Happening now 5/23

In the vineyard, dodging bullets, wine & health, in appreciation

In the vineyard

Grape vines are flowering

Next time you’re out and about anywhere near grapevines, make sure you take time to stop and smell the, err… grape flowers? For the past week or so, here in Sonoma, most of the vineyards have burst into bloom. Well, maybe “burst” is a little too active of a descriptor, and even “bloom” is bit ambitious. But it’s true nonetheless.

Talk about an inconspicuous flower! Most folks never even realize they’re looking at a grape blossom. That’s because the clusters of tiny green flower buds are usually well hidden under leaves, and even when they are spotted they’re almost always misidentified as baby grapes—just what they look like. And even once those BB-sized buds bloom, each tiny flower is little more than a few pollen-tipped stamens. No colorful petals here. The entire inflorescence looks more like a yellowish-green bottle brush.

Yet, for however unspectacular they appear, grape flowers emit a faint scent as rare and beautiful as anything in the flower world—a pungent, reputedly aphrodisian odor much like the fruit they will become—that is accentuated more strongly in morning and evening.

In a 2009 study researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Wine Research Centre and Michael Smith Laboratories identified a gene that produces and regulates fragrance from the vines' tiny clusters of green blossoms. 

"This was a surprise in fundamental plant biology," says Joerg Bohlmann, a Distinguished University Scholar and professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories who directed the study. "This discovery gives us strong clues to the origin and evolution of fragrant flowers." 

"If you ask people where the perfume of a flower comes from, they'll likely say the female parts or the petals,” says Bohlmann. “Scientists believe plants have evolved to produce perfume in order to attract specific types of pollinators while fending off herbivores and pathogens. Cultivated grapevines are largely self-pollinated, so we believe their fragrance serves more as a defense mechanism to protect their male reproductive tissues from predatory insects."

According to esteemed Northern California winemaker Alison Crowe, who pens the popular Wine Wizard column in WineMaker Magazine (and who recently spoke by Zoom to our Sonoma Home Winemakers group), the most critical time in a grapevine’s life is in May, when bloom occurs. And the ideal conditions are warm 80° days with little breeze.

Strong wind, rain, hail, cold temperatures—even human activity like aggressive suckering or spraying—can wreak havoc by dispersing or inhibiting the pollen instead of allowing it to drift down into the flower. And that can have a deleterious effect on how many of those tiny blossoms turn into grapes. When that happens it’s called “shatter”—sparse or nearly bare clusters due to lack of pollination resulting in very low yields. The longer bloom goes, the higher the risk of bad weather and shatter. The ideal bloom stage lasts 10 to 14 days. So cross your fingers—we are currently right in the thick of it.

Digging deeper into hyperspace I discovered this posting on the subject from a wonderful blog called From Table to Grave, which, unfortunately, I’m not sure exists anymore.

“In an essay entitled Vineyard Aphrodisiac Perfume from his excellent collection Vit Lit, the late farmer and poet Joe Mesics writes, “Apparently, eons ago the early environment for Vitus required outside help to distribute pollen. The birds and the bees. When Vitus changed and became, basically, asexual, the nectaries remained, faintly but definitely offering a lovely aroma.” Mesics describes it as  “a marvelous and ancient odor originating in the grapevine itself…. It’s lemony, no, lavender, no lighter than that — vanilla? No, much lighter, attractive, sexy gorgeous!

“You are smelling thousands, no, millions of tiny flowers on vines that quite recently were pruned brown sticks with dusty buds hidden on them,” writes Mesics. “These flowers, tiny and white, yellow in the center, perch on what will become a cluster of delicious grapes. Their aroma is not as strong as a gardenia or lily of the valley. Its fragrance is as light as a breeze, and to really experience it there must be no breeze to carry it away.”

Grape pearls?

All right, since we’re already well down a rabbit hole, here’s one more arcane thing I saw in the vineyard this spring. While suckering our tiny Malbec vineyard I suddenly discovered what looked like tiny insect eggs at the base on nearly every new sprout. I was instantly in a panic that that vineyard was under siege from some pest that would certainly destroy the two years of effort already expended in getting our precious vines to this point.

I shot a few photos and then raced back to my office and went online to investigate. It took a little digging, but then there it was, an explanation that restored my vital functions—from the Department on Entomology, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach:

Mike White, ISU Extension Viticulture Specialist reported an interesting and confusing phenomenon found in vineyards this spring. He found semi-hard, pliable droplets attached to the stem. One theory was that these were insect or mite eggs except that they are various sizes (insect eggs would be uniform) and that they were clear to translucent (insect eggs are usually milky to opaque and eventually have a developing embryo inside). The droplets could be "bleeding wounds" from grape leafhopper feeding (piercing sucking mouthparts) except the droplets are on the stems rather that the leaves where the leafhoppers feed. Besides, if there were that many leafhoppers, it would be noticeable. The droplets looked like the "semi-hardened sap exudate" we see on ficus houseplants from time to time, which turned out to be direction we needed to look.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture "Tender Fruit Grape Vine Newsletter for Commercial Fruit Growers" these are sap droplets called grape pearls or sap balls. "Grape pearls are small sap-like, fluid-filled balls that are exuded from surface cells of rapidly growing grape vines. They appear most commonly in the spring and are often confused with mite or insect eggs. Some vines have many grape pearls but the pearls can appear singly or in smaller groups. They are usually found on the underside of leaves but can be on shoots as well. Grape pearls, also called "sap balls" are of no consequence to the vine."

Alrighty then, my job is done here.

Dodging bullets

Look, I know it’s farming, and with farming come all the risks apparent. But as I gear up to go commercial with my winemaking efforts I have to admit to a few sleepless nights just considering everything that stands in the way of delivering a premium bottle of wine. The risks sometimes defy common sense—especially in Northern California.

Let’s just tick them off, starting in the vineyard. First there are the “natural” ones inherent to our area—pests, flooding, too much rain, landslides, spring freezes, hail, wind, not enough rain, mold, mildew, rot, drought, massive wildfires, smoke taint… hell, might as well throw in earthquakes.

Then on the business side there are labor shortages, grape shortages, grape gluts, price fluctuations—all the elements of the classic and very repetitive California boom-to-bust cycle—including market shifts, consumer tastes shifts, health concerns, consolidation and distribution issues, tax and legal ramifications.

And let’s not forget the winemaking itself, where any number of things can go wrong, and do, particularly if Mother Nature doesn’t deliver quality grapes. Yeasts can fail to cooperate, barrels can contaminate, spoilage bacteria can proliferate, and oxidation compounds can exacerbate—you get the poetry.

But there may be nothing so risky right now as what we all keep calling “the existential threat of climate change.” Existential it may certainly be, but to call it a threat is to be late to the table. It’s already here, folks, and manifesting itself in wine country with what is likely to become a century drought, and an upcoming wildfire season of catastrophic potential.

That’s not such an outrageous prediction really, as seven of the ten most destructive fires in California history have burned in the last five years. 2020 was the state’s worst wildfire season on record. Flames killed 31 people, destroyed or damaged more than 10,000 buildings and burned a staggering 4.1 million acres. The August Complex fire grew to more than 1 million acres, becoming the first ever to be classified as a gigafire.

And now we’ve just learned that our most recent rainy season (October to May) was the driest in 41 years with only 16.4 inches of rain recorded! The median is 42.2 inches. Is this all a prelude to disastrous harvest seasons to come, or simply an anomaly? Historically, one dry year does not a drought make. Many grape growers in the area seem unconcerned, and are simply utilizing traditional water-conservation tactics like suckering vines more aggressively to remove unwanted growth and thinning shoots and grape clusters to lower yield—all which help to reduce the amount of water needed by the plant. Growers are also likely to postpone planting any new vines this season to further conserve water.

While all of this may help in the short term, climate activists insist such defenses are simply bandaid solutions to a far greater problem. The real issue, they say, is that annual temperatures are rising and drought and gigafires are destined to become the new normal. If that is indeed our destiny—and it feels foolish right now to think otherwise—then grape growers need to adopt an entirely new mindset. Fortunately, some are, and have been for a while.

For agriculture in general—and grape-growing areas specifically—the new mantra is “diversity.” A study published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported by Columbia University Climate School warned that the world’s supply of wine is truly threatened by climate change:

If temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, the regions of the world that are suitable for growing wine grapes could shrink by as much as 56 percent. And with 4 degrees of warming, 85 percent of those lands would no longer be able to produce good wines. However, the findings also indicate that reshuffling where certain grape varieties are grown could halve the potential losses of wine-growing regions under 2 degrees of warming, and reduce losses by a third if warming reaches 4 degrees.

Scientists have long suspected that crop diversity is key to making agriculture more resilient to climate change, and wine grapes offer a unique opportunity to test this assumption. They are extremely sensitive to the changes in temperature and season that come with climate change, and they are both extremely diverse—there are more than 1,100 different varieties planted today, growing under a wide range of conditions—and well-documented, with harvest data stretching back centuries.

“In some ways, wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because grapes are so climate-sensitive,” said co-author Benjamin Cook.

Around the world, forward-thinking viticulturists have recognized the writing on the wall and have been experimenting with ways to adapt—from swapping out historic varietals for ones more drought- and heat-resistant, to growing at higher altitudes and realigning row direction and exposure to slow down ripening, to planting experimental vineyards further north (think Norway) and further south (think Patagonia) into areas previously too cold to support viticulture. That England is now a successful producer of Champagne-quality sparkling wines, that Colorado might become the next great Malbec region, that Bordeaux and Napa may cease to grow Cabernet Sauvignon as their signature grape—all of this is the fallout, the disruption, and, for some, the opportunity of climate change.

Here in wine country the new catchphrase is “Climate change-resistant varietals.” A recent article in the Press Democrat described the success a small vineyard in Kenwood is having after ripping out its under-performing Chardonnay vines over a decade ago and replacing them with Rhone varietals, including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier.

“We found it was too warm to continue to grow high quality Chardonnay on the valley floor, and [at the same time] we discovered that we were the same latitude as the Rhone,” said then-winemaker Greg Stach. He doesn’t know the exact amount it cost to to replant Landmark Vineyard to the Rhone varietals—which require less water and can stand higher temperatures—but “it was certainly more costly to grow flawed grapes.” His old buyers were opting to buy better-quality Chardonnay from cooler areas.

And therein lies the one factor still conflicting grape growers in this area—economics. Replanting seems to be on everyone’s mind, agreed viticulturists/winemakers Phil Coturri and his son Sam. Yet areas like Napa and Sonoma are still regions where Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are the dominant grape. “As long as wineries are paying the most for them, it’s difficult to convince anyone to plant or make anything else. Growers have to respond to both the wineries and consumers.”

As the Press Democrat article revealed, the Coturris have leased the 11-acre Landmark Vineyard since 2015 and have become enamored with the Rhone varietals, reserving a portion of the grapes for their own Sixteen 600 brand and selling the rest to more than a dozen upscale wineries for $4,000 to $5,000 a ton. With the average price paid per ton for grapes in Sonoma County at around $2,362, this should serve as a strong economic argument to adopt replanting as a viable adaptation to climate change in this area.

Kudos to the Coturris for having the insight to adapt early. Enlightened lovers of big, bold Syrahs, and jammy GSM blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) will tell you that they beat out Cabernet Sauvignon any day. And Viognier is the fresh-squeezed orange juice to Chardonnay’s frozen concentrate. But it will undoubtedly take buying pressure from these same climate-conscious consumers to truly turn the tide.

In the meantime… where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Okay, so how much wine are you drinking?

If you love wine and you drink your fair share of it, you’ve undoubtedly engaged at some point in a conversation (argument?) on the merits of red wine and heart health. Ever since 60 Minutes broadcast its story on the “French Paradox” in 1991, wine drinkers have celebrated that their imbibing was actually healthy. The reality of course is far more complicated and multiple scientific studies, both supporting and debunking the assertion, continue to stoke the fires of disagreement.

While most researchers—and doctors—concede that there are elements specific to red wine (polyphenols) that may improve digestion, brain function, and blood-sugar levels, as well as protect against blood clots, heart disease, and certain cancers, the more relevant concern is the amount of wine one drinks and the frequency of drinking it. A recent study suggests that wine drunk in moderation every day is far more healthy than weekday soberness followed by a weekend binge, even if the overall amount is the same.

But what is moderation? To simply say one or two glasses a day is useless. Everyone’s idea of a “glass” is different, and wines vary greatly in alcohol percentage. To quantify this, and actually provide helpful measurements, the British Department of Health and Social Care has broken down wine drinking into units, with official government guidelines advising no more than 14 units a week spread out over the duration. I found their chart on a great British blog called Savage Vines. Here it is:

As a winemaker, I can’t help but be concerned with the amount of wine I drink and I’m pretty religious about spitting out wine when tasting. In fact it’s intrinsic to good tasting and allows for what is called retronasal olfaction, where air mixes with the wine as it is spit out releasing additional aromatic notes.

But I became a winemaker because I love wine and its essential marriage to food. Dinner without wine sometimes just doesn’t work for me and where I might curb my habit somewhat for the sake of good health, that same health is also supported by my sense of well being, which is supported in turn by what I eat and drink. At the risk of angering the gods, the trade-off seems more than acceptable.

In appreciation

The process of making the Tiny Vineyards film, as is the nature of documentaries, put me in face-to-face contact—all right, let’s call it camera-to-face contact—with dozens of remarkable people over an extended one-year period. By the time it was over that group of extremely friendly, helpful and fully engaged winemakers became like a family to me, the new kid in town. I still interact with many of them on a regular basis, and consider them close friends. That is why it is with genuine sadness that I note the passing of two of those folks this year, both taken too early and unexpectedly.

Frank Monaghan

Frank was a member of the Leveroni Group, which tended the city-owned Leveroni vineyard and made very high-quality Merlot and Chardonnay from its grapes. Frank was the designated bottle filler at Doug Ghiselin’s home winery and his multiple appearances in Tiny Vineyards made the difficult procedure of simultaneously filling four bottles look like choreographed dance—he was that good at it. He was also a terrific film subject as he allowed me unfettered access to his craft without ever acknowledging my presence or looking at the camera.

Frank spent his career as a marine chemist, traveling the world. His hobbies, beyond making award-winning wine, included fishing and sailing. He was a member of Elks Lodge #832 of Napa, a member of the Marine Chemist Association, and of a lover of cats. He spent his winters fly fishing in New Zealand for many years.

Ron Chapman

Ron was also a member of the Leveroni Group, as well as heading the restoration effort of the historic General Vallejo vineyard in downtown Sonoma, and helping Les Bosche with his beautiful restoration of the Diana Vineyard. Ron’s emotional discovery that pests had eaten all the grapes in the General Vallejo Vineyard just before harvest—for the third year in a row!—was a powerful moment in the Tiny Vineyards film and you felt his frustration at a visceral level. Ron simply loved grape vines and was extremely gifted in their care. He was also an expert with propagating olive trees, earning him the nickname Mr. Olive.

Ron was a partner at Deloitte & Touche and he spent many years traveling worldwide consulting and advising on management, communications, and software systems for overseas government telecommunications. His clients included a major aircraft manufacturer, and several prominent winemaking companies. Later in his career, Ron was involved with the Yosemite Fund and provided assessments and input for the future of this national park. Ron was a member of the Sonoma Land Trust and also joined the Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration & Education Project (MOPREP) which focused on the search for the original Spanish Mission olive trees.

Both Frank and Ron will be sorely missed.