July 24, 2020 15:50
Another month into vintage 2020 and the next stage of the grape development is here: veraison. From here on out we can predict harvest dates by when the fruit begins the transition from hard green pea sized berries to a lighter softer green in the white varieties and shades of purple in the reds. I caught up with Mitch Blakely, fourth generation family member, as he was heading home for the day.
“We are watching the vines as the crop on each turns color-all but 11 acres of what we farm are red wine varieties and Merlot seems to be out ahead of the pack at 50% of the fruit turning color. Zinfandel isn’t too far behind at about 35%. Other varietals like Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon range from 5-15%. What that tells us is we’re looking at an average to slightly later harvest with mid-September for white grapes and lighter red wine grapes followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah the first couple of weeks of October. This timing is typical of the past harvests from normal growing seasons. And of course this will change if the weather spikes higher as we get nearer to picking.”
“It’s been hot at the beginning of July so one of the other jobs I had was trying to find blocks needing water. The vines were getting slightly stressed, slowly development down because of heat although some of the days topped out at 100 degrees but tapered off as the late afternoon fog began to come in. While fairly early on in the season it is better to have the higher heat at this time. Varietals susceptible to damage during heat are Zinfandel, Merlot and Sangiovese on hillside or limited soils where they have a tough time bouncing back. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, can handle it. It was unseasonably cool at the last half of July which helped the vines out a lot."
He continued, "The crop size is fairly consistent, not as big of a year as last year. Not as many clusters and counts are down-which is a good thing because it is easier on the vines. We'll see COVID harvest protocols slow down harvesting with smaller crews and split crews for picking in order to keep our vineyard crew safe. Hoping for a nice even harvest with lots of time in between. Other projects include working on the vine blocks under the Scott Henry system where they are separating out the canes and pinching them down so the arms aren't snapped off during machine harvesting (Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc). There are 20-25 acres of the split system so it takes a while-7 acres done so far and there is time to get this done. Pulling leaves and dropping fruit (also known as green harvest) also has taken place in order to allow ripening of the clusters as well as lightening the load on the vine."
Thanks Mitch for the time and information-cheers to Vintage 2020 as it comes more into focus with each month. Follow our vineyard next month when we are in striking distance of harvest.
May 21, 2020 08:24
Following the progress at our estate vineyards helps keep things in perspective. While we all shelter in place (hopefully not for much longer) the vines are happily making their way toward vintage 2020. I visited with Mitch Blakeley, fourth generation family member, to check in and get his perspective about what it going on out in the vineyard.
We farm 115 acres of vineyard between the Mother Clone, Home Ranch, Three Vineyards, Wisdom, Alto Vineyards, Bench Vineyards, East Side Vineyards and Bushnell Vineyard with 11 varietals planted between all of them. Some of these are small blocks while other encompass 30 or so acres between them. It all adds up to quite a bit of work for Lance Blakeley, Vineyard Manager, and Manuel Diaz, Vineyard Foreman along with Mitch who is not only in the vineyard he also led the certification process for sustainability in both the vineyard and winery.
Here are some in depth details about what is going on right now as we follow the vineyard this month in the bloom phase. Bloom or flowering (I’ll use the terms interchangeably) takes place about 6 weeks after budbreak, the first growth in the vine since winter dormancy which typically takes place in March. The leaves and shoots lengthen during the next month or so and small ‘bunches’ form. Bloom is when the future bunch of grapes breaks into tiny flowers-the smell is heavenly!-with crop set following in the next few weeks.
Follow the vineyard as I recap Mitch's comments on what is going on this month: The rain, while not as heavy compared to 2019’s six inches, actually mirrors almost to the day the time it rained the third week of May in last year. Over a week or so about an inch and a half of rain fell this year. What did this do to the vines? While April was warm and a few days in early May were over 90 degrees it became cold and rainy, slowing bloom time down. One of the benefits of receiving rains in the spring: it saves water. Mitch predicted they would be able to skip a full cycle of operating the drip irrigation system in the vineyards. Vines rely on interspersed drip irrigation during the dry months of summer and late rain helps delay the initial cycle of watering.
Flowering in some of the varietals, like Cabernet Franc, went quickly and is almost complete. Slow bloomers like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon were just beginning. Zinfandel was at about 40% and other grapes like Sangiovese and Petite Sirah were somewhere in between. Rain will sometimes knock off some of the flowering which in turn might lower the production of fruit. It remains to be seen if this has happened in our vineyards-crop set takes place in June so we will know more by the end of next month.
The vineyard crew continues with tractor work, weed maintenance and suckering, which is the most important during this time because a vine will push lots of growth in the spring. If not taken care of by stripping off the multiple offshoots this will overburden the vine and eventually would inhibit getting a ripe crop if allowed to continue. Suckering takes place over the whole vine along the arms and at the base. Some of the wood is softer in varietals like Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc-so they will be suckered next but right now the crew is working on the Zinfandel and Cabernet as the vine trunks and arms are harder wood and harder to sucker as things begin to dry out. We are expecting 90 degree weather the last week of May and this accelerates the conditions so the crew is busy now in these vineyards in order to get ahead.
Thanks Mitch for the update. We've farmed for four generations and have seen many different scenarios throughout those years. This vintage will go in the books as one of the most unusual because of COVID19. As farmers we look forward to the next phase of growth because the vineyard naturally follows the tilt of the sun, the ebb and flow of weather and creates something new each year.
April 9, 2020 10:06
I am focusing on our other flagship wine this year: Cabernet Sauvignon. Did you know it is the most widely planted wine grape in California? Here are my thoughts on what makes this varietal special, thriving here in Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County.
First up, the stats: Cabernet Sauvignon is king of wine grape acreage in California with 93,241 (bearing and non-bearing) total acres. It bested its’ rival Chardonnay by 93 acres. By comparison, about five years ago, there were 6000 more acres of Chardonnay than Cabernet Sauvignon-just in case you are keeping score. In Sonoma County (12,090 acres) it is the second most widely planted, with Pinot Noir almost equal and both bested by Chardonnay as the number one most planted grape. Dry Creek Valley, where Cabernet rises to the top winning the title of ‘most widely planted’ with 3200 acres, reigns as #1.
Now for a bit of Dry Creek Valley wine grape history. The first grapes were planted, Zinfandel among them, in the mid-1800s with wineries following in 1872. The area burgeoned with production right up until Prohibition ended commercial winemaking in 1919. During this dry time many of the vineyards were pulled out by grape growers in order to make a living and were replaced by fruit trees and other crops (this area was known as the buckle on the Prune Belt for this very reason). Once Repeal made it legal to make wine again it took some time to get back into the business of developing a market, planting vineyards, and took a World War to engage the nation’s palate again. While my grandfather already had zinfandel and petite sirah on the home ranch he dabbled in planting Riesling and Pinot Noir among others.
It wasn’t until sons John and Jim bought five acres on West Dry Creek Road in 1965 that they became the first growers in the valley to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. They saw an appreciation for this varietal from those who served overseas and had become acquainted with the wines of France and Italy. Now they wanted to give customers a wine they appreciated. This vineyard would become known as our Wisdom vineyard. Beginning with this vineyard we learned over the next 5 decades what it takes to get the best out of this grape. We now farm 31 acres along the bench and valley floor. If there is a site specific grape I believe this is it.
What makes Cabernet Sauvignon distinctive from our vineyard and valley? The location for one. Our estate vineyards are located in the northern end of the valley. Wisdom is on the valley floor on the ‘dry’ western side of the valley and our Three Vineyards and Block 007 are on an eastern bench across the way where the soils are gravelly loam with great drainage. Another distinction is in the trellising. Finding the right vine systems to maintain production and canopy are important because the vigor of the vineyard can get in the way of ripening. Canopy and crop management become key to a wine with a quality fruit profile. Cabernet Sauvignon needs sun to ripen and a long growing season. Dry Creek Valley’s climate is here to help with its’ ideal number of warm degree days paired with the all-important marine layer, cooling down the grapes at night. Both are the foundation of fruit development maintaining aromatics, acidity and balance. Hallmarks of our Cabernet Sauvignon show flavors of plum and berry fruit combined with tobacco or sage notes (Winemaker Montse Reece describes this as ‘greenier’) and wrapped in a firm core of tannin or 'grip' as John Pedroncelli would call it.
The combination of site specific planting, aspects of climate and soil, picking at the right moment after the desired hang time-Cabernet is usually one of the last grapes harvested-and, once at the winery, the choices of oak and aging give you a Cabernet Sauvignon you can enjoy upon release or has the staying power for the cellar. Either way it is fitting to consider the wisdom gained over 55 years of farming the king of red wine grapes.
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