Around here right now we are all about cooler temperatures and football scores. There seems to be a new spring to our steps as we awaken to temps we have not enjoyed since April, humidity that no longer approaches the “swimming on the sidewalk” levels, and we bid a fond adieu to a hurricane season that never materialized, despite dire predictions which emanated from the experts in Boulder, Colo., last February.
About none of that are we feeling badly or cheated.
When you add the win-factor that our local gridiron heroes are racking up, well, heck, why would anyone live anywhere else, at least for the moment?
One of those anywhere else places right now is Wine Country. Everyone in the wine business out west is in harvest and crush. All of the hard work and long days in the fields are about to be validated as the ripe grapes are picked and taken to the winery for the next step in their young lives in the journey to your glass.
So how’s it going? A bit all over the map, thank you. 2013 will be another uneven year depending on the location of the vineyard and the grape varietal. What it won’t be is a complete waste of time and effort, but more about that later.
Napa Valley is working through the tail end of its harvest season and there is not a winemaker in the entire zip code that does not have a smile on his face. “Practically perfect” is the technical term for describing this season and this harvest. Okay so that’s not a technical term, but it is what’s going on.
Beautiful fruit that develops slowly, with balance and character, will result in wines that are approachable young but could be good for a longer aging time in your collection. Mark this down on your to-do list: buy 2013 Napa Valley wines, both reds and whites. Go ahead and make that note while you are thinking about it.
Washington’s Red Mountain region, also famous for excellent and approachable cabernet sauvignons, has a fine year at hand, although matters are just a bit sketchy right now. Picking is going on every day, and the newly-arrived cooler weather means slower ripening. Not a bad thing, except coming very soon will be the rains. Rain during harvest is not a blessing. It is definitely a curse. Wet weather dilutes the juice of the grapes during the crush stage of winemaking. Also since wine clusters are reasonably tightly-packed with fruit, sometimes the water gets trapped in the cluster and mold or even rot can develop. They are watching the skies very diligently in Washington State. I have no idea what they are watching in Washington, D.C. No idea.
Willamette Valley in Oregon was on its way to a fabulous year. Everything that could go right since March did go right. The red fruit, notably pinot noir, was setting on the vine with solid character and there was lots of pretty fruit. Right up until about three weeks ago. Cooler weather set in. Ripening went to a stand-still stage, and the warmth never returned.
Proper levels of sugar, essential for fermentation, were not reached. The choices were to leave the fruit out there, hoping for the return of warmer temps but without the annual incursion of tens of thousands of hungry birds, or the winemaker can bring the partially-ripened fruit into the winery and start working magic.
Both paths are being followed in Oregon. Some winemakers opted for early picking and initiation of the winemaking equivalent of CPR. Others rolled the dice and left the fruit out in the field to, hopefully, gain a bit more maturity, in the process erecting nets across acres of expansive vineyards to discourage the birds from eating all the profits.
But here’s the point: It is not always true, as many winemakers like to boast, that “wine is made in the vineyard.” In just about every case, with rare exceptions, wine is made in the winery, with skilled human intervention. It is true that you can’t take bad fruit and make great wine, neither can you take not-quite-great fruit and make good wine without skilled successful human input.
Chemical and natural additives, processes, temperature-techniques, time management, yeast and racking procedures all contribute in the winery what nature may have short-changed in the vineyard. Modern winemaking demands consistency and quality. Waiting and hoping for good things to happen in the fields is not living in the real world.
There is simply too much money at stake, too many variables, and, always keep in mind, you only get one chance a year. You can’t click your heels and cross your fingers in the hopes that matters will go well. While it’s not a romantic notion, the truth is that winemaking is dirty, grueling and a driven business. The “I Love Lucy” stomping on a vat of grapes image is not real when winemaking is approached as a quantity business providing livelihood for entire families and professionals.
That does not make wine less desirable when approached from the product level. We consumers are honestly surrounded by more good juice now than at any other time in the history of the world.
And what this really boils down to is, in many cases, the flattening of the quality curve with many vintages not showing a lot of difference from previous vintages. Even with many of those vintages that may be “different,” that difference was obtained through the use of modern machinery, techniques and chemicals.
It’s the reality of a very big, very competitive worldwide business.
I’m as romantic as the next guy. But to have a fine glass of wine at a reasonable cost, why should I care if the business of winemaking has romance? I can furnish my own heat.
Just ask my wife. On further consideration, maybe I would prefer you did not do that.