Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Crush time in the vineyards

I have wine on the brain.

Not a bad thing to have either, but only if it is good wine and in moderation.

Since my last post about wine in a box and worse - champagne in a can - the harvest season for wine grapes began in my county on August 1st.

That is unusual. Normally the beginning of the harvest is about mid-August with the majority of wine grapes maturing during September and the last straggling vineyards being culled of their luscious fruit in October.

I am beginning to wonder if this is another symptom of climate change. Another wine related article in my local paper said that some vineyards in Mendocino County have become cooler over the years which is now allowing Pinot Noir grapes to be grown there. Previously it was thought that Mendocino's climate was too hot for that temperamental varietal.

"(St. Helena winemaker George) Vierra said he unexpectedly found acidic levels of the Hopland grapes (in Mendocino County) comparable to those grown in the famously cool Carneros region at the southern tip of Napa and Sonoma counties. That's important because grape acidity falls significantly slower in cool regions, a process that can be sensed in the taste of a finished wine.

To better understand why, Vierra sought the opinion of nationally known climatologist Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University. Jones the year before had compiled, analyzed and published findings from a study of 50 years of Wine Country temperature data.

Jones' findings substantiated a warming trend in Sonoma and Napa counties, which he said is already altering grape-growing conditions. Jones said a pattern of warmer overnight temperatures appears to be stewing some cool-loving varietals.

Jones, and now Vierra, are convinced the climate shifts occurring in inland Mendocino County to the north deviate sharply from Sonoma and Napa."

I find the changes in my local climate to be troubling, but comparatively it is not as bad as global climate changes reflected in the polar ice caps.

Anyway, let us get back to discussing wine.

For those unaware, the timing for picking grapes is determined by the sugar content. Winemakers will measure and monitor the sugar level in their various vineyards and will give the order for the crews to start picking as soon as the optimal level has been reached.

That means a swarm of pickers descend upon the field and pick the crop as quickly as possible, because grapes in neighboring fields will soon be at their optimal sugar level and need to be harvested. It becomes a race that resembles a hybrid of a sprint and a marathon.

Oh and yes, the grapes are also crushed.

Hence the name "Crush" due to the crush of workers and the crush of grapes.

One thing to note is that different grapes mature at different rates due to the microclimates in the county, appellation, as well as individual vineyards. You can have hills and valleys in a small plot of land and it can influence the maturation rate due to the amount of sun the different areas receive.

Also there is a difference between sparkling wines and still wines as to their optimal sugar levels. Because sparkling wines have a secondary fermentation, it is important that those grapes are harvested early with a lower sugar level. Otherwise the alcohol level would be incredibly high and change the taste of the wine itself to being "hot."

Just to clarify, the sweetness in wines is determined by the level of residual sugar and not by the alcohol content. You can have bone dry wines with no residual sugar and it may have the same level of alcohol as syrupy sweet ones.

Another reason for me to blog about wine is that last weekend our favorite winery held their annual barrel tasting for the previous year's Zinfandel harvest. It is used to generate sales for "futures." That means we give them money in advance to help finance the making of wine that we will pick up next April, but then again we get the end product at a discount.

We have been supporting Scherrer Winery since 1994, and have never been disappointed by Fred Scherrer's wines. This is one "futures" market that I do not have any qualms about investing my money. Especially when you get such a tasty return on the investment.

Barrel tasting is just like it sounds. You taste wine directly from the barrel. They use what is called a "wine thief" but to me it is nothing more than a giant pipet. Tasting wine at the barrel stage gives you a good idea as to what to expect from the finished product. It has not fully aged in the barrel, nor has it been blended, but if it doesn't taste good from the barrel, it will not taste good in a bottle.

Here is Ed Scherrer, the winemaker's father, pouring Zinfandel.

The first time we ever did a barrel tasting was with Fred's wines, and we stumbled upon it by accident when we had friends in from out of town and visited Dehlinger Winery.
Fred used to be their winemaker and was allowed to have tastings and sell futures in wine he made from grapes his grandfather planted.

I remember tasting the Old and Mature Vines Zinfandel for the first time and thinking the wine tasted like raspberry jam.

This year, his Shale Terrace Zinfandel had the intense flavor of black cherries. I know that it is going to be fabulous.

Here's my husband talking with Fred Scherrer.

Good wine should always be paired with good food. Here are some of the nibbles that were set out to better enjoy the fruits of the vine. In case you cannot read the print on the placard it reads: morels with bacon and shallots.

This next platter has braised lamb shoulder with chick peas and peppers.

The Scherrer Winery is a family business. Fred's wife Judi helps with the day-to-day office work and shipping of wine to consumers. Here is a picture of Fred's mother and wife handling the finances of the day.

The Scherrers have their priorities straight and they don't waste money on adorning their facility with aesthetically pleasing, but nonfunctional decorations. Nope, the winery is designed for the creation and storage of wine. Period.

The metallic insulation you can see on the walls and ceiling is to maintain a constant cool temperature.

If you look closely at the wine boxes you will see that they are stored upside down. That is to keep the corks wet, so that they do not rot.

And because it is a family winery, during their open houses there are kids running around playing hide and seek. You will also see the family dogs. Both pooches have signs on their collars saying "no food" trying to avoid people from succumbing to the power of begging eyes.

There is even a display of Evelyn Scherrer's artwork for sale for you to consider buying while you are sipping and swirling the wine.

Scott was so inspired by the appetizers of morel mushrooms, bacon and shallots that once we returned home he did his best to replicate it for our dinner guests that evening.

Here is the result.

The rest of the spread includes smoked trout, sour dough baguette slices, green table grapes, and a Sonoma County Chardonnay.

I shall stop here in my subtle or not so subtle attempt in trying to make people envious of where I am fortunate enough to live. However, I would like to point out a story on the front page of my local paper today was about tourism in Sonoma County. Specifically foreign tourists who are taking advantage of the weak U.S. dollar and enjoying themselves while they are here.

So for any European readers of this blog who are planning a trip to California, you should consider visiting Sonoma County as well as San Francisco. Sonoma County is home to over one hundred vineyards, redwood forests, the glorious Sonoma Coastline, the northernmost mission of the California Mission system, the site of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and Jack London's infamous Wolf House ruins.

For those wondering if anyone stomps on grapes anymore during the harvest...that's really only done as a competition in the annual Sonoma County Harvest Fair.


No comments: