The Wrath Of Grapes
Think winemaking's romantic? Sure, if you like headaches.
Thursday, October 9, 2003
It''s that time of year again. Relatively sane men and women who most of the time lead normal, productive, well-rounded lives, become psychotic, neurosis-driven bundles of twittering nerve endings. All across Monterey County, up in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Russian River Valley, throughout the Santas--Lucia, Cruz, Ynez, Maria and Barbara--and any other area where winemaking takes place, fierce battles are raging between Nature''s ceaseless march onward and viticulturists'' attempts to capture many tons of grapes at precisely the correct level of ripeness.
Vineyard managers, winemakers and winery owners are glued to The Weather Channel. Speed dialers in winery offices are programmed to the National Weather Service. Biodynamic growers are consulting astrological charts, farmer''s almanacs and native faith healers, trying to get just the right edge on Mother Nature. Throughout the growing season, various practices by growers can help to offset the inconsistencies of temperature, rainfall, wind, etc. But as the moment of truth draws near, as little as one day''s miscalculation can lead to picking grapes that are not yet mature, or are past their prime.
The scenario plays out thusly: All across the various winegrowing regions, grapes of differing varieties come to levels of varying ripeness throughout each day. Wineries, each run by a different vineyard manager, viticulturist, winemaker, owner, etc., each with his or her opinion about when and why the grapes come to fruition, grapple with each other and Nature to determine the "exact" moment to pick. Then, frantically, teams of pickers (in some cases, machines) swarm among the vines, furiously picking and dumping, picking and dumping. Aromatic bins laden with glistening fruit attract bees, fruit flies and manic winemakers who must oversee the crushing process and the all-important beginnings of fermentation.
Meanwhile, other grape varietals continue ripening, taunting pickers, threatening winemakers, torturing owners. Strange faces, hired guns brought into wineries and vineyards to bolster regular work crews, scramble all about usually serene, idyllic settings. Cots are set up in offices and winery corners--no point traveling home late at night to turn around at 4:30 in the morning and begin again. Really compulsive types tend the fermentation tanks and barrels throughout the endless days and nights, wandering into the vineyards with flashlights, afraid they might miss the perfect moment in their quest to create greatness in a bottle.
That quest, like so many others that people pursue, is elusive and sometimes all-consuming. But winemaking, as Robert Mondavi said, "is both an art and a science." The scientific aspect is manageable--the artistic part, oh so fleeting. Winemakers throughout the world humbly acquiesce to Bacchus'' whims, fully aware of how often seemingly correct efforts turn out wrong. Similarly, accidental greatness sometimes bestows itself upon fortunate winemakers at unforeseen times.
This year''s reports from Monterey County vineyards are guardedly optimistic, yet varied in their perspective--as usual. Naturally, we are blessed with a climate that, even during truly bad vintages, still allows winery crews to craft acceptable wines. This vintage, hampered somewhat by what most winemakers have called, "a crazy summer," is yielding less fruit, but that fruit "seems to all be coming at once," according to another local winemaker (we will protect the names of these winemakers due to the natural disagreements in perspective).
One local winemaker spoke of fruit that appeared ripe when gauged scientifically--the sugars were up to acceptable brix (a scale that denotes sugar levels) yet when the seeds were tasted (a regular practice among many winemakers) they do not show true physiological ripening. Therefore, wineries driven more by the scientific method may choose to pick sooner than those who decide based more upon "feel." I imagine the gifted winemaker takes into account equal parts of both disciplines, combined with a healthy gut instinct, then determines exactly when the grapes are ready. At that point the fun has just begun.
Looking past the yearly pressures of trying to create a good product from endlessly changing raw material, modern wine industry forces have introduced new elements of stress. A concentrated effort is being made to try to minimize accidents in vineyards and wineries. Hazards like repetitive stress injuries in pickers--among the most physically demanding jobs--machinery and winery accidents, plus deadly levels of carbon dioxide in fermentation tanks pose real threats to daily operational peace of mind. Also, the FDA is in the process of handing down guidelines to protect wine from potential bio-terrorism, adding another layer of worry to the whole process.
The ongoing grape glut, along with blitzkrieg marketing practices by huge regional and global wine forces, continues to drive pricing and sales, squeezing over-extended small and medium-sized wineries into tighter and tighter spaces. Owning a winery, which as recently as two years ago appeared to many wealthy Americans a way to enter into the regal lifestyle of the French chateau owner, is proving to be a vat-sized headache. Yet, despite all the stumbling blocks thrown in the paths of wine people everywhere, the age-old procession of harvesting, crushing, fermenting, bottling, selling, tending, growing, and harvesting again marches on through good times and bad, driven by forces just beyond the grasp of even the most experienced wine industry icon.