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.

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.