Journey: Thoughts and Reflections along the path.
Harvest is always an interesting time of year. From planning the picks to the physical work of moving 1000 lb bins and shoveling fruit its a consuming wearying process. That's why we call it "crush". Not only for the transformation of fruit into must, but for the transformation of people into tired grumpy automatons. Somewhat akin to "hell week" at a boot camp or other rite of passage, instead of DI's barking at us, we have customers worrying about whether they should cancel the pick, and fruit samples that tested at 25 brix on Wednesday that suddenly measure 20 on Saturday.
We are sleep deprived, worn out and dealing with uncertainty, all of which makes a person snappish. Yesterday, we had three picks going off a 0630 (dawn is 0640) and a missing pickup truck. Simple mis-communication, it was at a different vineyard 15 miles away. Driving the roads of Santa Clara County in a 16 ft flatbed with three pickers stacked in the passenger seat before sun up is a memorable experience, instead of them being safely strapped into the rear seats of the pickup.
Watching another pick crew of 16 guys bring in a ton every half hour is almost intimidating, as one guy can't load bins on a short lift gate that fast. Vindication from the difficulty of the two twenty somethings who retrieved the errant truck brought the last bins in the nick of time and then loaded the second wave of 4 tons while struggling was bittersweet. For a 57 yr old I am doing pretty well, unfortunately, that doesn't replace the missing forklift which the rental people did not have.
Then there was the rain. We normally don't get rain in September. Its part of our climate. We do get rains in Oct-April, and we don't want to have rains before harvest as the bunches get soaked, the water gets trapped inside and we can get rot on the tight clustered varietals if they don't dry.
So rain makes pickers, growers and customers nervous, nobody likes to work in the rain, it makes the vineyards slippery, and is unpleasant at the least. So we cancelled picking for today, as the showers of yesterday were cyclical and it was not clear that we would get enough drying. Perhaps that was an over reaction, but the break will help, give the crews some rest, let the fruit have another week to mature, and give the customers a chance to get over their worrys.
For myself, its nice to be sitting inside at Dawn, and not out setting up more picks. I'll go punch down in an hour or so, we have 3 tons of Cabernet coming in today from a grower who didn't cancel. That will fill up another 2-3 fermenters leaving us with 1 or 2 available. Good thing we bought another 10 for this season. If our 2 tons of Martini clone Pinot comes in we'll have to press off the Merlot to free up some space.
This year we are preparing to crush 40 tons, or about twice what we did last year. We will be also harvesting another 20 tons for other wineries and home wine makers. To give a scope to that number, a ton of wine grapes is about the volume of a long bed pickup. We will pick, sort and destem those grapes, punch down the reds and then press them all into barrels and tanks.
From our first commercial crush in 2010, where we made a ton each of Chardonnay, Colombard, Pinot, Merlot and two of Cabernet, we have come a long way.
Some of the varietals will be blended, but we have a lot more flavors to work with in the coming vintage.
Our venerable basket press is no longer in use, with two Spiedel bladder presses, though our original destemmer is still in the plan, along with shovels. We picked up an additional 10 fermenters, to give us the ability to ferment 24 tons concurrently, and we will be punching that down twice a day. Along with the vineyards that we have taken on, we have a barn to work in, where we have a bit more space to do the crush and fermenting.
It seems I am to be perpetually busy, with farming, cellaring and marketing duties. Every now and then its good to pause and reflect on the journey to date. Less than 4 years ago Jane and I had no idea we would be running a winery, doing all this farming and meeting so many great, people. Lightheart Cellars has taken on a life of its own, more stakeholders in part time employees, volunteers and our customers who all have expectations and who help to shape the path.
As we learn and grow we are doing better, earlier and smarter and the results are evident. Still have some vineyards and varietals to learn as the differences matter, and we are evolving our winemaking style as well. From our first vintage in 2010 to this our fourth upcoming, we've made better wine, by more attention to detail, better equipment and knowing what to look for.
Our customers have gone from standing in a tent to comfortable seating on the patio, and we aren't done yet, with further improvements planned.
to quote the Greatful Dead " what a long strange trip its been" and we're still trucking along.
We've had early veraison this year, and the birds were out in force before August 1st. That's about 2-3 weeks ahead of recent years. With our expanded vineyard acreage, harvest this year looks to be a much larger operation. Current projections show a crop load in the 4-6 ton per acre range, though we may do some cluster thinning in the Mourvedre and Grenache to compensate for low vigot. Multiply that by 36 acres and you are seeing some serious tonnage possible.
Lightheart Cellars is only physically capable of aging about 50 barrels a year, so we only need to have about 25 tons of red grapes out of the more than 100 tons we are growing. We will sell some to other wineries, and probably end up letting the birds have a good portion in the larger vineyards as we really don't have a home for 7 acres of Syrah, and 12 of Merlot.
With a few years of yield records we will be able to more accurately predict crop, and modulate it earlier in the season, the lesson learned this year was to have pruned to one bud per spur and shoot thinned earlier and more severely than the industry norm of two canes per spur.
Its that time of year, Father's day, Graduations, summer vacations and bottling. We'll happily attend your celebrations, just stop by the winery and take us along vicariously.
We've just finished putting our 2012 Chardonnay and Colombard into bottles and have about 20 cases of our inaugural white blend from Mai-Coop Vineyard. The white blend, provisionally titled "Let there be White" is a fruity fun libation, perfect for a relaxed tipple.
Jane's Rose derived from our Athena's Vineyard Merlot, came through brilliantly, bottled in Flint (clear) glass it's color is remniscent of the wines we enjoyed last year in Provence, and it will be going fast when released. There are about 15 cases after futures.
Our Merlot Cab Franc Field Blend (Working title "Hearts Delight") is robust and crisp and we'll be releasing in later July as it comes out of bottle shock. This wine was a bit serendipitous, the blend a result of two short rows of Cab Franc in the Merlot vineyard. We'll definitely make it again.
The Mazotti Family Vineyards Merlot Zinfandel blend that was our first (non-commercial) barrel returns as well, the Zinfandel giving the Merlot base just a hint of spice and pepper.
Noah and Joan, our meadmakers, have bottled their Strawberry Mead, a lovely rose gold hue and the 20 cases will fly out the door, so come quickly when it's released. They've also bottled another few cases of Simple Pleasures and are seeking a source for a ton of honey (literally).
The Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Sirah are all that is left to be done, a mere 225 cases or so.
We hope to have those in release by August.
Bottling wine by hand is a labor intensive process. Each case must be opened, emptied onto a table, each bottle filled, corked, foiled and labeled and then the cases stacked. A good crew can do about 30 cases an hour, or a bottle every 10 seconds on average. The actual rate is a bit higher, as there is downtime for changing over wines and blending that may be limited by availability of pumps and tanks.
We recently helped bottle 250 cases of Rhone varietals, for a client who's vineyard we are managing, (We will probably have their wines to release next year) and basically showed the limitation of our corker, a "Ferrari" floor model which is avaialble broadly. After 3000 strokes the jaws were loose and the hands were sore. We made a quick trip to Paso Robles to the Vintner Vault and picked up a "professional" model which is welded not bolted together and has stainless rather than Brass jaws. We'll see if it has the durability to stand up to the 400 case weekends we are planning for June 8/9 and later in July/August.
If this one doesn't hold up, then were going to step up to a "Rapid 12" from Switzerland, at a 5X increase in price.
Life at Lightheart Cellars occasionally take a turn for the weird. Today was the second day of active farming in the Coyote Springs vineyard. We're working on trellis, irrigation and general vine training. Today we had a field crew of about 15 guys from Quality Farm Labor come and sucker and shoot thin.
This morning I went to spray our newest vineyard, 16 acres in the East Gilroy foothills. Planted in 2000, a mix of Merlot, Syrah and Barbera this vineyard has been roughly treated the last years. We were contacted in Mid April to assume management by the owners who had been abandoned by the previous management firm and to say the least the vineyard was shaggy.
It had been pruned, but there was no weed abatement, nor irrigation checkout and the Merlot was only showing 4" shoots vs the 15" we have up the road at Athena's. Once we agreed on terms, it was imperative therefore to move quickly, so there I was at 0430, starting the tractor and heading up the first row.
This vineyard has the longest rows I have ever driven, and fortunately it's relatively smooth and at 9' wide not too hard to steer. The 5 minute trip from end to end allows time to observe and reflect, even at full throttle on the Kubota, you are only doing about 6mph.
There was a waning moon over the South East, the direction the vines travelled up the gentle grade. Other that a few terrified rabbits there was nothing else moving, no traffic, no planes in the sky. Background processes get more cycles in this case and I mused on the path that Lightheart Cellars has traveled from inception in 2009 to today. We are poised to grow as fast as we can establish a market, and have access to some excellent fruit, with at least 100% more tonnage than we need this year. The hard work that Jane and I have invested seems to be paying off, we can "see the surface from the underside", because we are starting to ascend, no longer on the downward trajectory you have at first when taking that leap into the deep end.
We are multiply blessed;
- Life has been good to us in general, we are mostly healthy and active
- We have both had our share of challenges and we have triumphed over them singly and jointly.
- Our families are well, generally happy and healthy and doing far better than many we know.
- Our work with Lightheart Cellars is starting to pay back in many ways: Actual financial profit is forseeable, employment for some who need it, and contribution to the community.
It makes those pre-dawn tractor days worthwhile.
April is a transistion month in a vineyard, the big pruning is done and the vines are starting to show shoots. Its a time of vigilance for frost, of weed suppression mowing and spraying. We will get our first fungicide and foliar spray in later this month when the shoots are 6-12" and then its time to thin and sucker.
With the our new "Chirala Vineyard" we have the chellenge of mowing extended rows at 72" wire to wire. Teaching your granddaughter to do this is a challenge of itself.
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