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.)