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.

Vineyard Diary 10-12-18

We completed our final harvest of 2018 on September 29, capping what is likely to go down as an outstanding California vintage year.  I know, I know:  mathematically speaking, how can every year be above average?  Really, we think this was may have been the finest vintage since the outstanding 2012.  The weather for the 2018 vintage was marked by a cool, wet spring, followed by a hot, but not super hot, summer.  There were no long stretches with highs over 100 F, and probably no days north of 105 F here in the Foothills.  That is unusual. Even more unusual was the string of moderately warm  days–upper 80’s and low 90’s for high–beginning in mid-August and extending through harvest.  We really appreciate that at Shaker Ridge, where arid conditions, desiccating breezes, and hot temperatures sometimes outstrip our ability to irrigate heading into harvest, which can be very discouraging after a season’s effort.

We did get frequent visits from the local bear–we believe now bears–that we had never actually seen but had ample evidence of, this year.  This season, we not only spotted bears in daylight on 2 occasions, observed the telltale bear poops, and saw the places where our vineyard fence was squished down, we actually caught the bears on our game cam more than once.  Please check out our “Vineyard Gallery” posting which shows some shots from the middle of the night on September 10.  It happened again repeatedly afterwards, despite efforts to discourage it.  In the end, we probably only lost a few hundred pounds of harvest-able fruit, so it’s more the chance of a dangerous encounter that we worry about with these mostly nocturnal visitors.

Once again, we can’t say enough about how grateful we are for our loyal clients who we get to see only once or twice a year at harvest time.  Without exception, you worked with us through the usual logistical challenges around harvest and picked up the grapes when they were ready, arriving at the appointed time, and being patient if we weren’t quite ready.  We also appreciate the wine samples many generously provided from past Shaker Ridge vintages; both our commercial buyers and home winemakers make some stunning wines that are the ultimate “thank you” for us.

We had to raise prices again this past year to keep up with our rising labor costs and anticipated increased regulatory burden associated with irrigation, but we believe that our clients know that we strive for perfection and generally deliver an above-average product.  Unfortunately, farming wine grapes is not quite like manufacturing widgets, and ultimately we can only control what we can control, but after our 15th vintage, we’ve seen a few things and, as in any endeavor, experience counts.

Though it remains Indian summer conditions here in mid-October, our favorite autumn season is upon us, bringing with it cooler temperatures and the promise of rain, wild mushrooms, abundant game, holidays with family, and time to relax and enjoy some wine.

“And what he’d left behind he hadn’t valued

Half as much as some things

He never knew.”

from “Call of the West”

by Wall of Voodoo

 

 

 

Vineyard Diary-7-28-18

We always begin writing these blogs by reading the prior one, to see where the story left off. In this case, the prior installment seems like a different narrative, or a long forgotten epoch in history, that we would be talking about the amazingly cool spring.  Like someone hit a switch, we transitioned abruptly in mid-June to typical summer Sierra Foothills heat.  By now, we have certainly hit triple digits on multiple occasions, with the surges now going from the low 90’s (which now feel like “cool” days) to the upper 90’s to low 100’s.  Actually, we enjoyed some astoundingly pleasant weather–we’re talking  75 F–at the annual 4th of July parade in nearby Plymouth, but the 4th was definitely the exception and the low point (for daytime highs) in the last 6 weeks.  As of this writing in late July, we are just grateful to have avoided the really high heat that this climate can also produce–into the 103-110 range.  We dream of another pre-harvest period like 2012 when the thermometer was stuck in the low 90’s (for daytime highs) for over 4 weeks heading into harvest.

The part of the narrative that has not changed since our last installment is that the vintage continues to progress very nicely.  The fruit set was robust–at least average, probably above average in the primitivo–and the vines are healthy and green.  We’ve had virtually no issue with powdery mildew, and as we get into veraison (grapes turning color)–which started on July 18 with our tempranillo and is now widely evident in our primitivo–we are looking at one more preventative spraying at most before we are in the clear on that front for 2018.  Veraison in our tempranillo always signals the immediate need to deploy our unique overhead bird netting in the Quinta block that allows us full access to the vines while greatly hindering songbird access.  This has now been completed.  The deployment of netting, in turns, signals our house cats’ favorite time of the year when they take advantage of a buffet of our local avian visitors which become entangled trying to penetrate said nets.

We recently had an annual but unusually brazen visit from a member of the local black bear population.  Normally these large visitors come at night around harvest time for grapes, partially squashing a section of our outer vineyard fencing in the process.  In this case, a bear was spotted in the vineyard in broad daylight, well before harvest.  We think it was drawn in so early by ripe peaches from our home orchard, which were giving off a scent that must have been too much and caused the bear to throw all caution to the wind.   In reality, that caution is best reserved for the farmers, who would be no match for the speed and power of one of these guys.  Fortunately for us, the bear chose to hightail it out the back fence once spotted.

We are irrigating regularly now, rotating among the blocks (the entire vineyard cannot be watered at once), monitoring water levels in the soil and keeping the vines hydrated short of the wilting point.  So far, ground water has held up just fine, but without a weather break in August, we could start seeing signs of well fatigue.

As a result of the solid fruit set, we are confident enough in yield to make available an additional ton of primitivo and an additional ton of barbera for pre-sale/reservation.  Additional fruit may become available, including possibly a few hundred pounds of Quinta fruit suitable for a red blend or port-style blend.  If you do not see the grapes available that you are looking for in our postings, we encourage you to reach out and get yourself placed on our waitlist.  The season is moving along quickly, and by the next blog we will be talking about harvest, which should begin in early September and extend through early October, depending on varietal.  As always, we look forward to seeing our clients in person again.

Vineyard Diary 6-9-18

It’s been a spectacular spring in the Sierra Foothills.  It started with abundant March and April rains (following a dry winter), and the temperatures have remained unusually mild.  As this is written on June 9, we are looking at partly cloudy skies (yes, those white things we rarely see in summer after May!) and highs in the mid-70’s.  An occasional cool off happens here, but to get this far into the season with no triple-digit days and only a couple as warm as 90 degrees F, that qualifies as a cool spring…  We will see if this summer turns out to be an overall cool one as we last had in 2011 (and like for our grapes). The late rain, though welcome, tended to concentrate what is already an intense period of activity in the vineyard in spring with mowing and the start of regular preventative spraying for fungal diseases, in addition to petiole sampling and the start-up of irrigation.  However, the cooler-than-normal weather has made all of that bearable for the growers.  We received our last rain–what we expect will be the last until September or October–at the usual time right before Memorial Day weekend.

As we sit now in early June, the vineyard is in fantastic shape.  Shoot thinning was completed–in a major operation–at the optimal time.  The vines look healthy and are almost done their linear shoot growth for the year.  Having recently set fruit–“bloom” happened in the last 1-2 weeks–the vines are about to switch gears toward fruit growth.  As the berries grow in size, we will soon get an idea about the quality and quantity of fruit set for the vintage.  So far though, it looks quite promising out there, and weed control is good.

On the wine competition front, primitivo grapes made with our 2016 grapes into vineyard-designated wines by two commercial wineries, Due Vigne di Famiglia out of Clarksburg and Oakstone Winery out of Fair Play, both captured silver medals in the commercial wine competition of the 2018 El Dorado County Fair.  Due Vigne additionally picked up a bronze for a barbera wine made from our 2016 grapes.  Congratulations to the winemakers.  On the home winemaker front, a dry red blend made from our Quinta block, also 2016 vintage, won a Double Gold at the 2018 El Dorado County Fair, and a touriga nacional (non-Quinta) earned a bronze.  The former added to a long list of high honors for our Quinta block of Portugese varietals.

We are down to 1 ton of 2018 barbera that is uncommitted; otherwise, we welcome wait list requests for most of our varietals.  Please see our “Grapes Available” postings which we always try to keep current.

Vineyard Diary 4-17-18

Spring rainfall has continued to be generous (and welcome) in El Dorado:  the expression “better late than never” definitely applies.  One could argue that it’s not the best scenario for the annual fight against weeds, as weeds generally have much shallower roots than our well-established grapevines, which means that if the top soil layers are dried out, the grapevines can manage and the weeds will relatively suffer.  However, the weeds and grasses will come regardless–it’s just a matter of degree–and since we have ways of dealing with them, net net we prefer a full soil profile of water by the time the vines bud out to delay the need to irrigate the vines, possibly till early June.   What is certain is that the rains will stop before too long, and the long, arid summer will begin.

The above said, the timing of things wasn’t exactly convenient this year, and to get the winter pruning done (we finally got a crew in at the end of March) and weed control spray down between rains, our vineyard manager (who happens to be my hard-working wife) needed to miss a family vacation over Easter to make sure everything happened when it needed to.  This sort of dedication–and the experience to know that the dedication was needed–is what comes with 15+ of grape growing.  As in other lines of endeavor, experience counts, and we like to think that we learn from our mistakes at Shaker Ridge.

Budburst arrived immediately after pruning for our earliest grape varieties, such as muscat canelli, our barbera pushed perhaps a week later, and our primitivo is now starting to push.  Overall, it has been a somewhat late budburst, which would tend to predict a somewhat late harvest, perhaps a little past the mean.  However, this should be no problem in our climate and with our varietals, and with typical weather for our site we should have no trouble ripening our grapes.

We ended up making a portion of our Quinta block available for sale, and would still take waitlist requests on specific varietals within that for home winemaker quantities, touriga nacional and tinta cao being the most likely to offer some surplus.  Otherwise, we still have about 1 1/3 tons of barbera still available for sale without the need for a waitlist.

We are looking forward to wine judging season and hope that some grapes we’ve provided in the past contribute to some great wines for our clients.

 

Vineyard Diary 3-10-18

Our last vineyard post was on 10-3-17, so it seems appropriate, in a quasi-palindromic sort of way, that our first post of new season would be on 3-10-18.  That’s more than 5 months, which is not too shabby as vineyard downtime goes.

It has been a rather dry “wet season” here in California, with average to somewhat below average fall rains giving way to distinctly below average winter rains. We have received a little late spring rain here, coupled with snow in the high country, bringing some late-season relief. Temperature-wise, it was on the warm side for much of January and most of February, giving way finally to more winter-like temperatures in late Feb and early March.  Who knows exactly what combination of cues the vines use to decide when to push their buds, but what we can say is that they have not done so or given any serious of doing so to date at Shaker Ridge, and we are expecting an average to late budburst overall.  We have delayed our winter pruning as long as possible to mitigate risk of certain vine diseases, but it will shortly be time to complete that operation and also get down weed control sprays within the rows.  Right now, the local wild turkeys have the run of the vineyard, with spring courting in full display.  The bright colors of the puffed up toms dancing around seemingly indifferent hens is a sight to behold…

We were gratified to receive many inquires about our grapes in the off-season, mostly from previous clients, and as is our custom, particularly for commercial clients who generally seek year-to-year consistency for their wines, have pre-committed much of our grapes.  After that process, we still have some barbera that is available for reservation, and we will be making a decision as soon as possible on our Quinta field of Portuguese grapes.  It is likely that at least a portion of those will be made available for home winemakers; details TBD.  For our primitivo and non-Quinta (just refers to a different planting than our Quinta) touriga nacional, these are fully committed up to levels that we feel relatively confident about, based on past yields.  However, as the season progresses and the size of the crop becomes evident, it is likely that we could have a couple tons of more primitivo and maybe some additional home winemaker quantities of touriga.  We strongly encourage those interested in grapes for which no availability is showing to get on waitlist which we go through on a first-come, first-serve basis if and when more grapes becomes available.  We are always happy to work with new clients.

We are looking forward with optimism to the 2018 season!

 

Vineyard Diary – 10/3/17

Another vintage is in the record books, and as usual, the final stretch was frenzied and challenging, with a last curveball from the weather.  All was looking fantastic in mid-August: we had never been so confident of the quality and quantity of our primitivo, the barbera had avoided all the usual landmines, the Portugese varietals looked solid, and the bird nets were deployed.  The fourth 100 F+ heat wave had given way to perfect late summer 90+ F weather, and it looked like we were going to cruise with moderate temps through harvest like in the amazing 2012 vintage.

Then, an intense heatwave hit in the last 1/3 of August, with about a 10-day stretch of highs in the 100-108 F range.  Despite few or no well issues courtesy of the abundant rain last winter, we simply could not rotate our irrigation fast enough to prevent a rapid rise in brix, due mainly to dehydration.  We harvested our primitivo at the tail end of that heat wave on September 1, and cooling temps coupled with our ability to direct more irrigation water at the barbera (with primitivo in) allowed us to save the barbera and bring it in at respectable mid/upper-20s brix and very good condition, with one of the best yields in recent years.  However, it may have gotten cheated out of a little bit of hang time by the preceding hot weather. The Quinta bore a little light this year but enjoyed plenty of hangtime and reasonable temps toward the end, and the non-Quinta touriga delivered solid quality and quantity with fine early autumn weather.  Our last client harvest was today, on October 3.

As usual with our last blog post of the season, we would like to sincerely thank our clients, who included 4 commercial wineries and over a dozen home winemakers, some of which we met, some of which received our grapes through group purchases so we didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to meet.  We appreciate our clients’ patience and flexibility as we navigated the challenging logistics of harvest that require a confluence of buyer’s availability, labor availability, our availability, and last but not least, appropriately rip grapes, the latter being only a 1-2 week window.  We thank you for dropping off bins in advance, being on time for pickups, and for many of our returning clients, for sharing the fruits of prior vintages.  We love to taste what you have done with our grapes.  We also thank our laborers–both paid and volunteer–particularly for their herculean efforts during harvest.

We now look forward to our favorite part of the annual cycle–the down time–a time when we recharge, welcome the return of rain, celebrate the holiday season, and partake fully in our other interests.  Assuming we don’t come to our senses in the off season and stop farming wine grapes :), we will be back next season ready to do it again, and aim to post pricing and availability by the end of January.  God bless.

“Thou my great Father,

I thy true son;

Thou in me dwelling, and

I with Thee one.

Be Thou My Vision                                                                                                     

8th Century Irish hymn

Dedicated to Joseph D. Standeven 1935-2017

 

 

Vineyard Diary 7-16-17

Summer is fully here in the Sierra Foothills, both according to the calendar and the thermometer.  Our last blog mentioned a cool, wet spring; this is a distant memory now! We’re currently in the midst of our third surge into triple-digit territory.  Mid-June brought the first, prolonged run into very hot temperatures, followed by a nice cool-down into the 80’s, followed by a spike into the 105 F+ range, back off to the low 90’s, then once again to around 100 F this weekend.  This is summer in the Foothills:  not really a surprise, more like a reality check after the pleasant spring.

So far, the vines seem to be handling the heat better than the humans, who besides the heat tend to sleep less in summer with the long days, which on a farm usually means long work days, particularly on either side of the hot middle-of-the-day period.  Thanks in part to abundant winter rains (we use well water), we have been able to irrigate as necessary to keep the vines happy.  We had successfully kept ahead of mildew pressure through the late spring and early summer, and now the high heat helps with that defense.  As noted in the last blog, the strange spring left us short on weed control in certain parts of the vineyard, but we did some extra mowing and spraying and got that under control.

Meanwhile, bloom has come and gone, and we have rapidly growing wine grape clusters visible.  We are happy to report, both for our confirmed clients and those on waitlists, that fruit set looks very good throughout the vineyard.  We were particularly impressed with the primitivo, which is known to produce a lot of shot berries and irregularly sized fruit in some years, and this year has set clusters that are not overly full (which we don’t like for ripening and for providing a more favorable environment for certain molds) but loose, regularly sized, and abundant.  In fact, our major decision in the primitivo will be deciding if the vines can carry all the fruit set or will need judicious fruit dropping to fully ripen.

The barbera crop also looks promising; the key there as always is being able to harvest the fruit that is set in the face of hot temperatures which we don’t think this varietal particularly favors with its thinner skin.  However, it was probably a good thing that we got the prolonged heat spike in June, as the skins should have built up a protective coating to withstand sunburn that that will serve it well for the balance of the summer.   We are quite pleased with progress to date.

We are waiting now for the first signs of veraison, which should come any time now.  Our bellwether for that is our tempranillo, which besides being our earliest varietal to start veraison (=ripening visible as color change in grapes) happens to grow adjacent to where we need to walk to access the vineyard daily, and so is effectively checked frequently.  We are already about two weeks past the start veraison last year, consistent with the significantly later harvest that we were anticipating based on later budburst.

On the wine competition front, we neglected to mention in the last blog, as we had such exciting news to report from our clients’ results, that we did pretty well ourselves at the El Dorado County Fair home winemaker competition.  Our 2013 Portugese Red, a blend of 4 varietals from our Quinta vineyard block, earned a double gold, one of only 5 wines out of over 100 entrants to earn that distinction.  This continues a pretty remarkable run of honors for wines, mostly made by our clients, made from our Portugese varietals.

We have nominally just 0.35 tons (could possibly be a full half ton) of touriga still available for sale, though as mentioned primitivo fruit set looks very good, and barbera fruit set healthy, so we could see some of those varietals become available closer to or after initial harvest.  We expect to be able to confirm availability of fruit for some of our waitlist clients ahead of harvest, once we see how the vines handle the onset of veraison.