wet grapes

Will clusters rot or dry out? On Friday, the clock begins ticking

48 to 72 Hours Later

On Sunday night, October 21, 2012, it rained. It rained and rained and rained. Mushroom foragers are happy. Gardens are happy. Gardeners are happy. Even the vines, as they sigh away their leaves and settle into dormancy, are happy. As Chuck Mansfield, the winemaker for Hop Kiln Winery in Healdsburg, tells it, “This moderate rain is quite welcome to provide some moisture for the soils in our vineyard to be planted this coming spring. It will allow the grasses we seeded to germinate and begin to grow, providing a lush green cover crop.”

But the grapes that are still out there — the grapes that were either not quite ripe or for whom there was no room in the winery or simply no one to buy them — are not so happy. They are cold and wet and the sugar they worked so hard to accumulate (pick me! pick me! they seem to say) has been diluted. Clusters are chilled to their very rachis, shivering in the fresh fall air. Picking wet grapes, especially after such an otherwise perfect year, is ridiculous. Better to wait, until… “they either dry out or rot; whichever comes first,” says Eric Pooler of Boisset Family Estates.

As of Thursday morning, it had rained for four consecutive evenings, but sun and, more importantly, warmth, was in the forecast. Perfect conditions, in other words, for both drying the grapes and spreading any botrytis that may have bloomed during the wet weather. “Rain and lingering humidity bring the perfect recipe for rot,” says Natalie Winkler, the Viticulturist for Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery.

Standing on Sonoma Mountain on Thursday morning with one of the area’s best growers, Joe Votek, we look over his dewey merlot vineyard where 10 tons of fruit still hangs (high yields are a blessing only if you can find someone to buy all those grapes). I ask him how long it will take for botrytis to take over a vineyard in just the right conditions. Without hesitation, he replies “48-72 hours.”

He shudders at the memory of 2011 when everyone discovered that even thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon could, in the right conditions, rot. “I kept telling everyone, don’t worry, cabernet doesn’t rot. But then it did,” remembers longtime Napa Valley winemaker Cathy Corison. The memory of those sad grey clusters is clearly still fresh on Votek’s mind — and in everyone else’s who still has grapes hanging on the vine.

On Friday morning, as the sun rises, the clock begins to tick: Pick! Pick! Pick!