You might not believe it but around this time each year those of us in the wine industry are thinking, “Didn’t we just finish harvest?” Time flies I suppose because that is definitely what it feels like. It is hard to believe that the 2016 harvest is here but at the same time the excitement of getting into it is building. It is an insane amount of work at times but you always get what you put into it.
Thus far it has been a slow start to harvest for MTGA, only a little bit of Pinot Noir has come in. Frankly I don’t mind the mellow start after the last couple years which have all felt like whirlwinds. The weather over the last couple of weeks has been PERFECT. The warm days and cool nights are allowing for some awesome flavor and complexity development.
As much as we talk or type about harvest it is hard to wrap your head around unless you actually work one. You really get to see the art and science that goes into winemaking. All of the little things get amplified and if you don’t starting things off on a good note it can make the rest of the production process wonky. For me the first week is always the most nerve racking. When that first lot of grapes hit the deck I always feel the need to take a deep breath and mumble a quick “you can do this” to myself before diving it. It isn’t so much because of doubt but more so for not getting in the way of making a great wine.
The one thing I always try to do is be as non-manipulative (or un-manipulative? Are either of those things? as possible. I am also pretty low-tech; mostly by choice but some times you just have to Macgyver something together… like a 5 gallon bucket with holes drilled in the side, a pallet jack, a pump and two hoses to help drain a bin.
I am a firm believer that a winemaker’s biggest job is not to get in they way of making a great wine but you definitely have to guide it. If we don’t you aren’t going to end up with a great wine. I can be easy to go overboard and make adjustments or give a wine a full makeover instead of just letting it do its thing. This does also depend on the style of wine you are trying to make and the quantity. If you are working with a 1,000,000 gallon tank (yes, those exist) you have to act a bit differently that if you have maybe 120 gallons fermenting between two barrels. Next you get to figure out what is going to be best for those lots depending on the style you are trying to get to.
Realistically the list goes on and on and someone could probably sit here and do it far better justice than I can. What I have come to learn are many of the small tweaks you can make to send a wine in a particular direction. Plus there are always curveballs that you have to work with or around.
So with that many variables how do you prepare for it?
Prior to August I try to take some time off to decompress. Once you get into the busy season it is going to be a marathon so a little bit of R&R does the body good. When I am back and actually gearing up I break out my notes from prior vintages as a quick review of what I like, what I didn’t and how that might be adjusted or changed. Over the last two months I’ve been double checking the 2013-2015 vintages to help make those judgement calls. I’ll make a quick note of anything that stands out and look to build on it from there.
One of my biggest focus points is making sure that one vintage after another is congruent. I don’t expect them to be the same. I am a big fan of vintage variation but still having the ability to tie a wine together from one year to the next. Being able to go through a vertical tasting and see if that is the case is super important to me. When I have a wine that is new, like the Pinot Noir, the second vintage is extremely important. I can take everything I learned over the last year and really dial in the production. For a finicky grape like Pinot I am studying my notes thoroughly to make sure I remember how I went about harvest last year and to see where I can make changes to the process.
There are always things that change from one harvest to the next. You try not to make huge sweeping adjustments but there are always little things that you have to work through. The Riesling this year, for example will be produced at Conn Valley with the rest of the wines instead of in Sonoma, closer to where it is picked. With that comes some logistical challenges but nothing that can’t be overcome.
All in all this season is probably the best and most exciting. It might also be the most exhausting but in the end the hard work is more than worth it.