Winemaking is a humbling occupation. At its core, we are simply farmers and very much at the mercy of "Mother Nature". As farmers, we may have a significant amount of control over various vineyard practices, such as irrigation and canopy management, but those practices are in turn decided by weather and growth patterns. As a result, we are constantly monitoring our vineyards, and watching for the slightest change that will outline the pace of our work as well as foreshadow the season ahead. While the growth cycle is a complex series of biological events, there are three events in particular that we find to be well documented and shared on social media: budbreak, veraison, and, of course, harvest! These three occurrences stand out more than others, because they are visually significant milestones to the winemaker. Since we are nearing the end of veraison and coming close to harvest once again, we thought it would be a good time to define and summarize these three points so that, in a way, you can "join" us in our current activities.
The quiet months at the end of the year following harvest are a much-needed break from the constant bustle, but the vineyards do tend to look rather depleted in their dormant state. In contrast, bud break in the Spring of each year is one of the first signs of a waking vineyard and one of the most dramatic. It is when the green plant material of the vines breaks through the bud scale, and therefore almost perfectly defined in its name. This plant material steadily becomes the canopy (the leafy green portion of the vine) and eventually develops the fruit from which we make our wine. When the vines begin to "push", they can tell us a lot about the health and vigor of the vineyard, which in turn will prepare the experienced farmer for how much work is likely to lie ahead.
The next big series of changes generally begin in late May or early June: bloom (the development of flowers) then "berry" set (when fertilized flowers begin to form into "berries" -- the formation of grapes). These events are generally less discussed with the public, probably because the flowers are very small and look nothing at all like what comes to mind when the word "flower" is presented. Young berries are very small, green, and difficult to differentiate. They also taste terrible as they lack any sugar. It isn't until veraison that we begin to see the aesthetic changes that are dramatic enough to incite real excitement. Veraison is the point where the berries begin to change color, from bright green to yellow/pale green in white wine grape varietals and to purple/red in red wine varietals. It is, therefore, appropriate that the word "veraison" is derived from the French word "verer", meaning "to change". During this period the berries begin to undergo rapid increases in sugar content as they mature. This is the first indication that harvest is near. At this time, winemakers are very busy -- readying the cellars by cleaning and maintaining equipment that hasn't been used since the previous year, as well as spending as much time with their families before the unpredictability of harvest sets in.
Finally, the big event arrives -- harvest. Winemakers and grape growers spend their mornings obsessively walking their vineyards, tasting fruit, and testing sugar levels so that they do not miss the narrow window of desired maturity. This requires a great deal of experience to predict accurately the optimal point of maturity in order to schedule a picking crew. While it is easy to cancel a pick, it is not as easy to reschedule. With so many wine producers in the area of the Al Lago vineyard in the Santa Rosa Valley, these labor crews are in high demand. Since the sugar level in grapes increases dramatically during the peak of the growing season, anticipating a correct pick is essential to preserving the balance between all elements in the berries. Picking too early or too late is a problem; each come with their own set of consequences and produce wines that require more intervention than would have been necessary.
Harvest is right around the corner for us at Al Lago and we are busy cleaning, making room in the cellar, buying barrels, and watching the vineyards with bated breath. Summer 2019 has been a mild season, pushing harvest later than we've seen in the previous years, but that only means these wines will be new and exciting experiences.