2011,  A Year To Think Outside The Box

As the 2011 growing season started to mature we knew it would be one of the coolest in recent memory. Then, early October brought more than two inches of rain, kicking off the harvest that will be remembered for the challenges brought on by perfect conditions for fungal growth.

I am reminded that my forty-second harvest still does not quite qualify me as an old timer when I hear long time growers relate that this was the worst rot year since the mid-1950’s. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that is pushing sixty years.  Along with the damp, foggy mornings that never seemed to dry out, came afternoon temperatures in the mid-seventies to mid-eighties;  a virtual incubator for anything fungal.

Chardonnay Beginning To Show Its Beautiful Golden Color

Challenges?  Yes.  Late Spring and early Fall rains, a cool growing season, October weather perfect for fungus growth, a delayed harvest, and labor in short supply.

Opportunities?  Yes, if you had the presence of mind to stay off the panic button and to think a little outside the box.  Those that picked early ended up with under ripe fruit that makes for tart, uninteresting wines full of challenges in the winery.  Those that had the patience to realize this was simply going to be a late harvest reaped the benefit of fruit with European elegance supported by cool season acid levels;  a combination that will reward us with longer aging wines with a finesse and elegance seldom achieved in California conditions.  In 2010 Wicker Vineyards produced our 10th Cabernet and our first Burgundy style Chardonnay.  Because of conditions in 2011 we added a Late Harvest Chardonnay and a Cabernet Port style fortified dessert wine.  Thinking outside the box.

Picking our Chardonnay in the pre-dawn hours of October 20, we found it necessary to leave nearly half our crop on the vines because of bunch rot; a tough realization for a year in which we had hoped to double our Chardonnay case production.  Close inspection in the daylight hours revealed that the remaining fruit was infected with pure, clean Botrytis; free of black or green molds or sour rot.  This clean ‘noble rot’ was the setup for an exciting opportunity; the rare production of a late harvest wine with complex, nectar-like qualities brought about by dehydration and concentration of natural fruit flavors.

2011 also brought the opportunity for us to make another Port style fortified dessert wine from our Cabernet Estate vineyard on Howell Mountain.  A 30 Brix lot of Cabernet, fortified with high quality distilled spirits from Germain-Robin will produce a luscious, fruit driven port with beautiful cognac undertones.

Thinking outside the box.  Opportunities in 2011 are allowing us to make not only our Estate Vineyard Cabernet and Chardonnay, but two additions to our offerings from a very challenging vintage.

Beautiful Cabernet Clusters Start To Ripen In September

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Not one to complain about the weather, I AM ready for the rain to move on, and the warmth of Spring to make itself known.

Our Cabernet on Howell Mt. is not yet in bloom, so I do not expect to see any damage from the rain there. By next week, when the promised warm weather arrives, we will be in bloom with perfect temperatures and no rain.

Our Chardonnay, south of Napa, however is trying to begin its bloom stage, and could be effected by the wet weather still coming this weekend. If we are at full bloom, the pollen will be ‘washed’ off and the berries for this years crop will not set. By this time next week we will have a better idea.

In the meantime, the rain is proving to be little more than a nuisance. It has complicated our mildew and botrytis bunch rot control programs, and put our vine development some where between 2009 and 2010. With 90 degree weather predicted for next week, we could start to make up the difference.

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And, the real truth is….we love cool years. Slower ripening fruit maintains better acid levels and develops ripe flavors without excessively high sugar levels. The result is Wicker Vineyards’ style of wine. Wines with style and finesse. Pretty wines that hold your attention and leave you with the feeling you just drank something with compelling flavor and a richness you will remember.

Bring it on, 2011!!!!

With the tease of Spring for a couple weeks in early February, it’s not difficult to think Winter is over and done.  But God has a way of letting us know he is still in charge.

April 1, 2010. Snow Cap on Mt. St. Helena.

Snow in San Francisco!! Perhaps on Friday or Saturday that could happen.  I am expecting to see snow ringing the Napa Valley by the weekend, but that is still only the end of February.  In 2010 we had a snow cap on Mt.  St. Helena on April 1st, and it wasn’t an April Fools joke.

The good news for now, is that the vines are still dormant, although it won’t take more than a couple of days at 75 degrees to see buds start to pop into this years new growth.

You may have seen a lot of  vines in the Valley this year with “long haircuts”.  Our Cabernet was “long” pruned a month ago, leaving canes 12 to 14 inches long.  Just as we see signs of bud swell this spring, we will go back into the vineyard and “finish” prune the vines, selecting the spurs to remain for this year’s crop.

Wicker Vineyards Cabernet Vines Waiting For Final Pruning Cuts

This buys us a couple of benefits.

First, it allows us to make the finish cuts just as the shoots start to grow.  Without all the long brush to pull from the canopy, there is no danger of breaking off the tender new buds.  This gains us as much as a week or ten days of frost protection by delaying the bud break.

Secondly, this practice helps us control Eutypa fungus infections.  The free fungus spores are released by rainfall, and infect the vine through the fresh pruning cuts.  When we make the final cuts, any early, wet season infection by Eutypa spores is trimmed off before it has a chance to work its way into the main structure of the vine.  This is a great example sustainable practice farming, preserving vine health without the use of chemicals.

Early April Snow Cap on Mt. St. Helena Was No April Fools Joke

2010:  A growing season to remember.

This was my 41st harvest in Napa Valley since making grape growing my career in 1970; and not one I will soon forget.  The unusually cool season tested the patience of grape growers, many of whom reacted by removing leaves and canopy in a misguided effort to “accelerate” the ripening process.  This season’s fruit had not been exposed to heat all season, and with the exposure created by removing leaves that provide natural shade, the fruit was subject to severe damage when the late season temperatures spiked to 110 degrees or more.

With experience telling us we would see hot weather before the season was over, we were very careful to leave leaf cover to provide protection to the “unseasoned” fruit, particularly on the afternoon side of the vines.  Not only are these leaves nature’s shade cover, but each leaf is also the plant’s tiny photosynthetic “factory”, providing carbohydrates and nutrient utilization.

2010 Cabernet in beautiful condition just prior to harvest

We were also careful to anticipate the hot weather, making sure the vines were properly hydrated and nourished, much as we humans need plenty of water when it gets hot.  The plant reacts to the sudden heat much like we do, feeling the effects of sudden temperature changes.  When we go from 75 degree weather to sudden 100 degree spells, we find ourselves seeking shade, water and someway to cool off.

Our Howell Mt. fruit made it to harvest in prime condition.  The 2010 Wicker Vineyards Cabernet is in barrels and tasting lush and rich already.  I believe this is one of those years that will lend itself perfectly to our complex, elegant style.  Another Wicker vintage to anticipate.

First Signs of Spring

Spring is just around the corner.

The daffys always give us a look at some of the first spring color.  Next weekend we will “spring” ahead as we enter daylight savings time so that we can start waking up in the dark again!

We have held off pruning our Cabernet until the last minute, but finished it this weekend.  Many of you have seen the process, but for those who haven’t, here is a short video clip of one vine being prepped for the season.  This is one of the most important steps in each growing season, as it not only sets the potential for the crop level, but determines the shape of the vine for years to come.  Notice the skillful thought and care that goes into each cut.  There is something therapeutic about the “clip, clip, clip” of the pruning pace.   It kind of puts us  “at one with the vine”.

You will notice that the canes being removed are being piled in the row behind the pruner. When we are finished, we will pick up all the small brush piles, carry them out of the vineyard, and mulch them for compost.  Two years from now, this compost will be returned to the vineyard rows to help with moisture retention and weed suppression.

Every year we get a week or ten days of spring-like weather in February. I’m convinced that it is always timed just for my birthday. With today’s overcast, cold and drizzly weather, it is hard to believe that LAST Sunday we rode the scooter over to Bodega Bay for lunch; on up the coast to Jenner and then back through Guerneville and Santa Rosa. It was “shirt sleeve” weather on the coast with a few brave folks actually on the beaches in swim suits.  It wasn’t THAT warm!!

Now we are back in the waiting mode for some more rain, which we still badly need. Today’s mist hardly counted. Cold and clear tomorrow, with rain to follow on Wednesday and Thursday. In the meantime, the vines are getting ready to push their Spring growth. We are waiting until the last moment to prune our Cabernet vines, but a close look this weekend revealed a few buds starting to soften as they get ready to push new shoots. A few pruning cuts confirmed that Spring is just around the corner… within a few seconds of making a cut, sap was flowing from the open end… A sure sign that the vines are getting ready to start the 2010 growing season.

As we move into 2010, it is hard to imagine we are entering our tenth vintage of Wicker Vineyards Cabernet production. This past weekend, as we shared our wine with some new friends, we were reminded of how effective our decision to hold our wines until they started to “open up” in the glass has been. With our 2003 as our current release, the first word from 90 percent of folks who taste our wine for the first time is “WOW”.  That first impression is the result of the additional bottle age which allows our nicely balanced wines to express their wonderful Howell Mt. fruit when poured.

We are now about to take another unusual move by wine industry standards:  We will jump over our 2004, and release the ’05 first.  We started pouring our ’05 half bottles earlier this winter, and I now believe the full sized 750 ml bottles are ready for enjoyment.  Look for an announcement of the entry of the 2005 Wicker Vineyards Cabernet into the market in the near future.

We will continue to monitor our 2004 as it matures in the bottle.  At the time of bottling, it was an incredibly intense, complex example of our Howell Mountain site.  We are very excited about its progress, and are looking forward to making it available as soon as it is ready.

Speaking of age:  We had an opportunity to enjoy a bottle of our initial 2001 vintage this weekend.  Any questions we may have had about the ability of our wines to age well are being answered by the grace with which this wine enters 2010.  The tannins are still tight and silky, the fruit elegant, and the long juicy finish still intact.  Here’s to a great future.