Mistake Monday: Really Dumb Questions

Have you ever asked a really bad question?  You know, a real humdinger that looking back, you just cringe?  The kind where only you look like an idiot and there is no escaping the shame?  I have.  Many, many, many, many, many times.

Here’s just one example: I was buying 75 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon from a grower in Cloverdale, CA.  It was a beautiful, mid-sized vineyard, just off the Russian River.  This family had been growing grapes there for about 30 years but had been farming that land for 70 years.  There is an area near Cloverdale called Asti, which is a big Italian immigrant area, and this vineyard was owned by a big Italian family.  When I was buying these grapes, I was pretty green at the time.  OK, OK, I was REALLY green. 

It was early September and we just started harvesting white grapes.  I was spot-checking a few of our red grape vineyards for Brix, pH, and TA.  This was early September and red grapes are usually 18-21 Brix at this time.  A good month or more away from harvest.

When we pulled a sample on the Cabernet, the results came back at 25.1 Brix…  seriously, 25.1 Brix!!  Remember, it’s only September 9th, a FULL MONTH AHEAD OF SCHEDULE.  My boss tersely asked what was going on, and I had no clue and so I started freaking out.  Well, actually, I freaked out before he asked.  When he asked, I REALLY freaked out.  I went immediately to the vineyard and tasted the grapes.  They didn’t taste like 25 Brix and weren’t remotely ready to be harvested.  I called the grower, very frazzled, and asked what they could do to slow it down because we couldn’t bring in this Cabernet a month before all our other Cabernet.

I can only describe the grower’s reaction in one way.  The tone is his voice came across like “Who the F is THIS dude?”  But I was becoming unglued, and he clearly did not care.  I told them I couldn’t bring in crap Cabernet!  It was super green and tasted like bell pepper!  All I could think was that my job is PROBABLY on the line!  What the heck am I going to do?!?!  I pulled more samples the next day.  THAT didn’t help.  Those Brix came back at 25.4!!! BAAAAHHHH!!!  I was losing my mind.  I’m not even remotely kidding.  My mind was lost and I had to go find it.

I kept asking them what they did wrong in the vineyard?  I asked them what was wrong with their vines?  I asked them what they were going to do about it?  I asked them how they let it happen?  I asked them why they would sell me grapes that would ripen so early and not tell me?  I asked them A LOT of questions.  They had no idea what to tell me and sounded concerned, that I was so concerned.  That should have been a tell for me…

But I’m going to give you the end before I tell you the middle.  We harvested that Cabernet on October 13th and the Brix were 26.2.  Gorgeous and delicious Cab Sauv when harvested.  Just like it should have been.  Let that sink in.  They were 25.1 on September 9th and 26.2 on October 13th.  A 1.1 Brix gain over 34 days…. 1.1 BRIX!

Must just be that California is the “Garden of Eden”, right?  Nope.  This was Cloverdale.  It’s HOT.  Must be an error in the sample method, right?  Nope.  Sample method was fine.  Must mean the crop was light?  Nope, normal size crop load.

Three things happened: 

  1. Indian Summer.  The North Coast of California has these heat streaks in late summer that last for 3-10 days where it will be 100F-110F.  The temperature on September 8th, the day before the sample, was 106F. 
  2. They skipped an irrigation the week prior because of a well repair.  That meant the vines were a little dry.  But it was just one set of irrigation.
  3. Grape sample data, especially Brix, can move around a lot.  If weather is average and normal, then sample results tend to be average and normal.  If weather is very cool or crazy hot, well, the samples jump around wildly.

To recap, hot weather, one skipped irrigation set, and sample data noise.  That’s how you get 25.1 Brix Cabernet in Cloverdale on September 9th.  A numerical phantom. A data ghost.

And just like that I learned to a) not pay attention to Brix during a heat wave, b) know how my clients are farming on a much more intimate level, and c) know when sample data lie to me and when they don’t. 

How could I have avoided looking like an idiot in front of a number of people while I was freaking the heck out?  Well it’s simple.  Don’t ask dumb questions.

I asked a lot of questions. And every single one of them were dumb questions.  I just assumed they messed up.  I figured it had to be something they did, and I pushed them on it.  I really asked dumb questions because in reality, I was paying way too much attention to the numbers and I had no clue how to operate a vineyard.

Asking dumb questions, well, it gets you dumb answers.  Thank goodness I learned to ask good questions and relax a little.  Well, at least I learned how to ask good questions…