This is the 2016 Harvest After Action Report (AAR) from Amalie Robert Estate. Let’s get right to it, then.
As most of the world is aware the United States held a presidential election in 2016, a leap year. But what you may not be aware of is that while a presidential election occurs every four years, not every presidential election year falls on a leap year. (To everyone who voted in a United States presidential election when it was not a leap year, we salute you!)
The reason is not that farming obvious. This is why we are here, the farming geniuses that we are, to explain the farming significance of these sorts of things. As you know, we farm using the Julian calendar, as do most farmers, where each day is successively numbered and the days in a year total 365 except for the leap year which tallies 366 days. The most important thing to know about a leap year is that you have to work an extra day, usually without extra pay. But each and every year in the fall we get an extra hour, which we bank for harvest.
But the world mostly runs on the Gregorian calendar, which dictates that years marking the end of a century (i.e. multiples of 100) are only leap years if also divisible by 400. The year 1900 was not a leap year, but the year 2000 was. This difference comes from the need to account for the slight rounding error that occurs by counting each year as 365.25 days when it is actually 365.24. Really… And if our orbit around the sun decays, we could be in for more of these leap years. Might we have one for the mid-term elections as well?
By skipping leap years on turns of the century that are not divisible by 400, the Gregorian calendar is able to compensate for the 11 minute loss of accuracy each year. This is an example of where central planning of a calendar provides everyone certainty, while the distributed decision making of daylight savings time keeps everyone guessing. Could daylight savings time be an example of “negotiated reality?”
However, you can make a little extra coin at super trivia with these facts. The presidential elections held in the years 1800 and 1900 were not leap years. The presidential election held in 2000 was a leap year, but the 2100 presidential election will not fall on a leap year. Projections beyond the year 2100 are an exercise left for the reader.
“Why for fifty-three years I've put up with it now…”
- The Grinch on presidential elections.
The Great Cluster Pluck of 2016 commenced on September 23rd, as they always do – in earnest. Once again the rascally little Gewürztraminer was the first grape “in da house.” 2016 was the second year of fruiting and the vines yielded a more sustainable 30 bottle production. As you may recall, the 2015 production amounted to a whopping 9 bottle lot. But then things started to get a bit more serious.
All summer we were seeing a redux of the 2013-2015 vintages – hot and dry. Warm nighttime temperatures again were the norm, and this kept the vines actively ripening their wine berries well into the night when they should have been dormant. That’s their job - responding to their climactic conditions. Our job is to figure out how to farm them, and this year we had the advantage of three years past experience. But three years of experience we did not have. What we had was one year of experience three times.
Vintages that we really cut our teeth on were 2007, 2010 and 2011. These were tough vintages to achieve full ripeness. But we did it by managing the canopy leaf exposure and water usage, adjusting the crop load and using the available soil moisture to the vine roots via the vineyard floor to adjust the ripening curve. When you look in the farming toolbox, those are the tools a dry farmed vineyard has to work with, and maybe some duct tape. So while knowing how and when to employ those tools as well as actually getting the work done on time is important, the thing you must know is when to harvest.
“Well, you have to know these things when you are a king, you know.”
- King Arthur, as interpreted by Monty Python
First Peasant: Who's that there?
Second Peasant: I don't know... Must be a king.
First Peasant: Why?
Second Peasant: He hasn't got shit all over him.
- King Arthur seen by his subjects, as interpreted by Monty Python
- But everyone does it a little bit differently, as interpreted by Monty Python
Even if we think we get it right in the vineyard, the true test is pulling a cork 5 to 7+ years after the vintage – leap year or not. We suppose, however, more wine is consumed in leap years than not, especially ones divisible by 400.
But Ceteris Paribus it was not, as 2016 provided a few surprises that we did not have in the three previous years. The foremost was a broken clutch cable on the hedging tractor. Fortunately, Ernie was in the process of completing what would become his last hedging pass, when he pushed the clutch pedal to the floor and it stayed right there on the floor. The tractor, however, kept moving thus providing a sudden sense of urgency and attention to detail focused on arresting forward progress forthwith.
Timing is everything and the field crew was just headed to the barn at the end of their day. With the help of 3 able bodied lads pushing the disabled tractor, Ernie was able to get up enough speed to power shift back to the shop where the tractor would lie in wait for a new clutch cable. Advantage: Vines.
And we earned a 97 point review for The Reserve Pinot Noir. That was new.
“This is one of the Willamette Valley’s most distinguished wineries, but not one that is widely known...
The vintner’s favorite barrels of the vintage. Whole cluster inclusion and fermentation with feral yeasts. Aged a minimum of 18 months in French oak barrels. Moderately light reddish purple color in the glass. Exuberant aromas of cherry, wildflower, baking spice and nutty oak. The gorgeous core of black cherry fruit is blessed with supportive, age worthy firm tannins. Flavor notes of exotic spices, vanilla and nutty oak add interest. Long in the mouth and extremely long on the extraordinary finish. A serious, connoisseur's wine that needs time in the cellar for full enjoyment. Even better when tasted several hours later and the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Did I say the finish goes on and on?”
- William "Rusty" Gaffney, M.D., PinotFile, September 2016 - 97 points
Another significant difference from previous years was that we had a lighter fruit set. That gave us less fruit on the vine to distribute the rapidly accumulating sugars. That fact, combined with the rapidly advancing heat accumulations foretold the story of an impending harvest. But what about the rain, you ask? There’s got to be rain, right?
Apparently, the rain dance manual was revised and Ernie did not get the update. Oh sure, he tried and tried, but the rain we received through mid-September was not enough to hold back the few blocks of young vines we have grafted onto shallow rooting rootstocks. All vines accelerate ripening (aka accumulate sugars) when they run out of available soil moisture in their root zone. Young vines are at a significant disadvantage due to a smaller and shallower root system that has yet to colonize all the available soil profile and extract every last bit of soil moisture.
But wait, there’s more to that story. Once the vines run out of available soil moisture, desiccation sets in and the vines scavenge water from the wine berry. Warm sunny days with warm breezes exacerbate the vines drought condition. From a numbers point of view, the sugars are going up (concentrating) which means the wine berries are ripening. But the acids are going up as well, and that does not mean ripening is advancing. Increased acids along with increased sugars mean the wine berry is losing water to desiccation or the vine is taking it for the leaves. Flavors and aromas are not maturing in a commensurate manner with the sugar accumulation and alcohol potential. When that happens, you gotta pick ‘em. And by then, it’s a full-on cluster pluck.
Now we add in the human factor. There are only so many hands available to pick wine berries on any given day. All the growers whose acreage resides on the same soil type that is farmed pretty much the same way find themselves in a very small available labor pool. While bigger is not necessarily always better, we will go with the bigger labor pool every time. And that paid off handsomely during the last 10 days of our cluster pluck. We had great crews for the very simple fact that no one else was harvesting.
And here is the history lesson for today. Shallow rooted vines such as those grafted onto RG, 101-14, 3309 and Schwarzmann feel the burn before more deeply rooted vines such as those grafted onto 5C. As the north Willamette Valley has always had a marginal climate for Pinot Noir, meaning a cool growing season with fall rains, most growers have tended to plant vines with shallow root systems that will dry out and advance ripening before the ass-end falls out of the vintage. The Drouhins also had a hand in this mentality as they planted shallow rooting rootstocks when they came to Oregon from Burgundy in the 1990s.
As we were planning our vineyard at the turn of the century, Ernie asked Robert Drouhin why they chose the shallow rooting rootstocks that they did, and his reply was, “That’s all we could get.” And the Oregon wine industry mostly followed their lead in rootstock selection. (A parenthetical note: The Drouhins also have irrigation which can extend a hot and dry vintage. Most of the Oregon wine industry does not have irrigation.) Due diligence, you gotta do it…
Except Ernie, of course, who planted a significant portion of our vines grafted onto 5C rootstock. Texas born and bred, the 5C rootstock most closely matches how own rooted vines grow in the soil. That drought tolerant rootstock develops root systems that are long, deep and continuously searching for water. That means you will be waiting a bit longer in most vintages to harvest. In warm years this means more hang time for aroma and flavor development with less sugar accumulation that lowers potential alcohols. In cool vintages (2007, 2010 and 2011) those wines are sublime. Love that Bellpine soil!
The first half of September gave us about 0.28 inches of rain. The last half of September is where we started to rekindle a glimmer of hope with 1.55 inches of rain. And then, apparently, Mother Nature got around to Ernie’s improperly formatted requests for rain – all of them. So we then commenced the cluster pluck dance. The second day of October gave us 0.11 inches of rain mostly during the early morning hours. Not too bad and we cluster plucked all day long.
The third day of October gave us 0.82 inches of rain and we sat that one out. However the vines did not. They were busy rehydrating the wine berries and lowering the alcohol potential of our yet to be picked wines. We sat back and looked over the 60 or so tons left to cluster pluck and thought “If we lived in Dundee, we’d be done by now!” Volcanic soils…. Oh really?
After a few days of cluster plucking, we were right back in the groove just like the movie Groundhog Day. It’s 5:30 am and time for a steaming flagon of Dark Monster morning stimulant. Up to the winery, fire up the Landini (aka landweenie) tractors, check the tires and work the clutch cable – check! The crew (usually) arrives in the predawn glow, and we are ready to go!
First light on the morning of harvest is an awe inspiring experience. Each harvest represents not only a year’s worth of decisions and field work, but also is the culmination of all the efforts a vineyard represents. Deciding vine spacing and clones along with rootstocks, laying out vine rows and then fixing the vine rows to be straight, planting vines, pounding posts, running wires and each year's farming plan represents an enduring physical implementation of an ever evolving mental construct. If you are considering this type of endeavor, may we caution you: Never delegate planning.
We racked up another 0.82 inches of rain to close out the first week of October at 1.64 inches. The vines were responding to the available soil moisture and the berries were rehydrating. The clusters were also starting to soften up which meant it was time to get ‘er done – Right Farmin’ Now! And we had a fairly nice second week to do so with just another 0.08 inches of rain – that’s 1.72 inches, and counting…
It’s just one of those farming things you need to know. An acre inch of water is 27,154 gallons and weighs in at about 113 tons. We have 1,452 vines per acre, so that inch of rain covering a single acre means about 18.7 gallons per vine. So logically, 3.15 inches of rain would mean about 59 gallons of water per vine. That’s how things were looking to start the third week of October.
Having lived through the nine inches of rain gifted to us from Typhoon Pabuk in 2013, and making a very scintillating late harvest Botrytis Chardonnay, we decided it was time to take the Chardonnay before that opportunity presented itself again. So we did, first thing in the morning, October 11th when the buckets were clean and then we followed up with the last of the Pinot Noir.
Well let’s see, what’s left? That would be our little acre of Côte Rôtie. We have four clones of Northern Rhône Syrah representing about 1,200 vines with about 300 Viognier vines in the adjacent block. We took those perfectly ripened clusters on Wednesday, October 12th. And that concluded The Great Cluster Pluck of 2016.
However, the rain was not finished with us. Beginning just after we cluster plucked the Syrah and Viognier, the heavens opened and treated us to a wondrous showing of 360 tons of rain on each and every acre! Believe us when we tell you, that’s a lot of farmin’ rain. And there was more, much more to fill out the rest of the month. What a relief to have had the good fortune (aka luck) to cluster pluck all of our fruit and intern it into fermenters and tanks before the torrential rains closed the harvest window.
And now, we present the SPAM (Significant Predetermined Analytical Measurements):
The full rainfall tally for the month of October was 11.02 inches and that represents the second wettest October since records were kept in Oregon. We have only been here since the turn of the century, but it is clear that Ernie is going to get the updated rain dance manual for 2017. Total rainfall for the 2016 growing season was 19.02 inches.
The full month of September degree days totaled 315 bringing the year to date total to 2,137 degree days. Degree days through our last day of harvest on October 12th piled on another 40 for a growing season through harvest total of 2,177 degree days. And while this 2016 degree day accumulation seems innocuous, bear in mind the significant impact of the heat accumulation was felt beginning in July and carried through to September with virtually no meaningful rainfall before harvest.
We now transition from harvest 2016 into renewal for vintage 2017 by pruning the vines and wrapping a cane down on the wire. That cane will sport 12 to 18 shoots that hold the promise of vintage 2017. It’s a big job with over 50,000 vines to prune and tie down, work that is all done by hand. If we are lucky, and good, we will complete this task in mid-March, 2017. Trust us, that’s a lot of hand … work.
In this leap year, it is somewhat poignant that the country is also transitioning from one vintage of administration to the next. The most any administration is allowed is 2 vintages. We can only imagine a world in which we would be able to prune the vines just once and get two vintages out of them. Now that would really be something.
And the calls now are to “Drain the swamp!’ Well, we have something to say in that regard: “Been there, done that!”
We took this image from the Lincoln Memorial looking to the Washington Monument and you can plainly see the reflecting pool is drained. It’s no small thing, it’s Yuuge!
Of course after we left it got filled up again, but that was not our doing.
And that’s how the way it was: The Great Cluster Pluck of 2016.
Until we farm again, stewards of the land and fermenters of Pinot Noir, we remain.
Dena & Ernie