Waiting to Exhale

At the mid-way point in the 2012 growing season, we ask: Is it too good to be true?

Take a deep breath. Now, hold it. Now keep holding it. Seriously, don’t exhale! Keep holding your breathe. This is what the second week of July, 2012 feels like in Wine Country. And no, it isn’t because we’re driving through a tunnel, free-diving for abalones or watching the heroine in a horror film fumble with her car keys. The 2012 vintage has simply been too good to be true. Winemakers and grapegrowers are murmuring in hushed voices that harvest may be early this year. Will we make it through veraison without mildew and sunburn? Will the fruit ripen without accumulating too much sugar? Will be be able to harvest before the fall rains arrive?

Sure there was some shatter in cooler regions and powdery mildew, a plague that turns grapes to dust and from which very few vineyards are ever safe, has been showing its fuzzy white self here and there, but all in all the first half of the growing season has been going extremely well. At Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak, viticulturist and member of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Amy Warnock says “we are starting to believe that the anxiety that persisted throughout the growing  seasons of 2010 and 2011 has eased. Although budbreak dates were on track with 2010 and 2011, warm spring weather expedited bloom dates three weeks ahead of previous years.”

But then again, the grapes are still hard and green and while we are excited to report one sighting of veraison (at Donnelly Vineyard in Sonoma), it is simply too soon to tell what the rest of the growing season will hold. Stagecoach is in what Warnock describes as the “lag phase” or second period of berry development, during which, according to UC Davis, “berry growth slows markedly while the berries’ organic acid concentration reaches its highest level.” The berries are green and firm, but are beginning to lose chlorophyll as they prepare for veraison. “As the berries swell in size, bunch closure is not far behind and the structure of clusters is evermore distinct,” says Natalie Winkler of Mill Creek Vineyards, a member of the Westside Road Wineries Association outside Healdsburg.

With the mercury pushing past 100 in many regions last week, crews were busy monitoring vines and irrigating as needed. “We are watering the new plantings, rocky areas, and areas with shorter shoots,” says Warnock. She also reports a record number of snakes (rattlers, California kings and gopher snakes) this year, which she attributes to the heat.

With leafing more or less complete winemakers have begun walking vineyards and making sure the precious clusters are getting just the right amount of sunlight. “With leaf pulling in the fruit zone completed, aeration pervades the canopy and the clusters bask in the morning rays of sunshine,” says Winkler of her vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

“The leaves are smaller than they have been in the previous wetter years, and the berries have been exposed to filtered sunlight from the time that they set. This will discourage the accumulation of methoxypyrazines — the compound responsible for that bell pepper flavor — allowing the fruit to express more desired flavor qualities,” says Warnock.

But The Great Leafing of 2012 continues, as there are still some out-of-control laterals pushing their way out of the wires (particularly for vineyards who hedged before the vines had stopped growing) to the point that they are “shaking hands” or “performing trapeze” across the rows. Vineyard workers are dealing with these laterals with vineyard machetes (yes! that is a thing!) and even weed whackers.

Next week: the art of fruit thinning and the quest for balance.