If you've ever wandered around any wine country, you've noticed grapes happily grow just about anywhere -- in a plot next to a smoggy highway or in a crevice on a steep mountainside. But how do grapes end up as a "good" bottle of wine? Their naissance and maintenance are assuredly critical, almost as much as the winemaker's role during fermentation, so I chose to explore this process further.
A few weeks ago, I descended upon California to sneak a peek at this year's harvest and crush (industry speak for the winemaking process). Flora Springs, a mid-sized family winery in Napa, had already harvested most of their crop and grape crush was in full bloom when I arrived one chilly morning. Frenzy permeated the air as winery workers rushed to press the freshly picked Merlot grapes before they began fermenting and spoiling in the impending afternoon heat.
Weather can kick or caress the ass of any grape. For instance, if temperate sun bathes the fruit consistently throughout the day, the grapes ripen evenly, but extreme heat during any part of summer might make the grapes prematurely shrivel on the vine. Rain levels also play a big role. Consistent rain during the growing season is preferred, but if it deluges during harvest, the grapes can soak in liquid, watering down the juice. Avoiding catastrophes like this requires constant supervision of the grapes' ripeness levels during harvest. A grape's juice can develop a perfect sugar level (22-25 percent sugar or "brix") after only a couple of days of good sunshine, so winemakers test the grape juice every day.
Even observing this tedious process is nerve-racking.
To manage the system, wineries need excellent vineyard maintenance. Flora Springs, like many other small wineries, owns their 600 acres of vineyards. Owning, as opposed to buying from other wineries or grape growers, allows them to preserve their consistent standard of grape quality. And their practices are highly regarded in the industry. For the Flora Springs brand, they utilize only 20 percent of their grapes and sell the other 80 percent to reputable wineries such as Cakebread and Chalone.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain in Sonoma, Jeff Bundschu of Gundlach Bundschu (GB), found himself in a grape bind. GB discovered their nomaly sufficient crop of estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon would not produce enough grapes this year. For this quality-focused family winery, this meant going outside their comfort zone to a "Grape Hunter" to find fruit up to Bundschu snuff.
Wandering through the available vineyards around Sonoma County, Jeff had me taste grapes from different vines. Although the vines had plump fruit and healthy, green leaves, they weren't thinned. Thinning a crop means cutting fruit off the vine to concentrate the nutrients in the remaining grapes as well as removing leaves to allow more sun to penetrate through the "canopy." In these vineyards, the thick greenery limited the sun's exposure, so the grapes from the top of the "interviewee" vines puckered with acidity, but the low hanging fruit burst with fruit. Thinning would have yielded a more consistent, quality grape. So harvesting the grapes in this condition, mixing both the acidic and fruity grapes, would produce average wine at best. Jeff, even though in a crunch, refused to compromise the quality of GB's Cabernet, hoping there will be some good juice available later in the crush season.
Attention to quality product seems to be on every business's agenda these days, and California wineries are no exception. Good thing we can reap, and taste, the rewards.
Flora Springs 2000 Estate Merlot ($22) : Shazam, that's some good stuff. Smooth, black cherry flavors with a peppery chaser. Perfect tannins and a sexy lingering aftertaste. florasprings.com.
Gundlach Bundschu Bearitage Lot No. 10 ($17) : GunBun's Bearitage delivers all your desires in a red blend -- an approachable, fun wine with a little bit of oak, medium body, smacking cherry fruit and a reasonable price. gunbun.com.
Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.