Happening Now - 2/26

Pruning, mustard blooming, virtual wine tastings, smoke taint

Note: You can always read this newsletter directly from the emails I send you, but try reading it sometime online, at the website (click here). I actually think it’s a better visual experience as video players appear with a relative image, and you won’t be forced to leave the page when viewing videos or expanding them to full screen, or when enlarging photographs.

In the Vineyard


Drive by any of the hundreds of vineyards in and around Sonoma this time of year and you’re likely to see a gathering of cars just inside the vineyard property or along an adjacent road—like what you might see when someone is having a country barbecue. Look out into the vineyard and you’ll see a group of men and women, usually Hispanic, wearing gimme caps or straw field hats, face coverings and garden gloves, denim or canvas jeans and jackets over sweatshirts and hoodies. They’ll often be wearing an orange vest on top of everything; it’s a way to keep track of where everyone is in the vineyard.

They’ll be moving slowly amongst the rows, each person pausing to look at a vine, then making quick angled cuts with clippers or pruning shears near the base of each of last year’s canes before moving on to the next vine. It’s likely chilly outside, but not rainy; and hopefully no rain is in the forecast for a day or two. Rain is a vector for disease to enter the vineyard through the fresh wounds inflicted by the shears. Those cuts need time to scab over.

This is pruning season, the first major chore in the vineyard that has a direct impact on the upcoming vintage. It’s really the unofficial start of the season, though most folks think of the more dramatic “bud break” as having that distinction. Pruning can be done anytime after the vines have lost their leaves and gone dormant from an extended cold snap. Around here that’s usually mid to late February, sometimes even March. Making those cuts stimulates the new buds on last year’s canes to swell and burst a month or so later, hopefully after the threat of any late frost.

But this season it’s different. I saw crews in some vineyards already pruning by mid-January. Two factors—the pandemic and wildfires—have convinced, perhaps even forced, many vineyard owners to start pruning earlier. One factor is a scheduling dilemma, the other a quality-control issue.

Some vineyard owners claim that many field workers opted to collect Pandemic Unemployment Assistance rather than risk catching COVID-19, or face the possibility of a shutdown that would interrupt any type of income. And who could blame them? Agricultural workers in Sonoma County are only just now becoming eligible for a vaccine, even though the virus wreaked havoc amongst vineyard and winery workers for months. So, with fewer workers available to prune the same number of vineyards, the work had to be spread out over a longer period.

Then there’s the risk of smoke damage from wildfires, which are appearing earlier and earlier each fire season. If grapes are still unharvested when the almost-certain clouds of smoke choke the valleys of Napa and Sonoma, huge damage can occur if “smoke taint” renders that vintage unsellable (see smoke-taint tasting discussion below).

Increasingly destructive wildfires have savaged Sonoma County now for five years running, but with the exception of last year most of the grape harvests have occurred before smoke levels became untenable. The thinking that early pruning might offer some sort of defense goes like this: Prune a vine early and it goes through bud break early. If it dodges a bullet and doesn’t get frostbitten then it will set fruit earlier than usual and that fruit will ripen earlier than usual. That means harvest is earlier, maybe mid to late September for a red grape that is usually picked in October. What that means—hopefully—is that those grapes are picked and crushed before the air fills with the acrid smoke from wildfires.

Peter Stanford (above) pruned his tiny vineyard of Ribolla Gialla last week, with help from friends Jerry Byer and Debbie Tancik (top, right). And yesterday, Tony Disanti (below, right) and Sherman Patterson finished pruning the last few rows of Merlot at the city-owned Leveroni Vineyard, while Chuck Betrano gathered cut canes. Pruning can easily engender a Zen-like focus as one works through a vineyard, considering every cut and anticipating the growth to come.

Most of the home winemakers I know are pruning their vineyards right now. As soon as any little window of cool, dry weather appears everyone hops to it. I’ve already helped with several prunings and even gave our own tiny Malbec vineyard its first official haircut.

We planted the Malbec as dormant benchgrafts in the spring of 2019 (more on that in a future post), let the scions bud out and grow all summer to encourage root development, then cut it all back the following winter. Then we let it come up again in spring of 2020 and grow unrestricted through the entire summer. Some of those canes were quite vigorous and ended up 10 to 12 feet long.

This winter we’re cutting them back once again, only this time keeping the best cane on each vine as its future “trunk.” I’m pruning those to about 30 inches tall and leaving two buds (opposing each other) near the top, which will hopefully grow out this spring to form the cordons, or arms of the vine. Deciding where to prune is a bit subjective—pure anguish, actually, if you’ve never done it before— as sometimes the buds don’t align in the right place or the cane isn’t really thick enough yet to form a trunk. So it’s disconcerting to arbitrarily cut that much off after you let it grow all year!

But as J.W. Nickel so aptly put it in the Tiny Vineyards movie: “Vines are weeds, you can abuse them, they’ll still grow. The first time you prune them you go, ‘Well I can’t cut that much off!’ But they’re not quite as delicate as you might think. I got my clippers out and I just started clipping, and kinda learned a thing or two. My pruning has actually reinvigorated the vine.”

I’ve been thinking about this first pruning of our new tiny Malbec vineyard now for months. Knowing that I was basically sculpting the vine’s future growth for years to come made deciding where to cut a little nerve-racking.
While I was fretting over every damn cut my partner in the vineyard, Bobbie Croucher, was twisting the longer canes into a traditional grapevine wreath. This is a local craft and every Christmas you see these beautiful wreaths—decorated with ribbons, evergreen boughs, holly sprigs, and dried flowers—adorning front doors throughout Sonoma, .

Magnificent mustard!

Let’s just state the obvious up front—mustard, blooming in the vineyard, is gorgeous! Suddenly, just this week, there are smears of the ballpark condiment (yep, same plant) appearing in vineyards throughout vineland. I set out on a self-discovery photography and drone-filming tour of the mustard trail on Sunday and wasn’t disappointed.

Mustard has historically been used in California as a perennial cover crop between rows in a vineyard. Today, some viticulturists consider mustard nothing more than a yellow weed, while others argue that it is a biofumigant capable of producing high levels of glucosinolate compounds that can help suppress nematode populations (microscopic worms that can damage vines).

Still, many vineyards have stopped planting mustard years ago in favor of annual cover crops containing more nutritious organic material and nitrogen fixers like vetch, peas, daikon radish, fava beans, buckwheat, barley and oats. The only reason we still see mustard is because it just keeps popping up; it’s really hard to get rid of once it’s established in a vineyard.

My tour took me to Napa and up Highway 29, where there were spectacular displays of mustard in the Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards between Oakville and St. Helena. Then on to Alexander Valley, where it was just starting to appear, and across to Dry Creek, where I found zebra stripes of yellow in hidden vineyards of old vine Zinfandel. Then back down Highway 12 from Santa Rosa to Sonoma with a requisite stop at “Mustard Hill” outside the BR Cohn winery, where dozens of young couples in their Sunday best took turns shooting selfies, backlit amongst the golden splendor.

Despite the controversy surrounding its merits, mustard is undeniably beautiful. And, along with some of the other flowering cover crops, it makes an early spring drive through vineland a visual orgy of linear color! I shot a lot of nice photographs on my tour, and some amazing drone footage, all with just one tiny mishap (see video below).

Mustard appears as translucent yellow on yellow in a digital image, a challenging color to photograph and never quite as mind-blowing as the real thing. Shot from the air by a drone, mustard presents as a condiment stain on the earth, a visual hors d'oeuvre for the purple bounty to come, see VIDEO BELOW.
Depending on what is planted, most cover crops are mowed or tilled under by late spring, as they reach peak concentrations of valuable nutrients and organic material. Then there are those viticulturists who like to cultivate their vineyards early, using four-legged mowers that till the soil with sharp hooves and naturally fertilize along the way.

In the Hood

Virtual wine tastings

Word of advice to anyone getting into home winemaking or considering going commercial: meet as many people as you can in the wine industry and become their friend. This isn’t about who you know, but rather what you learn from who you know. If ever there was an opportunity to acquire invaluable knowledge and experience from personal association, it’s with someone who works with wine every day. These folks tend to be obsessives, and are quick to share the most arcane information—even to a newbie.

Take for instance the first industry person I ever met, Kathleen Scanlon, executive assistant to winemaking at Silver Oak winery. I met her three years ago through a friend who lives three doors down from her. Kathleen is indefatigable. Besides wearing nearly every hat at the winery, she volunteers for the Red Cross and sets up disaster stations during wildfires. She also volunteers for the Girl Scouts, she’s the president of our homeowners association, and she recently took up sea kayaking in a very committed way.

Recently, when many of us were beginning to go batshit due to the extended pandemic shutdowns, she orchestrated a virtual wine tasting on Zoom and brought in Christiane Schleussner, the highly respected head winemaker from Silver Oak, to make it real. Kathleen asked all of us to contribute a bottle of our favorite wine, which she then divided into numbered samples for everyone to use in a blind tasting and delivered them to our homes. No one knew in advance what each sample was, including Christiane.

During the Zoom call we tasted each sample, tried to guess what it was, and listened to Christiane’s professional opinion. Then the bottle was revealed and whoever had contributed it was asked to defend why it was their favorite. Kathleen had upped the ante with a couple of truly premium wines, and I guess I brought it all crashing back down to earth by contributing a bottle of my very first vintage!

It was all very fascinating and fun, and Christiane proved her pedigree by properly identifying most of the wines, including one that was made by her years earlier. But when she got to my wine she was a little stumped: “This wine tastes okay but it doesn’t seem to know what it is. What is it by the way?”

When it was revealed as a field blend (an often eclectic mix of different varietals all harvested and fermented together) that I had made, she laughed knowingly. But she then paid me the very high compliment of calling it “one of the better homemade wines” she had ever tasted. I’m sure she was just being diplomatic, but hey, I’m holding on to that forever!

Just last week Kathleen delighted us all again with a different kind of wine-tasting experience. She had just managed a couple of vertical tastings for her boss at work where some VIPs at Silver Oak had compared different vintages of the winery’s two flagship Cabernet Sauvignons to see how the wines had aged.

When the tastings were finished there were quite a few half-full bottles of very expensive wines left and rather than just throw them out Kathleen brought them home to share with us, her very lucky friends. On the first evening we got to taste an almost 20-year-old (2002) Napa Valley Cabernet with its nearly 40-year-old! (1982) predecessor—something you could never do unless you were a collector, as the wines are no longer available anywhere. On the second evening it was a 2006 Alexander Valley Cab with its 2016 offspring. Lordy!

It was a reminder for me—as an aspiring winemaker—to think beyond the instant gratification most wine drinkers demand in our modern, fruit-forward, young wines movement that now seems to dominate. Even so, to my sophomore palate, the 1982 Silver Oak had passed its prime, although its only fault was time. There was nothing discernibly wrong; it had simply aged into a lighter, far less complex version of its former, grander self. The 2002, however, still held my attention and I marveled at the layers that would appear on my tongue if I took the patience to taste it correctly. But it was the Alexander Valley Cabernets that really had me paying homage to this king of varietals. The 2016—with aspiring tannins on the mid-palate and bright acid on the finish—oh-so full of promise! And the 2006—it was already there in balanced perfection. And I do mean perfection. What else can I say? Gawd, was it good!

I used to cringe at wine writers, then mock them as they tried to describe a vintage in terms that acted out like disorderly hoodlums. But I understand it more now. The hyperbole is sometimes unavoidable as you fall under the influence of a particular wine, at a particular time, in a particular setting. But that’s also why describing wine never really works. It’s ever only in the moment—too fleeting, too personal. So, apologies all around.

But thank you, Kathleen. It was a gift!

Smoke ‘tain’t good for ya

Last weekend Ken Wornick texted John Diserens and me to see if we wanted to participate in a smoke-taint evaluation with a blind tasting of “affected” Pinot Noir. As you’ll likely remember from my previous posts, Ken has been more helpful to me than just about anyone I’ve met in the wine industry, and he seems to really know something about everything that’s confusing in winemaking. But it’s a humble knowledge and I often have to drag it out of him. So getting an unsolicited invite to learn about something cutting edge in the wine world was intriguing.

Both Ken and John appeared frequently in the Tiny Vineyards film, so we’re a bit of a fraternity here. Hence I think it was as much about defying COVID and having some sort of rare social engagement as it was the opportunity to taste-test smoke taint at 9:30 on a Saturday morning that found us gathered outside on Ken’s patio. All three of us have received our first jab of the coronavirus vaccine, but we still sat safely apart and had our masks at hand.

Ken is a customer of Laffort, a French company come stateside that specializes in oenological products like yeasts, tannins, enzymes, bacterias, etc. They’ve recently been working on additives that might counteract the cigarette-butt taste of smoke taint in an affected wine. As a respected winemaker and consultant, Ken was asked by Laffort to participate in a blind tasting to see if we could discern smoke taint in wines they had “corrected.”

Smoke taint is defined as free volatile phenols that are produced when wood is burnt. If a fire is burning near a vineyard then these free volatile phenols can be absorbed through the skin of grapes still on the vine and bind to grape sugars to form glycosides. These glycosides have no actual smoky aroma of their own. They can be identified through expensive tests that only a few labs in the world can perform, but they can’t be tasted in the grapes, or in their juice just after crushing. It’s only during fermentation, and even more so over time in the barrel or even the bottle, that these glycosides release upon contact with human saliva, allowing the unpleasant smoky flavor (think ashtray) to be perceived. This is a risk that an established winery with a hard-earned reputation for premium wines just can’t take.

Ken, John and I tasted four different Pinot Noir samples—A, B, C and G—three of which were wines that Laffort had corrected with one of its additives, and the fourth of which was supposedly the control. But we had no idea which was which, what they might have been treated with, or even what the control was—smoke-tainted or un-tainted wine.

Ken had us first write down our assessment of flavor, spice, tannins, and aromatics in each sample, then share those comments with each other. I thought one of the wines was horrible with very discernible smoke taint, while another was actually quite tasty and seemed free of any unpleasant flavors or aromas. The other two were somewhere in between. John and I were surprisingly similar in our opinions of each sample, while Ken was sometimes quite the opposite in his assessment—no secret there who had the more refined palate of the group.

However, it was very interesting that all three of us thought that our Sample G was the least smoke-tainted, and John and I thought it actually tasted the best out of all four. Late yesterday Ken began to get some data back from Laffort on the preliminary results of the study and it turns out our Sample G was actually the wine that had been given 60g/hl of Geosorb, an additive which, according to Laffort, was ranking best in the study at reducing smoke taint.

What I found fascinating, was that it still came down to subjective human perception scoring those different attributes being considered in the study. No high-tech scientific instruments measuring obscure sensory responses—just our tongues and our retronasal olfaction! Not sure how to articulate it, but there’s something really important about that—especially when it comes to making wine.

There’s a lot more data yet to come from the nearly 300 panelists involved in the Laffort smoke taint study, and it’s likely to be a while before all the numbers are crunched. But so far, the results suggest that there may be a saving strategy out there for wineries that discover they’ve been tainted.

Of course, an uncompromising and aggressive response to climate change, and an honest acknowledgement of its causal effect on wildfires in California, might be a more appropriate and long term approach to remediating smoke taint rather than trying to mask the problem with chemicals.

I’m just saying…