Our first harvest of grapes for Larkmead wine production was on August 15. Our last on October 15. Over the two month period which we brought in fruit, we pressed Sauvignon Blanc to barrel and have fermented six red grape varieties. The five “noble” Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot) and Syrah. In that span of sixty days we actually harvested 16 times and divided those grapes into 22 fermentation lots. Last year, we harvested 22 times and produced 30 fermentation lots. Coincidentally, not only does it appear that we reduced workload by almost a quarter, but also our yields were down 25% as well.
The yields being down are a reflection of the weather we had to work with this year. Weather is the unsung hero of the mysterious definition of “terroir”. The earth and the soils of any appellation can be unique, but it is the weather patterns during the growing season that help accentuate the character of said soils. This past year we had to contend with an unbearable frost season in March and April. We saw temperatures during these two months dip below 40 degrees five out of seven days a week. We spent thirty plus nights during that period protecting our 110,000 vines from frost by igniting diesel in 500 odd Smudge pots positioned at the end of alternating rows and firing up the over head frost fans that circulate the warm air trying to escape. We spent something to the extent of $30,000 (unbudgeted dollars) trying to fend off the frost that could cripple a vineyard. A story from a Sonoma grape grower and the difficulty he had with frost this year goes like this: “This year I was out protecting against frost for 40 nights. Last year, I was out four nights.” Some farmers use overhead sprinkler systems to warm the vines during late night cold spells. During this brutal season, some farmers depleted the water resources in their reservoirs that they would have used the entire year to irrigate their vineyards. It was a tough time. Cold that had been unseen in over thirty years. We can only hope for another 30 years to pass before experiencing it again.
Following the frost, we saw uncharacteristic heat spikes during major vine development periods of bloom and fruit set. Hundred degree days pounded us in early May, following in June, July, August and September. There was a stretch of twenty odd days in August and September when temperatures were no lower than 90 degrees and topped 100 eight straight days during that period.
Coupled with no natural irrigation, i.e. rain throughout the entire growing season, we saw less than 15 inches of rain. The vines reacted variably, and in most instances negatively with regards to cluster size and balance on the vine. What we like to believe to be a healthy vine is roughly 28 grape clusters per vine weighing in at about a third of a pound each cluster. On a macro level, that would equate to an average of four tons an acre with conventional row spacing. Some of the extremes we encountered were vines producing cluster counts in the teens with weights following suit, 15 to 20% of a pound. Overall for Larkmead, the vintage equated to a little over two tons an acre. Taking that one step further it can be forecasted in a healthy year that each vine will produce roughly one bottle of wine. This year, we are averaging about one and a half vines per bottle. So less clusters and lighter weights equal less wine. And that is truly our only complaint, because the quality of the grapes harvested this year have been very good. However, it is uncertain if this difficult growing season for farmers and winemakers who've see lower production levels and rising costs will impact the consumers with higher prices when these wines start releasing in one to two years time.
Dan Petroski is Assistant Winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west.