It took nearly six months for my century-old vine to incubate a crop of zinfandel grapes. Yet when harvest time finally arrived, two men spent less than a minute collecting it.
They ducked under the canopy, reaching for grapes with one hand and severing them with a hooked knife held in the other hand. The fruit fell so quickly that by the time I dropped on one knee to watch only a few clumps were left. Within seconds the men had moved on to the next vine, working their way down the row.
On the last sunny day before a week that promised rain, the race was on to harvest the thin-skinned fruit still hanging in the Kunde family's 128-year-old Shaw Vineyard. Workers raced across the vineyard, methodically searching for grape clusters, severing them with one quick slice and dropping them into small gray tubs that, once filled, were emptied into larger bins.
After months of watching my plant come to life, blossom and bear fruit, I had come to think of it as a type of childbirth, and certainly the final weeks before harvest were as tense as those before labor begins.
Cool summer temperatures had delayed the ripening, and early fall rains threatened to arrive before the grapes had reached their peak. As is true with all old zins, some grapes had shriveled by the time the rest were in top shape. The call was finally made on Thursday. Crews would arrive at 7 the next morning and would harvest all the old vineyards before rains came on Monday. The race was on.
A thin layer of fog blocked the sun when I arrived at 7:30, but I could hear them across the river. The hum of a tractor, commands in Spanish, a little singing and then the clatter of men climbing into pickup beds. They drove past in a convoy, up the rutted road to the top of the Shaw vineyard.
Armed with gray plastic bins and picking knives, the men fanned out on the hillside, followed by a tractor pulling two large bins that quickly filled up with grapes, leaves and stems.
The pickers ran from one row to the next, emptying their bins on the run. By 9 they were back at the creek and the ancient zins were on their way to the winery.
After a bite to eat and a cold beverage, the men crawled back into the pickup trucks and rode up and over the hill they had just traversed on foot.
Meanwhile, trailers filled with the fruit waited alongside the winery for their turn in the press.
While summer gives way to fall and other parts of the country gird for their first snows of the year, Sonoma Valley has entered the best season of the year, the Indian Summer days that lead to harvest. Mylar ribbons wave madly in the wind, shooing birds away from the ripening grapes. Pinwheels and balloons draw attention to winery announcements (New Release, Wine Sale or Harvest Tour Today Only) and special events. Ninety-degree heat bakes the grapes during the daytime, while fifty- degree nights often leave them tucked beneath a soft layer of fog. Crews
make one last sweep through the vineyards, trimming clusters that are unevenly ripening or are too young to mature by harvest, leaving the discards to compost into the soil. Then they start with the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vineyards, arriving in the dark to harvest in the cool of the day.
At Kunde, where our old-vine zins are gestating in the historic Shaw vineyard, harvest is still a few weeks away, but loads of Chardonnay grapes arrive daily at the crush pad, waiting for their turn in the presses. Crews are almost invisible from the road as they finish the morning's work. Cars speed by on the Sonoma Highway with no idea that a new crop is on its way to the barrel. Nor can they see the fruits of
our vine's labor, which hangs in dense clumps beneath the carefully pruned canopy of leaves. The grapes have thick purple skins, and flesh as sweet as any table grapes you've ever tasted. They range from blueberry to marble sized, often on the same cluster, where they grow as tight as corn kernels on the cob. That can cause problems if fall rains arrive early. Unless breezes come along to evaporate the moisture, grapes can rot on the vine. Too much heat, on the other hand, can make them shrivel.
Each day brings new crop estimates and more harvesting news. Just a week before the annual harvest fair, more than half the county's grapes still hang on their vines.
August is all about waiting. The valley's first sparkling wine harvests began the early part of the month. White grapes and pinot noirs will come next, and will be followed by the reds. Our Old Vine Zinfandels will be among the last, allowed to develop their rich, robust flavors until the very last moment.
This time of the year finds Tim Bell walking the rows, pulling off shoots that have grown too long and checking the leaves to make sure they're getting enough water. Mostly he studies the grapes. As winemaker, he's in charge of making the final call about which need more time on the vine and which are ready to pick. Once harvest begins, he and vineyard director Steve Thomas will coordinate the complex choreograpy of picking and crushing, making sure each new harvest is funneled into fermenting tanks as quickly as is humanly possible.
Until then, Bell and Thomas watch the weather for unseasonal rain that can grow into mildew or blazing sunshine that can wither the plants. People throughout the Sonoma Valley are poised for the moment when harvest begins in earnest. Then they'll spring to life, staging one of the state's biggest, longest parties of the year. In the meantime, our gnarly vine carries its grape clusters like hidden treasure.
In early August, a hint of color alerts us to a turning point in the life of our Old Vine zinfandels. One night the sun sets on tight green clusters of marble-sized grapes. When it rises again the next morning, a few have begun to blush. The process of veraison is subtle but swift; in no more than two weeks, all the grapes in the century-old Shaw Vineyard will have turned a deep purple.
Wine grapes take about 120 days to grow, with veraison the midpoint between bloom and harvest. During the first stage, they absorb nutrients from the soil that fill their seeds and skins with the tannins and acids that give wine its distinct structure. During the second stage, they rely on the leaves and vines to send them a steady stream of sugar and water. Using photosynthesis to spark the process, the grapes will be transformed over the next 60 days into juicy, aromatic capsules packed with complex flavors.
Wines made from this crop will bear tangible reminders of summer 2009 as it played out in Sonoma Valley - the cool moist spring, the morning fogs and warm summer afternoons, the long blustery evenings. They will also carry hints of the intangible.
Our Old Vine zins were dropped into their rocky, volcanic beds when cattle ranches and prune orchards covered the valley and visitors arrived by train or in stagecoaches. They survived Prohibition, the Great Depression, wars, blights and droughts, and will likely survive recessions and wine gluts to come.
"The fruit has a lovely sense of California's viticulture history, and that's something to hang your hat on," says Marcia Kunde Mickelson, one of the vineyard's fourth-generation winegrowers. "There's something pretty intense about their flavor."
Connoisseurs describe it as well balanced, silky, elegant and bearing hints of berry fruit and bittersweet chocolate. They credit it to the soil, the slope of the hillside vineyard and its southern exposure to wind, fog and sultry afternoon sun. I prefer to think of it as a taste of longevity, the rich, deep essence of the strength required to weather life's storms.
(Consumers can taste it in past vintages of the Kunde Family Estate Reserve Century Vines Zinfandel, but samples of the 2009 vintage won't be released until 2011 or 2012.)
In mid-summer, grape growers watch for veraison, changes in color and texture that signal the stage of ripening. The first sightings in Sonoma Valley were announced in late July. The first harvest - of pinot noir grapes for sparkling wine - could begin within the week. Our Old Vine zinfandels will incubate
another few weeks before their skins soften and darken, shifting to the final stage of ripening before harvest.
Still moist after the morning fog rolls back to sea, the plant's long graceful canopies sway in the breeze. Beneath them, hundreds of plump green grapes jostle for space in dozens of clusters.
Managing a vineyard can be a little like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time you work your way from one side to the other it's time to start all over again.
Once grapes have set, they have relatively simple needs. They like sunbathing, as long as the light is indirect, and they need airflow to dry the morning dew. Vineyard crews make that happen, strategically thinning and taming each plant's overgrown limbs by hand, a process loosely described as canopy management. On our vine, Thomas breaks off branches near the ground, essentially lifting her skirts so breezes can blow past low-hanging fruit clusters. Then he removes leaves on the north side so soft morning sunlight can penetrate. Layers on the south are kept thicker to protect against harsh afternoon rays.
In the privacy of her sheltered vineyard, our Old Vine is bearing fruit. The blossoms she produced in May have popped their caps, releasing pistils and stamens that rub against each other in the process. Now self-pollinated, the grapes for vintage 2009 Zinfandels have been born. By the time I visit in mid-June, only a few signs of the miracle are visible, protected beneath a tangle of bright green leaves. Other clusters closer to the plant's trunk bear fruit the size of small pearls.
The month has been a blur of pest control, canopy management and planting for vineyard manager Steve Thomas and his crew of 20 to 30. They work their way across Kunde Family Estate acreage one vineyard at a time, dusting vines with organic sulfur and using stylet mineral oil to discourage spider mites. Vines planted to fill holes in existing vineyards are protected with empty milk containers. Heavy construction equipment labors just over the hill from our Old Vine. It is leveling a Cabernet Franc vineyard that no longer made the cut, producing small quantities of unexceptional fruit. The land will lie fallow for a year before a new batch of Cabernet or Zinfandel vines are brought in.
Once crews have gone home for the night, with owls and birds of prey their only spectators, these long, leggy vines dance along with the cool coastal breezes. It's a sight many of us in Wine Country have never seen, since modern vineyards are planted in narrow rows, with vines trained to grow on trellises for easy picking. In contrast, these Old Vines are left au naturale, ungirdled and free to undulate in each new gust of wind.
The Kunde family grows 25 varieties of grapes on their 1,850-acre
ranch, in vineyards that follow the contours of the countryside.
Their land fronts the Sonoma Highway on one side and climbs
into the Mayacamas Mountains on the other, encompassing seven different microclimates and soil types that range from deep loam to rock to 5 million year old volcanic ash. Soils and climates are matched to varietals, with the richest reds grown in the highest, hottest vineyards and tender Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs planted in the cool, rich loam along the valley floor. From a distance the land looks quilted, adorned with tidy rows of feather stitches. The rows look even tidier after the cover crops have been removed for the season, adding rusty red to the palette of bright greens, browns and yellows.
New haircuts aren't always flattering. They draw attention to termite holes, battle scars and barnacles that have accumulated over the years. Vineyard crews tidy up each wild appendage, leaving behind an inch of new growth at the top of each branch that resembles a blunt-cut fingernail. Grapes are produced from wood that is made the previous year, so care is taken with each cut. Pruning activates the plant's hormones, signaling the start of a new season. And because these Old Vine Zinfandels are not irrigated, they're left sleeping until all the newer vines are off and running.
After a cold, dark, wet winter, Sonoma Valley comes to life in March. As days grow longer and temperatures rise into the 60s, sap begins to rise in grapevines that have been dormant throughout the winter. Old vine zinfandels like this one in Kunde’s Shaw vineyard are the last to awaken, so on this frosty March morning, while vineyard crews attend to the younger vines, the star of our show waits patiently for her turn.