My final full day on Spring Mountain I woke up early and followed my nose to the Schweiger’s home just across the road from Paloma. Coffee and a delicious homemade breakfast awaited me. I, along with a few others from the group, sat around and talked shop. One guy runs a Wine Styles store near my hometown in Wisconsin. I was happy to hear the industry was beginning to boom in the midwest.
I admit, a little jealousy set in when I learned that those who were staying on at Schweiger for their morning group project might be harvesting grapes. No one was really picking at this point anywhere else, but knowing I’d be spending my morning at one of my favorite wineries: Pride Estate, I couldn’t get too green with envy. Especially when I learned, that we too may be crushing a few…
Pride had received a shipment of Chardonnay from Carneros for their base tier label. While they have a one-acre block they devote to their 100% estate grown Vintner Select Chardonnay, they source fruit for their other label– I believe the only wine they source fruit for, in fact. But as the bunches rolled in, gasps began to fill the autumn air. The grapes they had checked up on just the week prior—grapes that were beautiful, golden and only days from peak ripeness—were now rotten and botrytis-affected. Heaps of them, all sad and ugly.
In that moment, I realized that I don’t think I could quite handle being a winemaker.
All that time that went into pruning the vines in winter, cultivating the soils in spring, praying through budbreak, holding one’s breath through fruit set, trimming the canopy, dropping the fruit in order to get your babies to the day when they could be transformed into wine. And then, to see them all decay after a few days rain.
We went through the motions, picking through the masses of mold on the sorting table, chucking pound after pound of bad grapes until finally we were told to stop. They had to make a decision if this was worth the time or not.
Alas, it was not. The grapes were refused.
Just like that, profit margins change, allocations change, wineries lose money, farmers retrace every step and wonder if they should have picked a week from ideal ripeness. It all changes with a little rain.
Harvest is all about letting go of control. You can cross every T and dot every I but still, in the field, it’s up to the almighty Mother Earth if a grower is going to have a stressful harvest or not. On that mountain, though, I was explained something that I will always remember. A ‘bad’ vintage does not mean you will necessarily have bad wine. A bad vintage means that a farmer will really have to exercise his/her knowledge when it matters most—throughout all the stages. Good vintages lend themselves to novices. Fruit set and harvest are crucial, though, and if rain, hail or frost occurs, you need to have about 10 backup plans and the confidence to execute them at the right time.
What separates the boys from the men (or the girls from the women) when it comes to viticulture, is truly knowing what is best for those vines.
For Pride, it was about making a difficult call with grapes they hadn’t nursed along the way, but they had picked from an excellent source. That they had lost them to rain was no one’s fault. Chardonnay in particular is a very small berried, tight clustered varietal. Once excessive water gets in there, good luck. The best thing they could have done at that point was turn them away. Bad wine will only compromise the integrity of an estate. To sell wine at prices that don’t meet their quality standards is not something an honorable winery would do. I had great respect for Pride that day. I saw how hard that decision was. And I thought of the source of their grapes as well—a very reputable winery. What would they do with the loss?
I believe around Napa and Sonoma in general, there will be a bit of shared loss this year. But I can assure you, the wine that comes from this vintage will be terrific if you trust that the grower knows how to bring it full circle from the bud to the bottle. This vintage will draw a line between hobbyists and true artists of the vine. And I witnessed the latter everywhere on Spring Mountain—blow drying wet grapes each morning, sacrificing fruit so berries had a better chance of ripening, training the canopy differently, etc. But once that mold comes… man… there’s just nothing anyone can really do. You pick and hope for the best. Or you let them go. A season’s work. Done.
We did some other things that day at Pride, learning how to add nutrients to barrels that were undergoing fermentation already, keeping the yeasts sustained with additions. On the mountain, some were more focused on natural yeast fermentation, while many still believed inoculation was really best for the full maturity and control of product. ‘Divergent in thought’ should have been the subtitle of this trip, so many of the winemakers held tight to their way of thinking. And the funny thing was? No one was right or wrong. Not to be kindergarten teacher about it, but really, you could taste their various philosophies and methods in each and every wine.
After a really great afternoon at Terra Valentine, all our groups convened at Vineyards 7 & 8 for an eye-opening formal tasting of 16 wines from different Spring Mountain producers. Many were from the 2007 & 2008 vintages, so we could truly ‘taste the terroir’, as it was so uniquely expressed in each individual wine. These wines were so different from one another, but one thing they shared: a deep minerality that just can’t be found in most California reds to this point. It was this rocky note, this undercurrent, which spoke to them all and gave the region a distinct flavor. Spring Mountain contains over 25 different soil types (of the world’s 34), not to mention each vineyard describes a totally different typography and geologic feature, whether river, sun exposure, aspect or soil series. It’s not too surprising they built an entire program to demonstrate just that: their variant timbres. Some were very earthy (Cain Five and Guilliams), powerful and rich (Fantesca and Vineyards 7 & 8), fruit forward and elegant (Paloma), classic and stately (Keenan and Pride), amongst so many other personalities. None of these wines were heard over the rest, rather they all spoke with intention and integrity.
My time in Spring Mountain was unforgettable. It was my first taste of Napa…my first taste in a vineyard. And though I am not sure emotionally I have what it takes to give it all up for the secateurs, I more than ever desire to work on the farm for a true harvest start to finish. Or longer…