Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
August 22, 2008
In the Napa Valley, August belongs to the tourists.
On Highway 29, and across the valley on the Silverado Trail, cars clog the roads, especially on weekends, as those who love the wine country cruise the tasting rooms and jam the restaurants.
In the vineyards, August is a time when the grapes bake in the sun, working their final magic before the harvest season sets in. “This is kind of the lull before the storm,” says Vineyard Manager Ron Rosenbrand at Spring Mountain Vineyard in St. Helena, Calif. Much of the work that has gone into planting, trellising, and protecting against pests and mildew has been completed for the year. In just a few short weeks, the first grapes will be picked.
“All we have to do now is make sure we ration the water to get the cabernet sauvignon into October,” says Rosenbrand. The entire Napa Valley has been in a drought the last two years, including the hills above St. Helena. A normal year’s rainfall would be 47 inches, but the last two years on Spring Mountain have seen a combined total of 56 inches. Rosenbrand has been obsessively ensuring that the vines receive enough moisture, and is confident there will be enough water to keep the vines on track for a successful harvest.
Ron and Spring Mountain Vineyard winemaker Jac Cole have been making the rounds of the 350,000 plants on the vineyards and are tasting fruit daily, gauging when the different varietals will be ready for harvest.
“We base all of our harvest decisions here on how the fruit tastes,” says Rosenbrand. “Basically we look for that green taste, that bell pepper flavor, to disappear and then we know we are close.”
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And close they are. Ron says the harvesting of the sauvignon blanc grapes should begin in no more than one to two weeks. Shortly after that, the pinot noir, which is planted in limited quantities for a special project, will be picked. End of September will see the harvest crew in the merlot and syrah patches and then, God willing and the water holds, the cabernet sauvignon, which represents about 70 percent of Spring Mountain’s fruit, will be ready to go.
With his characteristic enthusiasm, Rosenbrand declares “It looks like we’re going to have a wonderful year with great fruit.” You’ve got to love an optimistic farmer.
In the winery itself, Jac Cole says that the primary task now taking place is bottling of previous vintages, including the 2006 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. But Jac was clearly most excited when the subject of his new toy came up.
“We have been talking with the owner about the things that take our grapes to the next level,” he says. “One of those things is staying on pace with technology. So this week we are taking delivery of a new grape-sorting machine called a Mistral.”
The Mistral, named for the cool wind that blows across southern France, uses an air blade system to “cut” the green leaves and stems of the grapes after they have been destemmed and before they go into the fermenting tanks. The goal is to reduce the amount of excess green material that goes into the juice and therefore increase the flavors derived from the grapes.
Other Napa wineries have used the French-made Mistral sorting systems, but it is still a relatively new advancement for the Napa Valley. Jac is convinced there will be a discernible difference in the flavor profiles of Spring Mountain Vineyard red wines that go through the process.
It will be fun to follow the progress.
Talking with Jac and Ron separately, it becomes clear how closely they work together. The pair have been at Spring Mountain since 2003, when they arrived as a team to take the winery to the next level. The relationship between a winemaker and vineyard manager can be a marriage of two very different and distinct skill sets that, when combined, can ultimately result in better wines.
Clearly that is the goal.
This is the third in a series of articles detailing what happens at Spring Mountain Vineyard on a monthly basis.