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And the Rains Came

September 24, 1997|MATT KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kramer is the author of several books, including "Making Sense of Wine" (Morrow, 1992)

After 20 years of wine writing, I have yet to learn one important lesson: Never write a harvest report. Whatever you say, no matter how assiduously researched or carefully worded, will be wrong.

This latest harvest is a stellar example. I forayed to Napa Valley to get a feel for the harvest there. It's been a tricky year, what with the mother of all El Nin~os apparently acting up, a prolonged dry spell--drought, really--and then episodic rains. What's more, after three consecutive small crops, the '97 vintage loomed as the largest in recent years.

Grape growers come in only two flavors: morose or insistently optimistic. And keep in mind that harvest gives new meaning to the word "stress." Few of us have jobs in which everything we've worked for all year long comes down to one make-or-break moment.

So the grape growers protect themselves in one of two ways. The optimists haul out that maternal mantra, "Everything will look better in the morning." Darker sorts assume that everything will be awful, as always. This way, they figure, they'll be pleasantly surprised if it doesn't turn out so bad after all.

In any case, like the proverbial blind men feeling different parts of the elephant, winemakers know only their own vineyards. Take Robert Brittan, winemaker at Napa Valley's Stags' Leap Winery.

"We've had this absolutely killer ripening period," he declares. "We've got a lot of raisining and very small berries in the Cabernet. Yet it's a big crop. The Cabernet has high sugars and low pH." More often, big crops have large juice-engorged berries in which the sugar and acid numbers are not quite so ideal.

But in a different part of Napa Valley, high up Howell Mountain, winegrower Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards says of the large harvest: "The cluster count is the same, but the berries are big." He, too, noted good acidity and sugars. But that was before the rain.

Will the rain matter? Well, it depends. The first rainfall, on Aug. 19, dumped as much as an inch on parts of the North Coast, the most for that date since 1967. August usually sees no rain.

What rain does to grapes is both obvious and subtle. The obvious part is that grape roots will take up water and efficiently distribute it to the grapes, enlarging them and diluting their flavor components. If the rain stops and sunny warmth returns, this dilution can be reversed.

Less obvious is the effect on the grape skin. If the skin is penetrated by mold spores--easier with thin-skinned grapes than with thick-skinned ones--the result is both irreversible and tasteable. Wines, especially white wines, can show a taste of rot and suffer early oxidation. Enzymes from the mold accelerate oxidation and destroy the pigments that give wines their color.

So what that first rain, along with warm weather, means for grapes also depends upon the variety. It's largely a matter of whether the grape is thin-skinned (Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah) or thick-skinned (Cabernet Sauvignon).

The nature of cluster shape--tight bunches such as Pinot Noir or airy, loose clusters such as Cabernet--makes a difference too. Tight-cluster, thin-skinned grapes are likely to rot (and quickly), while hang-loose tougher-skinned varieties aren't.

"Chardonnay saw some bunch rot," says Bob Sessions, winemaker and manager of Sonoma County's Hanzell Vineyards. "We got a little bit of rot. We would have gotten more, but immediately after the rain we went out and pulled a lot of leaves. That opens up the canopy and allows drying air to get to the clusters."

The signature of this year's harvest, its abundant yields, is revealed by Hanzell Vineyards, famed for its very low yields. Sessions says with a gee-whiz awe, "Really, it's historical. Typically, we get about 40 tons of grapes total between our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This year we got 110 tons. That's about 3 1/2 tons an acre, which for us is huge."

Another low-yield specialist, Mayacamas Vineyards high up on Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley, also saw what was for it a big crop. "It's the biggest quantity we've seen in four years," owner-winemaker Bob Travers says. "I mean, we got over one ton an acre on the Chardonnay." At first I thought he was joking. He wasn't. "A big Chardonnay crop for us is 3/4 ton an acre," Travers insists.

As for bunch rot, Mayacamas Vineyards escaped without a blemish. "The evaporation rate from the dry weather after the rain--we got 88/100 of an inch--was fast enough that the rot never got a chance to take hold," Travers says. "We started harvesting on Aug. 25 and, unusually, there were no stops and starts. We were really lucky."

Mayacamas Vineyards' one-ton-to-the-acre Chardonnay yield is so preposterously low it's almost laughable. Some growers had Chardonnay yields as high as six to eight tons an acre, but nobody's exactly bragging about it.

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