Wednesday, September 11, 2002

The Harvest Begins

I had no intention of making Pinot Noir. After playing with Merlot, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon in recent vintages, this year my mind was running toward Zinfandel. It's the classic home winemaker's grape, said to be easy to handle, forgiving of errors—and if you're going to end up with 22 cases of wine to drink and give away, Zin's the one. Ain't a person alive who doesn't like it.

But along comes an email message from a grower friend in Mendocino saying the Pinot Noir is at 23, 24 brix—want some? My first thought was of my buddy Casey Hartlip at Eaglepoint Ranch, who told me once that Pinot is fine but personally he'd rather make and drink red wine.

Pinot is, typically, lighter in color and in body. Moreover, it is widely seen as the feminine counterpoint to the masculine Cab. Even big, powerful Pinots retain a slinky, sexy side. Think of Serena Williams in that black tights-jumper outfit: big and powerful, yes, but very much a woman. Likewise Pinot. And anyway, the probability was that my Pinot would be less than mighty: the vineyard I'd be sourcing from is a warm site and the vines are young. But, then again, with Pinot you never know. The word most often used to describe it is "mercurial," and winemakers who have worked with Pinot vintage after vintage can be counted on to profess their continuing curiosity and surprise at its behavior. So what the hell did I know? Maybe Pinot from this spot would surprise me and be delicious. Anyway, it was September. It was time to make wine. I said yes.

So on Sunday, Sept. 8, we picked 'em and squished 'em. My friend Dan, a veteran of many a battle with the dreaded rented crusher, came up from Berkeley and got his first taste of vineyard action. And this year my wife, Rebecca, and son, Niko (three weeks shy of his third birthday), along with three wonderful new friends—Dawni, Kevin and their little boy, Jacob—also joined in the fun. We tossed several food-grade plastic garbage cans into a minivan and a Subaru wagon and headed through the valleys Napa, Knights and Alexander. We regrouped in Hopland, where the Phoenix Bread Company sells an apple turnover for 5 bucks, I kid you not. (I thought it was $5 for a half-dozen. Dan thought maybe for the whole baking sheet of pastries. Nope. Each.) Then we regrouped again just a few hundred yards past Hopland, when a high school physics exam that Kevin was grading flew out the Subaru window, and they stopped to fetch it.

Greg Nelson's vineyard is a hill or two past Hopland and a hill or two before Ukiah, right off 101. He grows everything. Pinot Gris, Chard, Merlot, Cab, Merlot, Zin, the list goes on. He's a good grower, smart and always looking for ways to do better, keeping an eye out for what's hot, asking questions. He told me he would be around, but water problems on the ranch—"Always the water," said Greg's wife, Missy—had him on the road looking for parts. No matter. Missy directed us to the block and told us to pick away.

(Before I go on, I should say a few words about the importance of the picking of the grapes in winemaking. What is the primary factor in producing wines that dazzle the senses, sway the intellect and woo the heart? There are people who believe that great wine is all about the grapes. They say things like, "You can make mediocre wine with slightly below average grapes, but you can't get your teenage son to mow the lawn for less than $15, and that's an outrage." This is the Grape School. And there are those who say the winemaking techniques employed hold primacy (this is the Winemaker School, which no winemaker in the history of alcoholic fermentation has declared allegiance to—publicly). Lesser known, perhaps, is a third school of thought: the Picker School. Under this thinking, it is the picker, ultimately, in whose hands vinous fate is cradled. I am agnostic on this question, as I have great respect for growers, winemakers and pickers—and, truth be told, I think the barrel cleaners and the bottlers are pretty darn important, too.

Time had slipped past 11 a.m. and the sun was high and strong, but we were a day ahead of the heat wave. For us, warm temps; tomorrow would bring sizzling heat. This picking was more difficult than I had remembered picking to be from my experience in Oregon. Pinot's tight clusters wrap themselves around guide wires, shoots and canes and hide behind other bunches, posts and huge webs guarded by vicious spiders. Mercurial? Ha! this grape is a pain the ass. The five adults worked away, the vineyard quiet save for a whirring remote control car and the chatter and occasional screeches and wails of little boys. Most of the time, one of the wiminfolk kept an eye on the lads and their car while the guys picked (and, it must be said, the little guys were great through a very long day).

When you throw that first bucket of grapes into a 44-gallon garbage bin you think it's going to take forever to fill it—and it almost does. Despite the size of our contingent, it took more than two hours to gather in about 700 pounds, an amount that would fill a 26-gallon barrel and allow for the making of about 5 gallons of rose as well as, quite probably, the spillage of several gallons (I am the world's sloppiest winemaker).

Next: The Crush

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