Thursday, October 10, 2019

2019 Grape Harvest Report, SW Washington

Harvest 2019: The Good, The Ugly

1. The Ugly: 
a. Bud break was two weeks late here on the Wet Side (of the Cascades), and summer was cooler, so we didn't make up the late start. Then, we had rains come three weeks early and they were record heavy rains (at our farm, we saw 6.8" rain between Sept 7 and Sept 22, when normally lighter rains wouldn't start until after Sept 22). We all saw record bird damage, as the birds were starving due to the early rains' rotting the wild blackberries. Other area growers have told me that even with nets, they lost over half their crop, as birds found ways in but couldn't get out, so they just hung out inside the nets and ate more and more. Wasp damage was also very high, and some clusters saw some rot--wasp and rot berries had to be hand-removed from each cluster, greatly slowing harvest speed.
b. I've learned which modern grapes can hang through rain, and even resist some bird damage, and which cannot. But every grape saw its Brix fall (a very bad thing here) when the rains came.
c. Many growers on the Wet Side abandoned their grapes this year, or harvested only about 25% of normal yields with far-reduced ripeness. Higher-elevation vineyards fared the worst of course.
d. On the warm side (east of the Cascades--as in Walla Walla, Yakima, TriCities, and Red Mountain), it was a nice-but-cool summer. They had more rain than usual (Yakima saw 1.5" in a day, in early September, when they get only about 8" in an entire year! But their worst issue has been early frost: 24F tonight in Yakima and Tri Cities (Walla Walla is being spared that).  Grapes can withstand some freezing, as sugar-water freezes at a lower point than just water, though any heavy frost will kill the leaves, ending any further ripening. Growers there couldn't harvest early because it was a cool summer, and are scrambling to get their grapes in before the berries freeze and burst. 
e. This is a year when you will need to be a very careful consumer. Look for wineries/sellers who are frank about their wines--try to look past the marketing BS. I pledge to you that I will be as honest as I possibly can, to tell you what my wines taste like. I am pretty optimistic about this year's wines, given the horiffic circumstances of their birth. Perhaps grapes are more adaptable to wine than I knew.

2. The Good: 
a. At our Epona Vineyard, I picked my Leon Millot and Labelle at pretty good chemistry, the day before the heavy rains hit; they hit 22 Brix and had great flavors, and will make good wine. The advantages of my steep-south-slope vineyard, coupled with my choice of early-ripening grapes, made a huge difference in this cooler, shorter year. My Cayuga hung through the heavy rains and avoided most of the bird and wasp damage, and while its sugars were less than normal, it has a wide range of good flavor profiles, depending on the weather. This year, it's showing grapefruit and good nuance and zing. 
b. All of us winemakers on the Wet Side are honing our rose-making skills. I picked many red grapes at about 16-18 Brix (when you want 21-24), and so far it appears they will make a nice, big, darker rose wine. 
​c. Some growers on the Wet Side saw their varieties hang well through rains; these included Marechal Foch and Cayuga. The ability to hang through heavy rain is a prize attribute in a year like this.
d. The Cab Franc I just got in Yakima (Noel Vineyard) is great. 25 Brix and magnificent flavors--as in 2017, I was "last one out" of the vineyard, and all that ​hang time let the fruit shed its green bell pepper notes (pyrazines) and attain fantastic fruit flavors.
e. I also bought Cab Sauv from that vineyard. Was a bit skeptical because the great Cab Sauv usually comes from further east, in W.Walla or Red Mountain. But I read there have been many great Cab Sauvs from the Yakima area. The Cab Sauv I just bought is known for its rosy/floral notes and softness--still fruit-forward and fairly big, but more restrained than a big, powerful Cab. It also hit 25 Brix and had loooonnnnggggg hang time. Can't wait to work with it.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

US slaps 25% tariffs on European products including French wine, olive oil, cheeses, Scotch

Oh, now this has gotten personal. Trump hit European products with a 25% tariff, reacting to their tariff on US airplanes. This affects many products that we cannot easily find elsewhere: olive oil, French wine, Scotch, many cheeses! But French wine? Really? Ugh. I don't see how anybody wins, in a tariff war.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Dona Paula 2005 "Selecction de Bodega" Malbec

The dinner we made was outstanding: Cuban-style pork, slow-cooked with lots of onions, garlic, carrot, celery, tomato, and enough smoked paprika to outfit the Hungarian army for a year. Over our own potatoes smashed wtih our chives and some vegan butter and roasted our garlic. Bueno!

But the (expensive) wine didn't rise to the occcasion:

Here is Robert Parker's 94-point review of it:

"The 2005 Malbec Seleccion de Bodega received 24 months in new French oak. It has a splendid nose of pain grille, pencil lead, plum, black cherry, and earth notes. This is followed by an opulent, rich wine with gobs of flavor, incipient complexity and a 45-second finish. This wine will develop for another 6-8 years with prime drinking from 2015 to 2035."

All I can say is that, in 2019, with the wine 14 years old, is that none of that review is true. It may have been true once, but not tonight.

Be careful, my friends! If you lay down a plethora of wines with high scores, be prepared for the fact that not all of them will age well. You know that I like finding good wines that aren't so expensive. I wish I had a dollar for every time I carefully researched a wine and laid it down, only to find later that it doesn't do it for me.  This one didn't have much fruit, even thought its color suggested it's still young. It had a faint whiff and taste of wet newspaper (probably a little Brett). It just didn't come together. What's wrong with me? I found a similar result in another Walla Walla big red that I opened last week after years of cellaring. 

Could it be that it's better to find good cheaper wines, and drink them within a year? I think so. I think the lure of laying down great wines is not quite all it's cracked up to be. Yes, there are glorious successes. When I turned fifty, we had a party where I opened fifty-year old Lafite and Haut Brion; both were very interesting (though not great), and what was REALLY interesting was how different each of them were, when both were made in 1957 only miles apart. Old wines see the fading of fruit, and tertiary flavors come forward. Did you see Parker's reference to burnt toast and pencil lead? How much do you want to pay for pencil lead and burnt toast in your wine? Just asking. I had a fight once in elementary school, and the other guy jammed his sharp pencil into my hand. The tip broke off in my skin. I asked the teacher, "If it's lead, isn't it poisonous inside me?" and she said we call it lead but it's just carbon. Until a few years ago, you could still see its green spot in my knuckle. Fun memory, but in your wine????

To be fair, Jane liked this wine. I guess the further I go, the pickier I get. That dish was GREAT! And tomorrow, or the next day, the wine will be, too...

(Photo Credit: Cookpad)

On sheds

Somehow, it is true that we live in shed country. My Vancouver neighborhood was built in the 1930s, with large lots. Plenty of space for auxiliary construction, and nature abhors a vacuum!

When we lived in (fill in the blank:) Tulsa, or Houston, or Nashville, there were a few sheds in those cities (maybe; not sure), but not two in every yard! I love my neighbors, because they are great friends and cool people. But also because they have a lot of sheds. It's a new way of life to me. It's a way of expanding your reach over your land. It's a way of making a CAMPUS of what would otherwise be, well, a HOUSE. Jeff told me that in Vancouver you can built a shed, up to 200 square feet, without a permit, and I suppose that rule feeds Shed Fever. It doesn't hurt that he and Jose have excellent construction skills. They have constructed what might be called Taj Mahals, but for that pesky 200' requirement. Such attention to finish detail! Straight lines; good materials. Over the fence, I see: a massive grape arbor/outdoor patio, a huge and lovely grape-covered patio, yet another (uncovered) outside patio, and a shed that served as a teen boy hangout, and a shed that is a fine artist's studio (with a vew of the Fremont Bridge!), and a high-ceilinged garden shed to die for, and two detached garages, and a new wraparound deck that's covered and has surround benches, and the list goes on. That is just in TWO properties.

I built a carport (to ward off hot summer sun and bird poo). Sort of like a shed. We're building a metal shed now, from a kit (as the many sheet metal cuts to my hands can attest). Because the outdoor table and chairs, and the fire pit, and the wheelbarrow need a place. That kit has about 10,000 parts, so shedbuilding is not a matter to be undertaken lightly.

You get to the point where any open space starts screaming for a new shed. Just so, there is another space where I could build a 10x20 shed, tricked out as a spare bedroom, with electricity and a chamber pot and wraparound deck. It could even have a secret door to an underground wine cellar. And a rooftop sun lounge! Maybe a small antenna to listen for extraterrestrial signals! ("Is anybody out there?" thank you, Pink Floyd).

It's not like we don't have nice homes. Each of us has a very nice home. If we were normal like you, we could just sit inside our homes and not even think about sheds. But there is a Lure of the Shed here, be it She-shed, or He-shed, or They-shed. It's enough to make you shed a tear. It beckons the hammer, the saw. You get your dream juices flowing. You are charmed by the Siren Call of The Home Depot (is that a rail stop for houses who travel by train?), or the Lure of Lowes. Eagerly you reach for the bait, only to find the hook in your mouth. The new shed rises. It's almost like San Gimignano, where it was fashionable to make your home as tall as you possibly could, only here it's about making the campus of your dreams, a network of locii for your luxurious livification.

We climb mountains because we can (well, some of us can). We "shed" because we can. Some say that experiences are worth more than "stuff," and there is the truth of it. Building a shed is about the design, the building, and the pride in a job well done. The fact that you can store stuff in it is ancillary. Right? Right?

But build it well. Because the World is Watching. And, who put the "shed" in "dashed," as in, "the shed failure dashed his hopes?"

(photo credit:

These heavy rains: What's it mean for the 2019 grape harvest?

1. Is this a good or a bad year for grapes, here on the wet (west) side of the Cascade Mountains? That is still hard to say for sure, but there are many large problems facing us grapegrowers now, that we don't see in a year with dry weather all the way to ideal harvest time.

Here are the factors:

a. Weather: If a great year has a long, dry summer, then the weather for grapes is TERRIBLE this year. First, the grapes budded out about two weeks later this year than last, due to a late, cool Spring. (And, even last year, another cool year, the grapes budded out later than normal.) Second, we didn't have enough heat in this short summer to let the grapes catch up, so they stayed behind. Third, these heavy rains we're getting yesterday, today, tomorrow and Tuesday are super-early -- about a week earlier than last year (which was also very early) and three weeks earlier than the end-of-Septembe/early-October rain return date that we grapegrowers hope for. Heavy rain prevents further grape ripening and dilutes the grapes' flavors (the water content rises inside the grape). That can throw the desired sugar/acid balance out of whack. And it can even split the grape, which ruins it.

If you like numbers, look at Growing Degree Days (GDDs), which use temperature as a proxy for sunshine: Through today, my vineyard (Woodland, WA) has had 1,940 GDDs year-to-date, whereas in the warm year of 2015, we saw about 2,100 GDDs through this date -- a huge difference.

b. Grapes' defenses against predation: When it is cloudy or rainy, the birds take it as a signal to come in and eat the grapes. I saw that start up big-time a few days ago. It doesn't take many birds to eat out a good-sized vineyard in just a few days. Even nets don't totally protect the fruit. Also, wasps need to eat sugar before the winter, and they love grapes. Wasps have trouble piercing thick-skinned grapes, but thin-skinned grapes are easy prey. A grape like Riesling can hang into November wtih its tough skin, but a grape like Regent is toast after heavy rains and wasps. Pinot Noir is not very tough, either, and neither are some of my modern varieties.

c. Grapes' defenses against disease: I don't have to spray for fungus because my modern grape varieties are resistant, but a susceptible grape can succumb to fungus during a rainy spell when the farmer can't spray. Grape disease pressure rises very high, with high humidity.

d. Vineyard and grape variety factors: In an average summer, if Fall rains come early, I can have most of my grapes already picked and safely in the winery, because my vineyard has steep South-facing slope (which receives more solar radiation then a flat vineyard), and because my varieties ripen very early. But the grapes budded out so late this year and the rains came back super-early, so I was able to pick only two varieties so far, just before this deluge (half my Leon Millot and all my Labelle). I have many very-early varieties, but they are all way behind, so outside they sit, with my fingers crossed. Surely the most-common vinifera varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris) are also way behind, because they ripen long after mine.

All of that sounds pretty bad, for this year.

However, if the grapes survive these rains, it looks like there are still many sunny days probably coming, after next week's two-day return of yet more rains. That is why it's so tough to say, now, whether this is a good or bad grape year here. The big question will be: Does anybody still have healthy grapes, with good flavors, after the rains, birds, wasps, and fungus have all done their worst? I am not very optimistic that most vineyards will do well this year. I know that I will lose a lot of my remaining fruit.

Many grapegrowers put such a heavy spin on late-season rain that they begin to lose credibility. They want you to think it's not so bad, because they have wines to sell. I've heard remarks like, "Oh, we needed some rain, because the grapes were very dry." Maybe, if the vine was so drought-stressed that there was danger the fruit wouldn't ripen. But usually a super-dry summer will result in great fruit, as the plant (pardon my anthropromorphism here) is worried about the drought conditions, and is in fear for its own survival, and tries extra hard to make its grapes the most-delicious-possible so the grape-eating predator will scatter the seeds for the mother plant. Irrigated vineyards might water during the summer, but by about mid-August they shut off the watering, because the fruit is best when it finishes dry. That is the plain truth.

On the hotter, dry side of the Cascades, it is probably still looking good.

This kind of summer makes me very glad that my vineyard is small and I don't need the wines from this year's fruit to be able to pay the bills. And yet, I have to say that the wines I'm already making should turn out good. But overall yield could be quite low this year, and overall quality could also be low, depending on the above factors for each specific location and variety.

(photo credit: Tanzania)

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Let's talk Grape Genetics and Selfing, and look at what sprouted in our potatoes!

Many thanks to Jon, one of the grapebreeders, and to Jean in Quebec and Troy in New Mexico for helping me understand this topic:

Most of you who are gardeners or farmers know that some seeds grow true and some do not. I've been told that a wild plum whose fruit I love wouldn't grow true from seed, so I was lucky to be able to root a cutting of it, and now the new tree is in a better spot (more sun, in our Middle Orchard). 

Grapes also don't grow true from seed. A grape's offspring will be different from their parent--maybe better, maybe worse. If an offspring is successful, it will tend to produce better offspring than its less-successful siblings. That is how evolution works.  

So, I found a grape seedling growing in one of our raised vegetable beds, amidst some potatoes. This was a very healthy young vine. I traced its unique leaf shape, color, and veining pattern to one of the grapes in the Epona Vineyard: the Delicatessen grape, one of my favorites. I've potted it up, and plan to raise it and see if and how its fruit is different. Growing a plant from its parent's seed is calling "selfing."

Here's Jon's response to my genetics question: 

"Yes, when you "self" a grapevine you will end up with new combinations of alleles, and the seedling is likely to be different in some respects to the parent.  There are some old American cultivars that are selfed seedlings of older cultivars. 

Here is a very basic summary of what is going on. Most cells in a grape vine have two copies of each chromosome, and thus can have two different copies of each gene. Consider a simple Mendelian scenario, where you have a dominant allele for big berries ("B"), and a recessive allele for small berries ("b"). You can have three genotypes: BB, Bb, and bb.  Since B is dominant, BB and Bb will both have big berries, and bb will have small berries. Now, when a  plant makes pollen and eggs, they only get one copy of each gene. So, with eggs and pollen from a parent with a heterozygous genotype (Bb), some will get B, and others will get b. When the plant fertilizes itself, depending on the combination of alleles inherited from the eggs and sperm, you could get embryos with any of the three genotypes, BB, Bb, or bb.  So, you can see how a parent that is heterozygous for big berries could produce big or small berried offspring.

Grapes are heterozygous for most genes, so in a selfing scenario, you have the above mechanism playing out countless times at the various loci (locations in the genome). This is what people mean when they mention that selfed seedlings get a "reshuffling" of their genes; No new genes can come into play, but new combinations of existing alleles surely will. 

So, your Deli seedling will surely have some differences, but will likely be very similar to the parent. One thing that is reputed to happen a lot with selfing is the production of runty, weak seedlings, resulting from the expression of normally masked recessive alleles, but it doesn't sound like you have one of these."

My hope is that this vine might bring some advantage compared to its parent Possible improvements (which I'll either see, or not see, in this offspring) are: greater vine vigor; more fruit yield; more complexity in flavor; earlier ripening.  We'll see. This is a "long game"--it will take 3-5 years to learn what we have here. It's the chase that fascinates growers. There's a tiny chance that this vine is something big, but it's far more likely that it will be so close to its parent that it doesn't deserve to be considered different. 

Thursday, August 1, 2019

France and Spain moving quickly now to modern grape varieties, to minimize poisonous spraying

THIS is great news. We continue to see reason take hold over senseless attachment to the old ways. Lives of vineyard workers are at stake, not to mention the lives of billions of beneficial worms and microbes in the soil, which inorganic sprays have been killing for decades now.

When France allows modern grapes (after a century of senselessly prohibiting them), you know the tide is turning. Read my book! Modern Grapes for the Pacific Northwest (on Amazon).


2019 Grape Harvest Report, SW Washington

Harvest 2019: The Good, The Ugly 1. The Ugly:  a. Bud break was two weeks late here on the Wet Side (of the Cascades), and summer was...