase) for months, then suddenly making a sharp turn upward. Until veraison the sugar content in the grapes has remained minimal and constant while the vine was putting most of its energy into growing foliage. At veraison, all the foliage gets the message to stop growing the plant and start producing sugar in the grapes.
And so begins the season when grape growers are walking through their vineyards, squeezing the juice from randomly collected grapes onto their refractometers to see where their brix (sugar percentag) is.
Since this is veraison, not harvest, the brix still measures far below the 22-23 brix we’ll be looking for at harvest. Still, veraison is a big deal in the vintage life cycle as the excitement starts to build toward harvest.
A new grape variety on the ranch
This past May we grafted Semillon bud wood onto established root stock in a portion of our vineyard closest to Sonoma Creek. Centuries ago, this area was a lake teeming with salmon that local Indians would catch on spears. That’s another story. The point here is the contribution this ecological history has made to today’s terroir. The vines must like having their roots in that good ancient lakebed biomass. From a grafted, dormant bud in May, they have already shot up to a height of over two feet! We expect our first Semillon harvest in 2019.
The new Semillon vines are coming along fine, but the fate of those grapes is still a topic of debate here at MacLeod Family Vineyard. Son Richard covets the grapes for making a Sauterne wine. Son John is more interested in using the Semillon as a blending grape in our Marie’s Cuvee wine.
Making a Sauterne is more of a gamble. It’s really hard to grow grapes for a Sauterne. In fact, you may get a crop to make into the wine every three or four years.
Grapes for a Sauterne require the introduction and culture of a fungus called Botrytis, often called the Nobel Rot. And getting this specific fungus to grow instead of others with undesirable flavors is … well it’s a gambler’s game. Grapes for Sauterne are often not ready to be harvested until October. That means ripe grapes are hanging out in the vineyard, juicy targets for birds looking for a buzz. The competition between farmer and birds can be fierce.
John’s approach of using the Semillon as a blending grape for our Cuvee is a safer route. But when a well-executed bottle of Sauterne can sell for over $100, the temptation to go for it is great. With our first Semillon harvest not until 2019, we still have some time to decide.
Labor shortage changing the grape growing landscape
Despite the progress in ag-tech in California, many crops remain hard to pick mechanically and the knife-in-the-hand of a skilled worker still dominates. However, the $47 billion California agriculture economy is working feverishly to introduce automation, across all crop categories, before the rapidly dwindling supply of low-wage immigrant labor is gone completely.
The issue is that immigrant farm laborers across California, including here in Sonoma Valley, are aging and not being replaced by younger workers. Native-born Americans are just not showing interest in farm labor jobs – even with wages increasing and some growers offering benefits like health and savings plans.
In many parts of California, grape growers have already re-engineered their vineyards to take advantage of mechanical harvesting. But steep, hillside vineyards such as ours at MacLeod Family Vineyard pose additional challenges and cost. Ultimately we may see changes not only in how grapes are picked, but changes in the grape varieties themselves to make them more amenable to being grown and harvested by robots.
What impact this will have on our industry’s culture is hard to tell. Perhaps it will be positive and result in a workforce of well-paid technical, native born workers continuing the love of vine and land of their immigrant parents.
Last month, together with St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Kenwood, we sponsored a lunch to bring the vineyard labor and local resident communities closer together. Time will tell how successful the broader social/cultural integration will be, but our one small luncheon on a hot Sunday afternoon was a big success. Complete with mariachi band, St. Patrick’s parish hall was alive with music, conversation, and great food prepared by our ranch foreman Chuy Ordaz and team.
Will advancements in robotics replace the perception, judgment, and dexterity of human workers? One thing we know for sure is that many bright engineers and forward thinking farmers are investing in heavily in making it so, and in so doing, offer the prospect of inevitable change in our industry.