One of the best things about living in Sonoma is the direct access Meredith and I have to the winemakers who make our favorite wines.
But I might have one up on my podcast buddy here because every month, I have a standing invitation to a winemaker’s luncheon where the who’s who in Sonoma and Napa gather together to share wines, talk about the industry, and basically spend a long afternoon of bonding. I’ve been attending these luncheons for about two years — give or take a few months and a global pandemic — and I’ve met some of my favorite people this way. And, of course, I’ve sipped on some killer wines, too!
There’s never an ounce of pretension at these gatherings. Everyone in attendance embraces a brotherly-natured connection to one another, and we exchange and share thoughts and ideas as freely as we share our wines. It’s a time when any competition or salesmanship is set aside, and we all just lean into the common struggles and passions that go hand-and-hand when you’re doing anything with wine in this part of the world. We just hang out, eat amazing food, and drink wines we can’t wait to analyze with one another.
I was looking forward to the September gathering in particular because I’m always eager to hear harvest stories. Everyone comes loaded with them in the fall. It’s a season they’ve all been pondering and perhaps even obsessing over since the previous harvest, and each year, there are new stories to absorb. Now, I’ve said this on the podcast before, but there’s a pretty common saying in the Wine Country that goes like this:
Show me a winemaker who doesn’t believe in God, and I’ll show you a fool.That saying has real poignancy this time of year because when you grow grapes and turn them into wine, there are so many things happening that are beyond your ability to control, and getting the timing just right and making every move with precision is everything. Every decision these winemakers set in motion right now is critically important, and so talk of yields, brix, weather predictions, and hiring the right pickers for the harvest were laid out on the table at our last luncheon — right next to the perfectly cooked cutthroat salmon and decadent gourmet potato salad made with tart apples and sweet relish.
I thought it might be fun for me to share a few of the things I learned at the luncheon about the 2021 Harvest in a blog. In the same way that no artisan wine is exactly like another, every one of my winemaking buddies had a slightly different opinion on what we can expect, however, everyone could agree that 2021 is going to produce some exceptionally good wines. Here are just a handful of other insights I gathered as I let the late afternoon sun and fresh breeze ease me into a beautiful headspace!
For a few of the guys at the luncheon, securing the right labor force to pick at the perfect time has added a little extra stress to this harvest season. Labor has gotten scarce in this post-pandemic world, and as a result, farmers are facing a reality that the perfect time to pick might not coincide with the labor schedule.
However, that allusive “perfect time to pick” is also something that was discussed at great length with lots of different opinions and reasons tossed in. For some of the winemakers around my table, the recent shift in the marketplace for wines with a lower alcohol by volume means picking grapes at a lower brix — which also means these winemakers were already done with harvest by the time the luncheon rolled around. While other winemakers — who never let trends influence their style of winemaking — were still holding out for their perfect sugar levels, which means letting their grapes hang longer into the deepest part of the harvest season.
Picking early by choice is one thing, but there were other winemakers who were picking early out of an abundance of caution as fire season looms and only gets more threatening the longer you’ve got your grapes on the vine. So finding that balance between picking with the optimal sugar levels and wanting to get those precious grapes off the vines before a fire flares up with no warning is always a reality that keeps a farmer in the California Wine Country up at night.
Winemakers take talking about the weather from a boring cliche to the ultimate conversation that always gives me such insights about the upcoming vintage. So the fact that we had so little rain this winter, and almost no rain this summer, means that the grape yield is incredibly high across the board. And with that lack of rain also comes a very healthy crop in terms of no “shatter.” Grape shatter is when a grape cluster fails to develop into maturity and it’s kind of a nightmare for growers — and, it’s one of the variables that impacts crop values.
Overall, I did find a strong consensus among my buddies that the 2021 vintage is going to produce wines that the winemakers are excited about and they will be wines they all believe will usher in that sense of anticipation and delight that these guys live for. We say it all the time at these luncheons: it’s easier to make wine than it is to sell it to the masses, but harvest is a critical juncture where the reality of the uphill climb to make the most delicious wines is most notable on every level!