September 27, 2012

Harvest 2012 begins

It's been a long year since the last grape harvest, incredibly challenging but as far as wine goes, everything I might have hoped it would be if you spoke with me a year ago. At the time I was still selling my first vintage of Oregon Pinot Noir, from 2009, and I continued to sell that wine for more than a year from original release. Sales were steady but just not fast. I guess everything you hear about the wine business is true. It's not easy.

But I took heart in a friend's words predicting that year two would be much better, as things gained momentum, as I continued to work hard and tried to remain charming, sincerely so of course. Those words proved true and the 2010s sold in half the time as the 2009s, and the reality that this project might really be working began to sink in.

Now it's late September again and I'm releasing the newest wines, my 2011s, after several months of being sold out of the prior vintage. In truth, the secret to my success is to not make too much wine. Still, it's interesting how that prediction about year two proved so true. I think about it a lot.

And now my fourth harvest as a commercial wine producer approaches. It wasn't long ago that I was making wine in my garage, opening the door once a year to let friends, neighbors, even blog readers come by and try my home made (but I believe commercial quality) wines. I moved out of the garage and into a commercial facility in 2009. This fall I've moved the operation to the new Southeast Wine Collective on SE Division and 35th in Portland. Stop by the tasting room if you're in the area. It's gorgeous.

If you're in the area this weekend, I'm holding a public tasting and sales event at the new winery, from 1-5pm this Saturday. There is no charge, but we will have all the wines for sale if you're interested. I'm sincere though in saying that there is no expectation to buy. Come see the new winery and taste my newest wines. We even have a garage door entrance just like the old days here at the house in NE Portland.

And if you're in the area next Tuesday, the plan is to harvest the first small amount of Pinot Noir from the 2012 vintage. Fruit should be coming in over the next few weeks but it's always exciting to get started. Being in town, we're particularly convenient for those interested in volunteering to help sort grapes on days we're bringing in fruit. Let me know by commenting or email me. We'd love to have you.

And if you're not local but want to follow the progress of harvest, I'll do my best to update things here. I'm busier than ever but committed to blogging the continuing saga of this crazy wine business. Read the archives to see me as a greenhorn intern back in 2005, when this site began, and follow everything to now. We're up to about 600 cases of Vincent Wine Company this fall, with plans to keep growing. It all started here, so thanks for reading and please keep coming back.

September 16, 2012

Harvest approaches in the northern Willamette Valley

Sunday's no day of rest around here, especially mid-September when the weather is still warm (almost hot) and the grapes in the northern Willamette Valley are nearing harvest. Instead of a lazy day watching football on the couch (that was tonight, and the dominant SF 49ers were worth every moment), I went with a winemaker friend to several vineyards around our area that we work with. We walked rows, tasted fruit, picked individual berries to do quick sugar tests to see about ripeness, and generally shot the shit about what we saw and tasted and what we think will happen with the coming harvest.

The highlights? Ripeness is coming on fast, too fast I fear given a long dry summer that's not letting up any time soon. Instead of 80s and sunny, I could really go for some 60s and even a little wet, just to water the vines a bit. This late in the season it's normal to see some stress in the plants (locals, check your gardens and tell me if the tomato plants looks as vibrant as they did in July - didn't think so). A little water from the skies would be lovely. Not so much that we get rot or dilute flavors, rather just enough to slow the vines down a bit and draw out ripening.

Are things really alarming? Not at all. Every year around this time it's common to get a little nervous about all the harvest work we're facing. And if it's not too warm, it's too cold, or too wet or too dry or too perfect even and that can't last. No matter what, wine makers fret about stuff, so here I am. Really, things look great. But what else would we do if we didn't fret and gnash teeth about everything?

Armstrong Vineyard on Ribbon Ridge is the furthest ahead of my Vincent Wine Company sites. Lower leaves are yellowing as the canopy ages and ripening approaches. Berry samples in the 667 and 115 clone blocks were 20.3 and 20.6 brix, respectively. That's the measure of the sugar percentage in the grapes. Ideal is around 22 to 23 in my book, some want things higher (or much higher). A good rule of thumb is that you'll gain one brix a week, so we're a couple weeks out from picking. However, that's a very general average. Hot weather can accelerate ripening, dramatically so. Cold weather can essentially stop sugar accumulation. Rain can even knock sugar levels down through simple dilution. But given the average, I think we'll pick in two weeks. That means I better get a lot of stuff ready between now and then. I'm very excited about the new winery, but that adds some complexity. Imagine throwing a party in a brand new house. How can you help the guests when you barely know where everything is. We'll figure it out.

Moving south to the Eola Hills, Bjornson Vineyard was happily further behind. It's a slightly cooler area (little differences can affect wine dramatically, do note). It's also a bit higher in elevation. I'd usually expect picking dates at Bjornson to be a week or two behind Armstrong. And that's great. We don't want all the fruit to ripen at the same time. It's like a restaurant having to serve all the night's meals at once. Instead, it's nice to have a few weeks of harvest time so you're bringing in fruit gradually, perhaps even barreling down wine from early picks before the last grapes are in. Nice to use a given fermenter more than once in a season!

Then Zenith Vineyard, lower in elevation than Bjornson and usually a bit earlier to ripen but not a early as Armstrong (we did pick Zenith and Armstrong on the same date last year, but that was an unusual year). Zenith is a little unusual this year, with some lighter colored berries still that a few more days of heat will likely darken. As with Bjornson, things at Zenith were obviously not so close to picking, and that's great. We had flowering a bit late this year, and because we want the fruit to have good "hang time" from the day it's set from flower to berry, until the day it's picked, I'm happy to see the grapes take their time to ripen.

So how did things taste? Wine makers often talk about how flavors in the vineyard will most guide picking decisions, I'm delighted how things are progressing. Since the fruit's not "ripe" yet, obviously acids are pretty tart still (enough to remind yourself not to sample too much or you'll get an upset stomach). But what a delight to taste sweetness in the grapes, which until now are just hard, green berries throughout the summer that seem like they'll never be ready to pick. Really, flavors are tricky. Ripe grapes do "explode" with flavor in your mouth, but I think a lot of people wait for that explosion to get bigger and bigger...and the wines they end up with are similarly big. I'm looking for explosive ripeness but with the right acidity or energy to keep things fresh and brisk, not syrupy and cloying. We're making wine, not fruit juice, right? So I'll keep tasting throughout the growing season, but really it's not about finding fruit you want to eat all day long. It's about fruit that's just getting to that point, or getting to getting to that point, so that you have fruit that's going to make great wine, not just great fruit juice.

Really, I'm more focused on the health of the vine and the grape clusters. Is there mold anywhere? No. Mildew? No. Other issues that may affect wine quality? No, everything looks great. We just need to finish things off well and I think we'll have a lovely vintage. And instead of focusing on sugar, I'm more interested in following the pH of the grapes, to find that spot just before acids drop off quickly and pH shoots up. That's the time I want to pick, really no matter where the sugars are.

Oh, and I'm going to get Pinot from one other site starting this year, Crowley Station, on the west side of the Eola Hills, not far from Zenith but just too far to get to today. It was a long enough day and the 49ers weren't going to wait for me. I'll get back there soon but I'm sure it's in the Zenith or Bjornson time frame. Nothing to think too much about yet. Really, Armstrong will be first and that's enough to get me finalizing harvest plans, cleaning equipment, etc. The rest will fall into line. Is it time yet? I can't wait.

September 13, 2012


Late summer returns and I find myself at once in a familiar and changing situation. First, the change, all great, great news.

My winery, Vincent Wine Company, has moved from our home of the past three years to the Southeast Wine Collective, at SE Division and 35th Place in Portland behind the restaurant Cibo. This new urban winery and tasting room are going to be great. I couldn't be more excited about being part of this project. The Southeast Wine Collective is the brainchild of Kate and Tom Monroe of Divison Winemaking Company, which will be in the facility along with Bow & Arrow and Helioterra Wines. We have a gorgeous tasting room that's opening later this month and we're definitely going to bring wine and wine making closer to Portlanders and travelers alike. I'm so glad to have a place to call home, and a tasting room where people can try my wines. It may not sound like much but it's something. Something to celebrate, for sure.

And, I once again have wine to sell. After selling out of my 2010s earlier this year, it's been odd to not have wine to sell, not to mention not having to sell wine. It's been kind of nice actually. I've just had to make wine, and yes there has been other business to attend to and my Guild Winemakers project keeps me incredibly busy in what free time I have. Don't forget my day job. So you can understand how a break in the day to day selling of bottles and cases of wine was rather nice.

At this point, I'm only selling the 2011s to my mailing list members. It my annual first offering at the best prices of the year, including wines that may not make it to retail. That offer ends September 28, then the next day -- September 29 -- I'm having tasting and sales event at the new winery, SE Division at 35th Place, 1-5pm. Helioterra will also be pouring and the winery tasting room will be open as usual. Should be a great time.

After that I'll be getting bottles to local shops and restaurants again, though sooner than that I'm heading back to New York for a seminar and trade tasting my distributor is doing with another small importer/distributor. This is the first time I've been squeezing in a sales trip before harvest. It's the start of many I imagine (and hope, for my own success).

With all the change and newness, there's a familiar sense in the air. The days are quickly growing shorter, some mornings surprisingly crisp. It happens this way every year, but the feeling is always so new again, so fresh, like we're reliving something from Septembers past. Already I've had that sense of autumn from growing up in LA, a cool, dry day with long shadows but little else to suggest fall, which you might get around Thanksgiving but comes here in mid-September or so. Not really autumn, but something I had there that seems to pass through this town too.

In Portland, that feeling has come to mean something new for me. Harvest. And it feels great this year. My first grapes will come in by the end of September, maybe the first week of October. In the new winery, in a new neighborhood, with the same old me. I can't wait.