Friday, October 27, 2006

Cold nights

Harvest is pretty much over. That statement applies to pretty much everybody not up on the hillsides in the North Bay.

Myself? I'm done picking...
Everybody else? Well...if they still have fruit on the vine they aren't going to get much further - Nature's pulling the plug.

Yesterday morning it was 37°F, and though the afternoon temp hit a very pleasurable 82°F, this morning it's 39°F (you have to love "Indian Summer" and it's 50° day-to-night temp swings!). Hang time won't be an issue, as shortly the vines will defoliate from the cold night temps and sugar levels will start to fall as the vines shut down. Sure, you can still see some increase from raisining, but that's not what we're after in this area - neither are we after ice-wine...
Those who haven't gotten their fruit in yet have only about a week of productivity (at best) for the vines right now.

The good news from this is that the "fall foliage" is in high gear and will be for the next week. Those of you with the opportunity should take a drive through Kenwood, Alexander Valley, or the Russian River, as it really is at it's peak right now.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Not a morning person?

It is as they say - the best of times...and the worst of times...
Gorgeous panoramas filled with fantastic colors - fruit laden with concentrated aromas waiting to be plucked by virtuous immaculate flaxen haired youths who deliver each berry intact to the cellar, where by miraculous intervention they are transformed into dulcet wine.

In reality harvest pretty much sucks.
But nobody seems to notice that. People romanticize about harvest all the time. Poetry is penned to celebrate it, articles published with embellishments of its grandeur, nobility, what-have-you. Trips are arranged to bring people truly interested in wine to vineyards all over - to watch the harvest, but rarely to participate...
They leave feeling a newfound connection to the subtle multifaceted liquid, as if witnessing the pick itself confers some special moment of nirvana - some Eureka! moment - but without ever feeling the weariness of having spent so much effort to produce it.
I speak not of the efforts of a single day, but months of mowing, tilling, pruning, spraying, leaf-pulling, harvesting, etc. Every day wondering if perhaps Nature has something nasty in store for you in the next few months, or weeks, or maybe just days.

Ask any hay farmer in Texas spooked by every cloud they see as potential downpour which might lay waste to their livelihood, or any Nebraska corn farmer looking to the sky praying against hail...
They know. They'd get it. The tourists rarely do - many wondering aloud why you keep yawning as it's only 9 in the morning...little do they know you've been up since 3:30 or 4 AM, marshalling the troops for the liberation of the captive fruit...yes, it's D-day, and the vineyard is your Normandy...

And also I speak of the people who travel the countryside laboring to get the crop in. Migrant workers mostly, paid a wage which does not seem to adequately reflect the quality nor quantity of toil they perform. Workers, many of whom do not even enjoy the taste of the product they help make, seeking instead beer or slightly sweeter beverages...certainly less expensive ones...
People society under-values, and far too often over-looks...
Enough preaching. Back to what people never seem to experience when they visit during harvest...

Your harvest pains begin when you have to be up and functioning before any caffeine is really circulating through your system...well, that and the fact you never seem to be able to rest fully, are overworked, over stressed, and subsist on pre-packaged convenience foods...which just isn't healthy at all. And that pain multiplies with every week you have to adhere to that regimen.

My harvest has just ended - the final crop I was watching over has been picked. And though this morning I was up yet again without the benefits of a proper breakfast or truly palatable cup of coffee, I was rewarded with what gets people out into the vineyards in the first place: Nature's spectacular dawn.

For a moment everything was right with the world...the quietude, the fantastic colors...there was no social injustice, pain, hunger. Nothing but perfection.
It was Nirvana...nothing needed to be said or done in that perfect moment.
Absolutely fantastic...but now my harvest's over, and I hope Nature doesn't mind if I don't get up 'til 10 tomorrow...

Tomorrow....tomorrow I'm not a morning person...and maybe won't be one again for a week...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Gallic Syndrome to Strike Napa

Gallic Syndrome - you know what it is, you just haven't heard the term (I just coined it). It happens when you have an area (say....oh, I don't know.....let's use France as an example) that has regions producing both excellent wines and vin du table. I believe that Napa is headed for a Gallic Crisis (a sympton of the Gallic syndrome). I've been watching vineyard and winery prices steadily climb - an acquaintance tells me of a winery property he purchased ten years ago that he just sold for a four-fold profit! - and I think valley-floor Napa has hit its ceiling (get it? the floor hit the ceiling? I kill me...). If you can find a way to short-sell it, consider doing so. Consider the following:

1) In 2005, a mega-crop created an estimated surplus of 1,000,000 cases of Napa Valley Cabernet! Much of this surplus (and surpluses of Merlot, Chardonnay, etc) are fueling brands by Fred Franzia/Bronco, Don Sebastiani & Sons, and Gallo (Napa Valley Vineyards & Louis Martini). All of these brands are selling for $15 or less and are doing quite well. The 2006 harvest looks to be of average level, so the pressures of oversupply won't come off quite yet.

2) Much Napa Cabernet is truly average (gasp! sacriledge!). Its true. Most of Napa's 45,000 acres are on the valley floor, often with deeper soil and high vine vigor. The fruit is good, but its not good enough to support Cabernet prices of $30+, in my opinion.

3) Most of the remaining planting options in Napa County are in outlying areas (like Pope Valley, Chiles Valley, Wild Horse Valley) that are shunned by most wineries. Fruit planted here will not generate the same interest as Napa Valley proper and will thus see downward price pressure. Hillside plantings are virtually banned in Napa and will be the best place to ride out the coming years.

4) Imports are probably the biggest challenge to Napa's aristocracy. Australia, Chile, Spain, South Africa, even France and Italy are all able to produce wines of greate quality at prices below Napa's. Imports grew about 11% last year while California grew at 4% and 2006 shows this trend continuing so far. California wineries, particularly Napa, are not currently equipped to compete on a global level.

5) Land costs, in particular, will make it difficult for us to compete. At $150,000 per acre for valley floor Napa vineyards, you will struggle to get a 5% return on your grape farming efforts right now (assuming you can find a buyer for your grapes!). Wineries and vineyards are still selling for high prices, but I just can't see it continuing unless there are enough people willing to forgo a return on their investment just to have a small slice of the Napa pie.

6) As Megan at Wine & Spirits Daily points out, Don Sebastiani was recently heard to say "Napa Valley grape prices are not prepared for (global) competition." and "Napa Valley has invited that competition. The perception that Napa will always be Napa is lazy thinking..."

As I implied at the top, I don't think that the high-end Napa producers will be affected by this (those in the hills or those in highest-priced AVA's like Rutherford and Oakville). Those wines, good or bad, are scarce enough and still in very high demand. Its the generic Napa floor wines that, in my opinion will be hardest hit.
You can already see evidence of this stratification in the California State Crush Report. The highest price paid for Napa (District 4) Cabernet was $26,500 per ton (probably a per-acre contract gone horribly wrong) and the lowest was $200 per ton (only enough to cover the costs of picking) with thousands of tons sold for $3,000 and below. The average, according to table 6, was $3,970 per ton...
[see this link to USDA statistics for California in 2005 ]

This tells me that the Gallic Syndrome is already in effect. The question is, what will it mean for "brand Napa". My guess is that higher-end consumers will begin to focus on sub-apellations like Mt. Veeder or Stag's Leap and that "Napa Valley" will become a much less valuable thing to have on one's label.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lindeman's Follow-Up

As a follow-up to an earlier post, Australian growers are reacting negatively (no real surprise there) to Foster's announcement that Lindeman's will be globally sourced.

"We see this move as a large company using a highly-rated and recognised Australian brand with a reputation for quality and integrity and basically raping that reputation,"

Given the state of the Australian oversupply, I doubt their grousing will amount to much, but its interesting to see where this will lead. I still think its a mistake driven by "beer-based" thinking.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Still raining...

This blasted rain has kept me tossing & turning all night long...still just a light rain, and at least we have dry warmer weather forecast for afterwards, but still it just makes me more edgy during a long drawn out harvest.
Most people I know are just at the halfway point through harvest right now.

This morning's Doppler Radar pic:

Decanter BioDynamic poll

Interesting to see with a small poll about what "biodynamic" means to someone when presented with it on a label: Now there really is nothing scientific about this reader poll, and it only reflects the thoughts/opinions of those wishing to respond, and some visitors might have voted several times.
But what we can say is that the majority of responses look unfavorably on the label of BioD on their wines:

If we extrapolate the "don't know" response proportionally to the other two categories it appears to be roughly a 60:40 split against BioD, which is what I remember the margin to be against Sonoma County's failed Measure M, the anti-genetically-modified-organism proposition from last year. (The two subjects aren't necessarily related, but I just thought the similar numbers were interesting.)

The best news is that it seems to show that the plain majority are skeptical of the effects of BioD on the final wine, so there may be hope for humanity yet.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mold pressures & cold weather

This is what is starting to happen in the cooler & wetter areas of the North Coast wine country: bunch rot!

Tight clustered fruit like the Pinot Noir pictured here has plenty of mold spores around from the late rains we had last Spring. Wet humid weather allows the molds to germinate, and it essentially destroys the cluster from the inside out. This year we've had our fair share of humid cool foggy weather - and then some - which is driving this phenomena forward. Areas of the affected clusters start to shrivel and the mold then infects more berries right next to those originally hit - spreading through the center of the cluster & making it worthless.(note the decent sized berries @ the top, and how the progression from "good" to "bad" occurs as you look towards the middle of the cluster...)

I'll be dropping this compromised fruit to the ground so it's not included with the good fruit being picked. Otherwise it would just spike the sugars upward maybe causing the fermentation to stick, give the wine an "off" moldy note, and inhibit the yeast fermentation further by competing for nutrients - which again could cause off aromas and stick the fermentation.

Not what you're looking for in a good wine...especially with the forecast calling for very cool weather, and possibly light rain, when you're still a week & a half away from harvesting this block.

Reminds me of the mess of both '95 & '98 harvests with the amount of fruit still hanging on the vines in Carneros and Russian River areas (Tom - read that as "Sonoma Coast"), and the weather starting to turn.

Ahhhh, the bucolic life of a idyllic indeed!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Fosters finds its Ingleniche

In the industry's latest bit of "Inglenooking", Foster's has recently announced that its Lindemann brand (acquired last year from Southcorp) will now be a globally-sourced product with new wines being released from South Africa and Chile. Lindemans was once one of the best-known, and most successful brands to come out of Australia. Before the virtual collapse of Southcorp and the introduction of Yellow Tail, it was the leading brand from down under.

I'm just shaking me head over this one. Either Lindemann's has been so ruined by Southcorp and competition from Yellow Tail and Black Swan that it no longer represents even "Brand Australia" or Foster's really believes that wine is so global that a brand that stands for "good wine" can be made anywhere from anything. By their thinking, Lindemans is now such a generic name that it can be put on wine from any source as long as it keeps the same "style".

One wonders where a wine shop or supermarket puts such wines? Do you have to stack them all together on the floor (expensive real estate) or do you dilute them by putting them in their respective country of origin? Does the addition of South African Chenin Blanc bump an Australian Merlot off the shelf?

I'm thinking that this idea was launched by somebody from the beer side of the company. After all, if beer can be made anywhere, why can't wine? I'm sure that the "powers that were" at Heublein thought roughly the same when they expanded Inglenook to central-California sourcing. Good wine is good wine at any price point, they must have thought. A quick trip to the discount liquor store on the corner will tell you what happened to Inglenook, the fate of Lindemans is yet to be determined.