Snapshots of Lodi’s 2014 harvest: coming in fast and furious
The second week of September is usually when the California grape harvest is just getting started. This year, at this same time, many growers and vintners are saying that they are more than a third of the way through. Why the accelerated time table? Three things conspired to upset 2014's grape carts to some extent:
- Spring bud break and flowering occurred two weeks (or more) ahead of normal, pushing up harvest dates accordingly.
- Because grape vines respond to year-to-year variables, the larger than usual crop sizes of the two previous vintages (2012 and 2013) pre-ordained a more moderate sized crop in 2014 (manifested primarily in fewer and smaller clusters on the vines, and clusters with slightly smaller berries).
- In vineyards that are typically deficit irrigated or close to dry farmed, the state-wide drought during most of the year has also had an effect on cluster and berry sizes, thus reducing tonnage.
And so, like seemingly every vintage, there are upsides and downsides to 2014. One downside is the fast and furious pace. According to Bob Colarossi, a managing partner at Lodi's Estate Crush (an urban custom crush facility, catering to over 60 clients): "This week we'll start to see everything coming in at once. We're still crushing Zinfandel, which is what you expect in mid-September, but we're also expecting some Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah – grapes that we usually don't see until October."
Adds Colarossi, "Sugars in grapes usually picked in October are already topping 25°, 26° Brix (i.e. sugar measurements) out in the fields. They're starting to get overripe, so there's a little bit of a scramble to get them picked right away. The problem for us, of course, will be space. Where do we put all this stuff?"
Like all wineries, Estate Crush is designed for grapes to arrive in somewhat orderly fashion. First, varieties like Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño and Chardonnay come in and out of the fermentation tanks. These are followed by earlier ripening red wine grapes such as Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Grenache and Cinsaut; finishing up just in time for grapes like Petite Sirah, Syrah, Carignan, Merlot, and finally Cabernet Sauvignon at the very end. Also, vintners are accustomed to working 12 to 18-hour days during harvest. What they are not relishing is the prospect of 20 to 24-hour days to get everything processed at once.
Ah, but there are ups to even the downsides. Walking through and tasting berries in a Zinfandel block farmed by Kenny Schmierer on Lodi's east side this past Friday (September 5), Klinker Brick winemaker Joseph Smith commented: "Sugars are hitting 24°, 25°, so it's time – these grapes need to be picked now, not next week. We're two weeks ahead of last year, but I'm wondering how much of the sugaring is due to dessication – grapes shriveling because of the drought, even though Kenny was smart enough to irrigate and keep everything from raisining.
"We can deal with the raisining by just skipping over the clusters with an excess of dried up berries," added Smith. "The good thing is that when I'm tasting these smaller berries, I'm noticing a very meaty quality to the skins, and a richer than usual purple color when I'm spitting them out. The aromas, flavors and colors in red wines come from the skins, and so I'm suspecting that these grapes are going to make really good wine – better than most years."
During the third week of August, when picking Cinsaut for her rosé in the Bechthold Vineyard – Lodi's oldest continuously farmed growth (planted in 1886) – Onesta winemaker Jillian Johnson attributed 2014's lower yields mostly to the drought: "In the past we've gotten as much as 24 tons from the south end of Bechthold. This year that same block gave us just 7 tons. 2014 has been so dry, but that can be a good thing. This year we'll make wines that are more concentrated than usual. Our rosé will be rich in fruit, with a great backbone of acidity, and our reds will be deeper in color and sturdier in structure."
The universally revered Marian's Vineyard – ancient vine Zinfandel planted by Mettlers in 1901, and farmed today by Mohr-Fry Ranches – has a history of good, healthy yields in the 3 to 4 ton/acre range. Stuart Spencer, the St. Amant winemaker/owner who receives these grapes exclusively, reports that the quality of his two pickings (on September 4 and 9) were "great," but less than 2 tons/acre, primarily due to lighter cluster weights.
Craig Rous, an east-side Lodi farmer long known for his winemaker's mentality, talked about his Rous Vineyard Zinfandel as it was being picked for Lodi's Macchia Wines and McCay Cellars this past September 3: "You can clearly see that these old vines (planted in 1909) have much less growth than in years past. Canes are very short, but the fruit looks very good – it's just that there's not a lot of it. It's a good thing for the winemakers, because smaller cluster weights will produce Zinfandels with great colors and flavors. But it's not so good from my end, because yields are not so great."
Giving the winemaker's perspective, Michael McCay commented on the Rous Vineyard Zinfandel by noting the 2014 crop's "atypical elongated clusters – no jacks, almost no 'red berry' (i.e. berries with transparent red rather than opaque purplish colors, indicating weak, watery flavors), and very evenly ripened."
Macchia winemaker/owner Tim Holdener added: "I'm really excited about 2014 Rous. The shorter canes meant there was more sunlight on the grapes. Ripening was accelerated, but it's good to pick earlier. Overall, the Zinfandel has been reaching more mature levels at lower sugars than usual. We'll be able to produce more intense wines that are also more balanced, more refined – not so much the big alcohol monsters that have been associated with the appellation in the past."
Finally, one of the first Lodi Zinfandels to be picked in 2014 was the Stampede Vineyard – on August 25, and going mostly to the Sonoma based Bedrock Wine Company (with a smaller portion supplying Lodi's Fields Family Wines). "It's another vintage of the century," pronounced Bedrock owner/winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson, with tongue fixed squarely in cheek. "But really," added Twain-Peterson, "grapes are looking great – we're seeing really brown seeds and lignified canes, even at this early date."
In Bedrock's customary fashion, Twain-Peterson was aiming for sub-23° Brix for his 2014 Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel – a sugar level that, theoretically, gives more moderate alcohol (between 14% and 15%) and zestier acid balance. "We're in great shape," says Twain-Peterson, "the farming is really dialed in this year, thanks to the Perlegos brothers (Stampede Vineyard owners).” Everything, it seems, is turning into “Lodi gold!”
A few snapshots of the 2014 harvest thus far: