A challenging and exciting vintage
The second vintage at The Potter’s Vineyard started with some excellent weather for growing grapes. The first quarter of the year was drier than normal making it easier to get into the field and give the vines a good start. The mildew that often comes that time of year was also much less of a challenge. The nice weather continued and created one of the driest springs on record. A ‘normal’ dry summer continued leaving us with growing degree-days quite a bit ahead of normal. We reached bud break, bloom, and fruit set earlier than is typical most years. There was a bit of hail during bloom that created an incomplete fruit set so the grape clusters that formed had varied berry size. That openness to the cluster led to a healthier crop with more airflow through the berries and less molds and mildews. And the smaller more concentrated berries make great wine. By all projections this year was turning out to be another great vintage with lots of healthy fruit on the vines.
We ended summer with a drier than normal year but the high temperatures that came early slowed leaving us with no long stretches of extreme heat. August did bring higher humidity than typical giving us a bit of concern for things to come. But fortunately being at the top of the hill with lots of wind going through the vines this did not cause any major issues. Verasion came earlier than normal. That magical color change in the grapes marks a key point in the vineyard that leads to an anticipation for an early, bountiful and trouble free harvest. But there were lots of roadblocks to get through before that happened.
Too much fruit can be a problem when making premium wines. Our next goal was to go through the vines and look at every cluster to make sure they have the chance to completely ripen. A year like this one produced a lot of fruit that was a risk for ripening if any significant weather challenges come before harvest. Although it was hard to snip those beautiful clusters and drop them to the ground we were faithful to carry on that practice to ensure that all clusters ripened and produced maximum flavors in the wine. This was one of the major recommendations from Laura Volkman but there were certainly many others that had suggested we keep more fruit and make more wine. Laura taught us to make good wine – not lots of wine, though. The plants were so vigorous in producing fruit that we had to go through a couple of times in August to drop fruit. And the amount of ‘seconds’ were so abundant it made for a busy time walking the vines to make sure there was not an excess amount of fruit that wouldn’t ripen this year.
This turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. If we had been greedy and left more fruit on the vine it may not have all ripened! We had a great summer but the challenges came in September. By the end of September, 2013 this area had received some of the highest rainfall totals on record; with Hillsboro getting 5.75 inches and McMinnville 5 inches in the month. The rains actually began in late August and persisted throughout much of September. This was intertwined with some very hot days making it hard to project harvest date. Some had suggested we would see harvest start the week of September 22nd. We targeted September 29th to take advantage of additional hang time. As we got closer to this date we had to change it due to the projections for a wet weekend then. We looked at October 5th as the next target. Then on Thursday September 26th we had to scramble. Just as we were getting our schedules lined up to clean picking totes and fine tune other tasks we got the news from Laura Volkman that this coming weekend rains were going to be massive and we needed to harvest NOW! Coupled with the warmer air, the tropical rains could have been disastrous if we didn’t harvest before the heavy downpour. Fortunately the fruit that was left hanging was ripe and healthy, the seeds were brown and crunchy and the grapes were full of rich complex flavors. So we put it into high gear and got our picking scheduled for Friday September 27th. We were fortunate that our two college age kids, Melinda and Eric were not working or in class that day to help get totes set up and be part of the picking crew. And we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our good friend Rob Jones who was able to scramble to get his trailer delivered that day to help us out. And of course, Laura Volkman came by with more helpful instructions and extra trailer tie downs to help us transport the fruit.
We planned to start picking at 11 am when the crew was first available. Unfortunately, other vineyards had the same idea and the crew was not able to get to our place until 3:30 pm only leaving us with 3 and ½ hours to pick our 3.5 acres. Assuming the crew was big enough this was theoretically possible. Another challenge came at us when we saw the small crew emerge from the vehicles when they arrived. So we moved as fast as we could and began picking the Rachel Block quickly. Then another crew of pickers showed up giving us hope that we could get it all in.
While all this was happening the slight rain that had persisted most of the day actually stopped! Rain can have three problems with the grape harvest. First it adds water to the fruit and dilutes the sugars; second it can cause the grapes to swell adding more water; and third it can lead to mold, mildew and rot, especially when the temperatures are still warm. As it turned out we lucked out on all three accounts. First, because the rain was light and it stopped during picking it didn’t add measurable water. Second, another key vineyard practice saved us. By keeping a good ground cover between the vines, the rainwater was mostly drawn up by those plants and not as much by the grape vines which meant the grapes did not swell with water (or burst as can happen in worst case scenarios). Third, our vines have been disease free, healthy, and the windy weather at the vineyard saved us from the scary molds that can attack this time of year. We thought we had the fruit harvested but then another challenge hit us – darkness. We called the finish to the picking at dusk but still had about half our fruit in the field. We delivered what we had to the winery, which was placed in the cooler for the night.
There wasn’t much sleep to be had listening to the rain all night but we resolved to that we were lucky to at least get half our fruit in when others lost it all. The crew was due back at 7 am Saturday morning and we assumed they would not show. But another couple of amazing things happened – it stopped raining again and the crew showed up right on time. We finished picking quickly, got the rest of the fruit delivered to the winery. We continue to count our blessings to this challenging and exciting vintage.