A Beach in Indonesia. Photo by Spencer Humiston

A Brief and Miraculous Moment

Veraison sweeps through the vineyards of Northern California

On the Indonesian island of Bali in SouthEast Asia, there is a brief but miraculous moment that occurs at the end of each day. Just as the sun begins to set below the horizon but before it gets dark, the tide recedes and miles of sand between the sea and the land, wet and perfectly smooth, becomes a mirror, reflecting the last rays of the day’s light and the changing color of the sky. Local boys know to expect it and storm the beach the moment the tide shrinks away from the shore with nets and soccer balls in hand. Sunburned tourists gather at the beach and even the Australians, beers in hand, seem to fall into a reverie.

Walking the vineyards these past few weeks and watching the grapes go through veraison (derived from the French word vèraison which means, roughly, ripening, grapes  begin to soften and accumulate sugar, color and aromas), it is this moment in Bali, happening each day on the other side of the world, that kept coming back to me — that seemed to capture most similarily what was happening here, in the vineyards in Northern California.

There are scientific explanations for the phenology of grapevines. There are many things that must happen before a vine begins to ripen its fruit.  Plant bioligists know this to be the third stage  in the grape’s development: following the “lag phase,”  grape berries suddenly appear to be glowing, blushing, becoming both more translucent and more colorful; changing from hard green orbs of acid to soft, sweet, flavorful fruit — chardonnay the grape begins to taste like chardonnay the wine; sauvignon blanc like sauvignon blanc. The cells of the berries begin to expand, making them plump and irresistable to birds and humans alike. And since not all berries change simultaneously, vineyards, filled with multi-colored gems, suddenly appear to be throwing a party.

Every year, vituculturists can predict with some certainty how long after veraison they will begin to harvest fruit. But even with all of our understanding, knowledge and certainty, there is still something awe-inspiring about the event. This is what makes growing vitis vinifera grapes so special; this is what makes wine so amazing — every little milestone is a testament to the miracle of nature. The photograph at top was captured in Bali nearly 10 years ago.  The ability to ferment and bottle the fruit of these vineyards allows us to capture this vintage in a sort fo snapshot — the cool foggy mornings, the sun-bleached afternoons, the breezy evenings; maybe even the unwanted spring frost or late fall rain — and appreciate it for years and years to come. To see how the fruit of one growing season takes on another life all of its own long after the sun has set on that vintage,  is something truly special indeed.

“This is an important and dramatic time for us winegrowers,” says Richard Martella of Amador County. “It’s at this point that the crop is pretty much set and our job now is to keep the vines healthy and headed for harvest. Most growers can plan on harvesting about 35 to 60 days after the beginning of veraison, depending upon the varietal.”

“This is an exciting time in the vineyard!” agrees Jon Ruel, Director of Viticulture & Winemaking  at Trefethen Family Vineyards and a member of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “As the dust clears from the frenzy of vineyard activity that began way back in the spring, we see that veraison has begun. For a grapegrower, this means the vines are changing gears and moving right along towards harvest. The timing of veraison this year is a couple weeks earlier than in recent years but very much in line with long-term averages, suggesting we will see an earlier, more normal, harvest if the weather stays warm,” says Ruel.

In Anderson Valley, where the climate is cooler and veraison typically later than warm Napa, Dan Rivin of Breggo Cellars reports that  he began seeing color throughout his pinot noir vineyards in late July, thanks to a string of above-90-degree days. “We saw our first few colored berries at Ferrington, our earliest vineyard, in the Dijon 777 block on Thursday, July 19. Then, color began to appear at Savoy, about a mile northwest of Philo, around July 27, in the Pommard and Dijon 667 blocks.”

Yes, sure, it’s a magical time in the vineyard and all that, but it’s no time to take a holiday. Chuck Mansfield, the Winemaker for Hop Kiln Winery and member of the Westside Road Wineries Association in Healdsburg, isn’t leaving his crop solely to Mother Nature. “This week our most experienced vineyard workers are examining the crop, walking each row and dropping any fruit which seems to be ripening too slowly as well as any fruit which may have become bunched up. The goal for this week is to have the entire fruit zone on the same level of ripeness and no clusters stacked on top of each other. This task requires a detailed eye, as to not miss the target.”

Rivin has armed his crews with clippers as well: “Now that we’ve had a chance to evaluate the set, it’s looking great, even and super abundant — reminiscent of 2006. We’re thinning aggressively, and are finally just now getting caught up with the vigorous growth we’ve seen this year.”

Indeed, winemakers and grape growers throughout Northern California are feeling jubilant about the 2012 vintage so far: “We’re looking at roughly completing veraison around August 14,” says Rivin. “Thirty five to 40 days from there to harvest will put us at our earliest vintage since 2005! We’d love to see a nice, long, cool fall, a la 2007, where everything can move slowly to ripeness and max out our hang time.”

Winemaker Abe Schoener of The Scholium Project wrote in a letter to his followers last week: “The vineyards are stunning, such perfect examples of the wonder of nature and creation. I have never, in 14 years of looking at vineyards, seen such perfect display of fruit: vines spontaneously in balance with just the right number of clusters of just the right size, beautifully arranged in space. This is not simply an effect of nice weather —it must be the accumulation of many factors: good and bad weather over the last few years, proper irrigation regimes, excellent pruning and shoot-thinning.”

Bali photograph by Spencer Humiston