Mistake Monday: Picking To Prove A Point

Deciding when to pick grapes is really a group effort. It takes the winemakers tasting a phenolic maturity that fits their wine style, and it takes growers understanding their vineyard and providing good sample data. It is a wonderful, smooth process, when it works.

When it doesn’t work? Well… it’s usually a mess. And since this is a Mistake Monday, guess which case we’re going to talk about?

I was sourcing Chardonnay in Sonoma County from a vineyard called Yellow Hen. This vineyard had been around for a long time, but like many vineyards that were planted in Sonoma County in the 1990’s, it was probably due for a full overhaul. This vineyard was everything you would consider “average”. Like, everything about it was just plain average. It wasn’t the prettiest but it wasn’t a wreck. Some vines were extremely healthy, some weren’t. Some viticultural tasks had been done well, some not so well. Just, average. This worked since the price of $1,750/ton fit the wine program COGS and the grower wanted one buyer for all 100 tons.

What I didn’t realize then, but I do now, is that the average is often not the number we think it is. In the vineyard, we often target the average or we accept the average because we think of the vineyard as a whole. But all too often, the variance matters far more than the average. Your heartbeat can have an average of 75 BPM. Sounds great. But if that minute has 30 seconds at 150 BPM followed by 30 seconds of 0 BPM, well, that’s a problem. Variance matters.

This particular winemaker was targeting a very big Chardonnay style for this fruit. As such, she wanted higher Brix, lower acids, and a phenolic profile that fit that big Chard style. Flavors like golden apple, deep melons, orange zest, and acid that you only noticed but was not overwhelming. This vineyard had those flavors. The challenge was that it also had bright lemon flavors, knock-your-socks-off acids, and unripe Granny Smith notes. Like I said, variance matters.

Now sometimes, a vineyard will have sections where the variance can be identified and picked accordingly. You may have a vineyard with wildly different soils or different clones or rootstocks. That’s pretty easy. You pick accordingly. But this vineyard, like I said, it had been around for a while, and even though it had a brand new owner and a brand new vineyard manager, it still had the same vines from the year before. The older vines were okay, but a little tired; the newer vines were excited and on a completely different maturity timeline.

A few years prior, it was missing about 50% of the vines, which were filled in with new vines. The age difference was about 25 years. It has also been hit pretty hard by Pierce’s Disease. I didn’t know it at the time, but the replants favored one side of the vineyard by a notable amount because, honestly, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing at the time. The prior owner couldn’t afford to replant the whole vineyard so they replanted missing vines. That increases maturity variance.

The winemaker was colorfully known as the “Acid Princess”. Unfortunately, this was not a kind name nor was I a fan of it. She was a damn good winemaker and a great person. But to many growers, she was pushy and rigid. She needed low acids and well-ripe phenolics, and she worked hard to get it. To growers, this usually meant picking at a higher Brix than they wanted, around 25 Brix. And honestly, a female winemaker was more uncommon then, and I’m confident many growers gave her way more gruff than they ever should have for a variety of out-dated reasons and dynamics.

The vineyard manager was a third generation farmer in the area and was many things typically associated with farmers: tough, busy, reserved, and generally risk averse. He was a good guy, but make no mistake, he was a shark when it came to his business. He knew everything there was to know about vines, and what mattered to him most was yield. He had a certain way he did things “come hell or high water”. And here I was, a kid, “who didn’t know squat about squat” buying grapes for a woman winemaker who “wanted to wait as long as possible to pick”. Yep… good times.

As harvest approached, my team began sampling the vineyard. Most vineyards are pretty stable as they ripen but this one? Man, it was all over the board. We had wildly different Brix and pH readings from week to week and even same day. BUT, we were sampling it just like all the other vineyards – or so I thought….turns out the vineyard manager knew one of my sugar samplers, Suzie, and had been “helping” her “learn” how the vineyard should really be sampled, of which I was unaware. He basically told her to sample more from the ripest section and less from the less ripe section. What the vineyard manager didn’t know, was that I had several sugar samplers, meaning results would be different depending on the person sampling. One sample would show it was almost ready to pick and the next sample would show it was weeks away.

Naturally, the randomness of the sample results was pretty confusing to me and the winemaker.  So we scheduled additional samples to see if that helped.  It did not.  All the samples taken wound up coming back very different.  While we were trying to sort out how to harvest this vineyard, the winemaker began getting pressure from her boss to get the vineyard harvested ASAP. 

The winemaker and I took a trip out to the vineyard to taste through the field very thoroughly. It was at this point, we really saw the variability and learned that one section was less ripe than the other. We planned to harvest half of the 100 tons the following day and the other half in two weeks. But the 50 tons to be harvest the next day needed to come from the ripest section, which was probably 24-25 Brix and 3.5-3.7 pH. Roger Wilco. We had a plan and I went to work on it.

The following night, they harvested 1/2 of the vineyard. The winemaker and I were excited to see the results from the lab following the pick… they were a disaster. The numbers from the pick looked like they were all the unripe fruit. 21.6 Brix and 3.26 pH. To make it worse, I went over to the vineyard and IT WAS all the unripe fruit. The vineyard manager had picked the opposite of the map. The precise opposite of what we wanted. When I called, pretty upset, he said, and I quote, “Geez, I guess the machine harvest operator turned the map upside down or something.”

Are you f*&%ing kidding me?!? You’re a third generation vineyard manager that was born and raised 10 miles away. You’ve probably spent more years in vineyards than I’ve been alive and your explanation is “maybe we turned the map upside down”?!?! Nah. It was clear what happened. He picked it that way on purpose. He knew that section of the vineyard had the best yield and he wasn’t going to let it sit in the field any longer. Frankly, nothing mattered at that point. I held in all my thoughts and expletives and just told him, “I suppose that happens sometimes. Next time, I’ll be at the pick to make sure it does not” and then I hung up the phone.

Now the vineyard manager was happy that he slipped one by. I’m cheesed he ran me over like an earthworm under a tank. The winemaker was livid because she received the opposite of the fruit she wanted. I suggested to the winemaker that we just take the next pick off the board until further notice, which we did. I’m not proud of that, but that’s what I suggested and that’s what we did. We let the other half of the vineyard sit for almost 3 weeks. It was overripe to begin with and when we picked it, it came in at 27.6 Brix. Honestly, I don’t recall what we decided to do with all that fruit, but I’m sure the winemaker made lemonade with lemons. She was good at that.

After that event, the vineyard manager and I never had a good relationship. He wasn’t interested in one and neither was I. The owner had no clue any of this occurred, which frankly, is probably best. The winemaker and I actually got along very well after the fiasco. And we all moved on from it. But geez… what a mess.

Everyone was trying to prove a point. All of us. And honestly, because everyone was trying to prove a point, I’m not sure that pick ever had a chance of turning out wonderful and smooth. The winemaker was trying to prove she would get what she wanted. The vineyard manager was trying to prove he would get what he wanted. I was trying to prove I had some semblance of a clue of what I was doing. I suppose we were all doing what we thought was best for each of us. In the end, we all lost. It really sucked, and I was lucky it was an early-season pick because I had the rest of harvest to bury the memory.

But it did teach me how to sample a vineyard and the raw truth is; you can manipulate samples both in positive and negative ways. I now sample vineyards with a very specific process and I let the data tell me what’s going on. I haven’t become skeptical of the winemakers or the growers, I just ask a lot more questions and go find reality on my own. I still listen to the winemaker and to the grower, but I work incredibly hard to provide representative samples to everyone. Because actual grape ripeness and maturity will eventually be measured so there’s no sense avoiding reality. If a block is 21.6 Brix and 3.26 pH, there is no magic in the world that can make that not true when it’s picked. And I have never again tried to prove a point with a pick.