Vineyard Diary 8-9-21

In our last Vineyard Diary, we remarked on the cool and pleasant (if dry) late spring we had enjoyed, and the pleasant scents of bloom. That picture is now a distant memory, and as we head into the homestretch for harvest 2021, we reflect back on a summer that will go down as one of the hottest in memory. Each summer, it’s rarely a question of whether if we’ll hit triple digit temperatures, but rather when, how often, and for how long. The answers are “yes, often, and 3-4 days each”. Typically there are pleasant stretches with highs in the 80s during, and a day with a high in the low 90s would be typical.

We are now staring down the barrel of our SEVENTH foray into triple digits on our site this summer. The breaks forecast in between these heatwaves have often evaporated as the time got closer, with low 90’s becoming mid-90s, then back again to the 100s. Our worst couple surges in July took us up in the 110 F range, which is baking, as the south-facing side of our tall blackberry bushes near the Quinta can attest. For the most part our vines have hung in there remarkably well, with an earlier start to irrigation necessitated by the dry spring, and we’ve never really been able to let up on regular irrigation due to the excess heat. About the only positive thing we can say about the weather is that we haven’t gone more than about 4 days at a stretch in the 100’s. We lost some Barbera in an already light crop to sunburn from those early very hot heat waves, and those clusters will simply be removed or fall on their own accord by harvest time. There is ample healthy fruit left, and nothing is likely to hurt these “survivors”. Overall, we’re in very good shape heading into harvest.

Our Primitivo had a a reasonable fruit set, and we kept to our plan of lightening the load to assure the vines were in balance, though it seemed that our focus to removing or grafting vines toward the back of our vineyard has been successful in providing a uniform, balanced, and healthy crop on the front part. The Primitivo is fully netted and just biding time till harvest, which will likely be in early September. Moreover, we have an experimental block in which we are trying different fruit dropping strategies and harvest times to determine impact on the resulting wine.

Our newly grafted Touriga vines (last year) are very vigorous and carrying a generous crop, which we are more than half-way through dropping in advance of netting. Our newly grafted Tinta Amarela vines began veraison early than expected and are also carrying a fine crop.

So far this season, there have been no local fires, though we had a couple days of smoky air over the weekend from distant fires, and were happy to see that blow away. We hope it stays away.

We still have a few tons of Barbera, half a ton of Primitivo, and about 1.5 tons of Touriga available for sale from the upcoming 2021 harvest; all other varietals are sold out with no possibility of wait list. Please see our “Grower Update” tab for up-to-date availability and pricing.

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Vineyard Diary 5-27-21

Bloom is in the air and has been for the last 7-10 days. This is the inconspicuous beginning of fruit set from barely visible but pleasantly perfume-emitting flowers throughout the vineyard. It also marks the beginning of the end of the period of rapid shoot elongation that follows bud burst as the vines shift gears toward fruit development.

With the extremely dry April (0.2″ of rain) and May (0.3″ of rain), the top layers of soil are about as dry as they’ve ever been for this date for us, so short-cycle irrigation was begun to attempt to recharge the upper soil layers and provide regular water for our blocks on the Primitivo side with some young grafts. We got away with a single round of mowing of the grasses and clover between rows, and even that single pass left us with something like a dust bowl. We have never seen the grass and weed growth so weak, but we’re not complaining…it’s made spring maintenance a little easier, and lower weed burden means the weeds will use less of our scarce water vs. the vines as we move into the summer.

Shoot thinning was a major, labor-intensive operation as always, and it was only because of the help of a dedicated hired crew that we were able to complete this for the bulk of the vineyard in the last 3 weeks, with a little clean up work in the Quinta and last year’s grafted block to follow within the next few days. Beyond that, regular spraying for prevention of powdery mildew continues.

Apart from the dryness, it’s been an amazingly pleasant May on the farm, with cool daytime highs in the 70s to low 80s for much of May. It appears that we will not make it to June without a sudden foray into the 90’s predicted for the long Memorial Day weekend and extending into next week. However, we knew that the heat could not be restrained forever. Fortunately, much of the labor-intensive work will have been completed by then, and irrigation will begin in earnest.

We still have 1.5 tons or more of each of our main varietals Primitivo, Barbera, and Touriga available for reservation, though we do not expect that that will remain the case for long as commercial wineries begin to see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel. We are now sold out of all of our less abundant varietals, though our production estimates are usually conservative, and so we can entertain wait list requests for any of those.

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Vineyard Diary 5-1-21

Vintage 2021 is in full swing as budburst began to ripple over the vineyard on April 1, reaching the Barbera by April 10 and the Primitivo and Touriga by April 20. We once again had miserly–well, zero–early fall rain, with the first autumn rain in 2020 not falling until just about Thanksgiving. There was some encouraging follow-through in December, and some solid intermittent rain in January and February, but only a single 1-week period that brought any real volume. Just as it appeared we’d salvage an okay rain year after a solid March for rainfall, April arrived, with its reputation for “showers” making the absence of same all the more painful: we logged 0.2 inches of rain for the entire month! We saw no snow (once again…) but seasonably cold temperatures through the winter. Temperatures have gradually warmed, but not to the uncomfortable level yet; it’s actually remained relatively cool and outside work-friendly through now. Spring in the Sierra Foothills is spectacular once the hillsides green up. Already though, the brown-out has begun…

So what does all of this mean for the 2021 vintage? Not much, really. Another drought year, with the near-complete absence of rain in April, following on a cool winter, has meant a late-ish budburst (portending a late-ish harvest), grass between rows remarkably under control (the native grasses and planted red clover already focused on setting seed for next year), and the likely need to begin irrigating earlier than usual. The quality of the vintage will be set largely by what happens between now and September weather-wise.

Shaker Ridge has used the opportunities presented by COVID-19 interruptions to experiment with new things and position for the future. Always aware that our Primitivo had its feet in 2 completely different soil types that meet in a gentle swale area that tended to collect extra irrigation water (besides rain water in winter), we have permanently removed some vines from the swale area, reasoning that they won’t be optimal for other varietals, either. To the west of the swale, on well-draining schist soil, we cut down about 500 Primitivo vines last year and grafted them over to certain Portuguese varietals that have proven to do well on our site: Touriga Nacional and Tinta Amarela. The budwood came from our beloved Quinta block. In addition–with no great conviction about how they will do but wanting to find out–we grafted a few partial rows of Primitivo to Cabernet Sauvignon, to which rows we added via plantings a handful of Merlot and Petite Verdot vines for a mini-Bordeaux block on a scale suitable only for home winemakers. We expect our first Cabernet this season, but will only use it ourselves while we learn about the viticulture. These Bordeaux varietals were grafted/planted on the highest altitude portion of our vineyard to give them their best shot in our view. Then, just last week, we cut down additional Primitivo vines west of the swale and planted our first GSM block—Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvedre. Again, the scale will only be suitable for home winemakers, but presents an opportunity to experiment with these Rhone varietals that are well-recognized to do well in the El Dorado AVA. Finally, we cut down one short row of Primitivo on the south side of the Primitivo block and grafted some additional Souzao, a Portuguese varietal that provides dark color and decent acidity to Portuguese blends and for which our yield has been declining. This addition should increase our total Souzao yield by over 50%. This last operation has isolated a corner of short rows of our Primitivo which will be used this season for some focused experimentation on optimizing Primitivo viticultural practices.

All of the above has left us with a smaller but more homogeneous and still commercial scale block of now 19-year old Primitivo vines that are now completely on the reddish, rocky, clay loam soil that we think grows our best (and certainly lowest yielding) Primitivo. We are committed to growing the highest quality Primitivo that we can, benefiting from our accumulated experience and continuing to test new practices.

As of this date, we still have availability of each of our major varietals: Barbera, Primitivo, and Touriga, and even a sprinkling of some others, as we are selling our Quinta block varietals separately this year, giving opportunity to make some more obscure varietal wines like Tinta Cao and Tinta Amarela. We look forward to a great 2021 vintage and hope that the commercial wineries in our region enjoy a “relief rally” to celebrate what we hope will be a return to normalcy in the coming months.

Vineyard Diary 9-2-20

The last few weeks have brought the inevitable and usually unavoidable high heat of late summer in the Foothills, with an absolutely brutal stretch of 105-110 F days a couple weeks ago that made the temperature readings in the 90s after they abated feel like cool fall weather. In fact, that wasn’t the beginning of fall, but just a reprieve before the next string of 100 F plus days forecast over Labor Day weekend and extending an unknown period into the future. Temperatures have moderated of late a few degrees compliments of a variable haze–not smoky-smelling, but hazy– from distant wild fires burning all over the state right now. Fortunately, there have been none nearby to date.

In the vineyard, the fact that we are actively managing only some of our vineyard blocks has allowed us to divert finite irrigation water to the actively managed blocks and get through this hot period so far. Our Primitivo and the first wave of our Barbera in particular will need to be nursed through this period until their harvest in about 10 days. We’ve reached full veraison in all of the grapes at this point, and our small planting of white muscat grapes is already harvested. Bird pressure has been modest this year; the roll out of nets is something our house cats look forward to every year, and their patrolling of the nets for song birds caught within results in a lot of feathers getting left at our doorstep, and happy cats. It also seems to temper birds’ interest in the grapes.

We have a little more time to prep before what is likely to be a rapid succession of harvests beginning with the Barbera and Primtivo, followed by our Quinta block, and finishing with our non-Quinta touriga, possibly all in September. We do have quantities of all but the Quinta still available for sale, and the wait to harvest will not be long now. Hopefully the grapes, and in particular the wines made from them, can be something positive we can look back on from 2020…

Vineyard Diary 7-19-20

The growing season continues at Shaker Ridge as normal; the grapevines seem completely oblivious to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well they should be. We are now in the typical summer pattern of intense heat for a period of days or week, followed by a shorter period of relief, followed by a return to high heat. The vines tolerate the intense hot periods better than the farmers, who tend to seek shelter midday from the bright, cloudless sunshine typical of a Foothills summer. That said, the intensely hot periods have peaked in the high 90’s on several occasions but have really not breached the triple digits for more than a few hours at our site. We count that as a positive, and we’re already at that point in the season when anything short of 95 F for a mid-day high feels completely reasonable to us, low 90’s pleasant, and anything lower….downright cool. Such is the re-set of our internal thermostats at this time of year. We even had some June days with highs in the mid-70s…almost unheard of pleasant. We have not seen rain since mid-May, and don’t expect to see it until mid-September at earliest. All in all, if we can stay out of the triple digits (wishful thinking), this is shaping up to be a fantastic vintage, which would be nice counterpoint to the social-distanced and somewhat stressed world around us.

In the vineyard, bloom was on the late side and has come and gone. The fruit set appears solid–at least average for our main varietals–and the vines are healthy. We have been able to meet vines’ minimal irrigation needs given the moderate heat. Veraison started in our Tempranillo on or about July 14, a little bit on the late side but earlier than we would have expected from the late budburst. We immediately began netting our Quinta grapes, of which the the Tempranillo are a part, in hopes that we can get them completely buttoned up before the birds get a taste for it. They already have gotten a taste for cherries, blueberries, blackberries, plums, peaches…basically every fruit and berry we grow that ripens ahead of the grapes. Meanwhile, we’re on the lookout for star thistle–a miserable invastive weed–and pull it out manually wherever encountered to prevent its establishment. We’ll probably need one more preventative mildew spray to protect the grapes prior to full veraison.

Wine competitions were largely cancelled along with county fairs due to the novel coronavirus, but we’ve gotten some very positive anecdotal feedback on last year’s Quinta fruit and Barbera from clients. Our Quinta shares for this year are sold out, though there is still a possibility of securing o share via our waitlist. We still have plenty of our Barbera and–unusual for us at this point in the season–a little bit of Touriga available. This is because some of our commercial winery clients have been impacted more than us by COVID-19 given the closure for several months of tasting rooms at a prime time of the year, a closure which has been recently extended in some places outside of El Dorado and Amador Counties.

Vineyard Diary 4-26-20

The “March Miracle” of generous rainfall continued briefly into April and then shutdown abruptly, giving way to sunny or partly sunny skies and slowly warming temperatures, culminating in some 80-degree plus days in late April. With a full soil profile of water, this was the signal that the grapes and annual grasses were waiting for, and the reluctantly green hillside gave way to verdant green, though inevitably to be baked to brown. We’ll enjoy the perfect spring weather and beautiful green in the meantime.

The vines didn’t come awake until mid-April, and though the different varietals pushed buds in their customary temporal order, it was a compressed period of about 2 weeks in which each of the varietals pushed. Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of the pause (finish?) of rain and start of budburst to finish grinding the winter prunings and get some weed sprays down before the grapes pushed. We have since already started shoot thinning in our earliest pushing varieties: tinta tao, muscat canelli, and tempranillo.

This past week was an historic one for our vineyard, as we cut down 500 of our 18-yo primitivo vines to graft over to additional touriga nacional, tinta amarela, and cabernet sauvignon. The section of the Primitivo vineyard chosen was one with a distinctly different soil than the balance, so we think this operation, while obviously providing some of the above varietals, will make for a more uniformly ripe Primitivo crop and benefit that varietal. The cab is a modest planting suitable only for home winemaker-type quantities and very much experimental. Though cab can readily grown well in most climates, it does not necessarily make the best wine in all climates, and the Sierra Foothills are not traditionally a strong area for this classic varietal. However, we had to take a shot, and we have chosen the highest point of our vineyard and a somewhat shaded area on well-drained soil, and we’ll see what’s possible with good care. When cabernet was grown more extensively in the area about 40 years ago, it was in an era that predated the widespread use of viticultural practices likely to give the best quality wines. Some excellent cabernet has been since made by certain growers in the Foothills, so we know that quality is achievable on the right site with the right care.

The tinta amarela planted would, for the first time, give us perhaps half-ton quantities that might be usable by a microwinery or home winemaker working on scale. It makes a lovely fruity dry wine or rose in addition to its traditional use in port-style blends. We have heretofore only had a modest planting as part of our Quinta block.

Shaker Ridge is pleased to offer again in 2020 our Quinta fruit as 250-lb shares. These allow buyers working on a home winemaker scale to obtain, with one stop, a complex blend of 5 different Portugese varietals suitable for a classic port-style wine or for a delicious, complex dry red. The grapes will be distributed on a single Saturday in the mid-September to mid-October time frame to be determined.

Vineyard Diary 3-30-20

It’s been an interesting start to the 2020 vintage to say the least. Weather-wise, it was a suitably cold but by no means frigid winter that coughed up a little rain in December, very little in January, and not a drop in February. March has come to the rescue with around 8 inches of rain, just in time to get the soil profile filled with moisture and for the warming temperatures to get some green growth started. Budburst is still barely visible in our earliest grape varietals–held back in part by late pruning of last year’s wood–but seems sure to burst forth in earnest later this week. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 virus and the measures to slow its spread are having a major impact on life in general, though farming generally goes on…social distancing comes relatively naturally in the vineyard. That said, local commercial wineries face closures of tasting rooms during what is normally a busy time of year for wine-tasting in the Sierra Foothills when temperatures are still cool enough to enjoy a red wine and it is particularly scenic, with green hillsides and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Completely independent of the COVID-19 situation, we had decided to scale back our grape growing this year to give ourselves a break from the routine, and this is reflected in our recently posted current grape availability. We are planning to farm our Touriga, a limited amount of Barbera, and are again selling grapes from our Quinta block of Portugese varietals as “shares”. As Tempranillo yield has been slowly declining over the years, we are adding a couple adjacent short rows of Tempranillo planted in 2004 to the Quinta, which we have been otherwise selling separately. These will enable buyers, with one-stop (a single designated Saturday TBD in mid-Sept to mid-Oct period) to pick up a field blend of our Portugese varietals in 250-lb with suitable ripeness for either a fortified (port-style) wine or as a complex red. We continue farming activities in the balance of the vineyard as normal for now, and will be making a final decision in the May time frame in terms of seeking a crop from our Primitivo and the balance of our Barbera. Please inquire if you have interest in these beyond posted quantities.

Vineyard Diary-11/17/19

Our 2019 grape harvest drew to a close on September 27 with a final small Barbera pick, crowning what was an intense but ultimately successful harvest season at Shaker Ridge. Our total production of around 20 tons of fruit went to 3 commercial wineries, a couple soon-to-be commercial wineries, and numerous home winemakers. We had a number of challenges thrown at us during harvest, beginning with intermittent forklift malfunction at our first large-scale harvest (Primitivo) of the season, a pump failure on our well between harvests, weight scale breakdown immediately before a harvest for which it was particularly needed, and scheduling challenges with a commercial winery relative to labor availability. As usual, it all worked out, thanks to skilled service availability on short notice, neighbors generous with their time, some quick adjustments, and client flexibility and patience.

We were treated to four rain events between Sept 15 and Sept 30, providing several inches of rain, and both the frequency and volume were exceptional for us in the Sierra Foothills and seemed to portend a (welcome) wet fall. Unfortunately, October brought not a single drop of rain, nor has November through today, and there is still none in the forecast a week out. During this dry period, we experienced 3 planned power outages courtesy of PG&E which, beyond the obvious inconvenience, also meant no water, as no electricity generally = no water for those on wells. However, we are grateful that there have been no major local fires this season to date and that we were done with grape harvest before the power outages began. The dry sunny fall has meant that we continue to enjoy homegrown, vine-ripened tomatoes into late November, and it’s been a stellar year for olive and kiwifruit harvest.

We would like to thank our clients, as always, for their business and working with us through the busy harvest period. We were especially excited to offer “shares” of our Portugese varietal vineyard again this year, thank our Quinta clients for their patience on harvest day, and greatly look forward to the fine wines that we anticipate will result from their efforts. We have reason to think that the 2019 vintage will prove to be a strong one, but the proof will be in the pudding….and our clients’ cellars.

Vineyard Diary 7-25-19

We’ve now passed the mid-point of the season and are looking ahead to harvest, as marked in our vineyard by the start of veraison in our tempranillo grapes, which was evident by July 20.  Until this week, it has been a mild summer, with temperatures rarely above the low 90’s and often in the 80’s.  We’ve even seen the occasional cloud.  This weekend temperatures in the low 100’s are predicted, finally some sort of payback for the high heat and humidity seen across most of the country.  The long lead time to these high temperatures should have allowed the grapes to build up their natural sunscreen and avoid damaging sunburn.

We just wrapped up the umpteenth spray of the year to prevent powdery mildew, and there is some chance it will be the last of the year.  However, this will depend on how fast the balance of the vineyard goes into veraison, and how hot it gets.  Meanwhile, we are taking a hard look at crop load, particularly in the Primitivo, and starting some fruit dropping.  Crop load is looking about average–certainly not heavy–though we do see a lot of “seconds”, which are smaller bunches of grapes that form a few weeks after the main clusters.  These can add up to a significant burden of fruit for the vine that we’re never going to harvest, so in a perfect world, we would remove them all.  However, because there are many of them, it is quite labor intensive to remove them, and that labor comes at the hottest time of the year.  So, it is an annual dilemma to decide what to do with these seconds, but this may be a season when they are particularly heavy, probably a result of the abundant, late rain in May.

As we speak, we are deploying overhead netting over our Quinta vineyard, which in a little more than 2 months should produce a crop of Portugese varietals for distribution to our Quinta shareholders.  So far, the crop looks solid, and the challenge will be keeping the critters off of them until they’re good and ripe.  These will likely include our annual bear visitor(s)–who seem to particularly favor this field–and several extended families of wild turkeys who have made our vineyard their daytime home.

We have had–since 2004–a couple rows of Muscat Canelli (White Muscat or Muscat Blanc) that we have used for a variety of purposes, but little for homemade wine.  We have used them as eating grapes, as juice, as sorbet, as raisins, and they have been delightful for all of these uses.  We have not made the grapes available to home winemakers because they are actually somewhat tricky to grow to our standards, with variable ripeness, sunburn, and susceptibility to mildew.  Last year, with a little extra intention, we managed to get a decent crop and made some homemade wine both in a traditional off-dry style for Muscat and in a less traditional dry, ML-fermented style.  The latter turned out delightful–somewhat like a Chardonnay but with the more delicate and exotic fruit notes of Muscat–and entered this in the Amador County Fair, where it earned a gold medal.  This was our first entry of a white wine from Shaker Ridge, and a gratifying result after some less than stellar efforts with roses and whites in the past that never made it to competitions.  After maybe another year of experience under our belt, perhaps we will make this limited crop of Muscat available for sale to home winemakers.

Looking ahead to harvest, we still have the option of waitlist status for a share of Quinta fruit, and immediate reservability of about a ton of Primitivo, and over 2 tons of Barbera.  Our touriga is sold out.  Though harvest will be the latest in  a number of years–a situation that can create stress ripening fruit at higher elevations–we think we will be fine on our ~1500′ site.  We hope we can get through the current heatwave and return to the fine summer that we (and our grapes) have been enjoying.

Vineyard Diary 6-9-19

The 2018-19 wet season started out quite dry, with rains only arriving right around Thanksgiving.  This was too little, too late for some things in nature (like fall mushrooms), and after a pause to rains in late December and early January, it was beginning to look sparse for winter rain as well.  But the rain began again in earnest–not in crushing amounts–but regular, soaking amounts, and February and March were cool and wet, almost textbook-like in California.  Then, when it started to dry out and warm up in April, and it seemed like we might be through, then came historic rain amounts in May–like more rain than any May since the 1800’s–a remarkable occurrence.

In the end–and we do think this is the end of rain for the season–we have obtained generous winter and spring rainfall to fill the soil profile and provide an above-average snowpack, we have had a cool spring leading to the latest budburst in the vineyard in years, and we are well-positioned for a fine summer growing season.  Irrigation has not been necessary to date and won’t be for awhile, but we have completed much of the work that makes late spring the busiest time in the vineyard: shoot thinning, mowing between rows, and regular spraying to prevent powdery mildew.

The late budburst presages a late harvest, and we’ve reflected that with our best estimates of harvest times in our “grapes available” postings.  If anything, the risk would be to slightly later harvests than shown.  If the summer stays on the cooler side like the spring, we may be looking at our coolest growing season since 2011.  We think that generally works in our favor, particularly for Barbera which doesn’t particular favor super-hot, dry conditions at harvest as our region can often produce.

Right now in the vineyard, bloom is just wrapping up for most of our varietals, with flowers turning into tiny berries, and the vines will soon be shifting gears from shoot growth to berry growth.  It was a challenging spring scheduling the shoot thinning and early spraying around the rains, but the worst is now over, and the vines are looking great.

We were excited to offer “shares” in our Quinta vineyard of Portugese varietals for the first time since 2014, which give home winemakers the starting materials for a true Portugese-style port wine without having to shop all over for the constituent varietals.  The grapes will be picked and distributed on a specific Saturday to be determined in late September or early October. Our Quinta vineyard has enjoyed a remarkable record of success for both home winemakers and commerical winemakers in competitions, as documented elsewhere on our website, and our Quinta grapes have made some excellent dry and dessert wines.  The Quinta shares, by their nature, are finite in number and now sold out, but those interested can still get on the 2019 waiting list, as we hold back a certain number of shares for the “house” to buffer yields (over which Mother Nature has primary control), and so another share or 2 might possibly become available.

Still available without waitlist are a couple tons each of Primitivo and Barbera, as shown on our “Grapes Available” listing, reservable on a first-come, first-served basis.  We are looking forward to a great harvest in a few months.