A Change in the Weather
The TTB gets it right on Calistoga

A paean to rain (and a phone call to Mabel)

I'm sitting here on a Saturday evening, kids in bed, listening to the rain come down.  It's an incredibly sweet sound, both because I've always loved the sound of rain at night and also because I know how important it is that we have good rainfall this winter.  I've made about a dozen calls today to our weather station (which we named "Mabel" years ago to give the computerized voice a little personality) to find out what it's like out at the vineyard.  The most recent update from Mabel: 2.51 inches of rain today.  Still raining.  Not that windy, which suggests that the next (and supposedly largest) storm hasn't hit yet.  Excellent.

This is the fourth day in a row where we've seen significant rainfall.  Yesterday tallied 0.6 inches, the day before 0.8, and the day before that, 0.3.  In total, we've received nearly 16 inches of rain this winter, almost exactly what we received all of last winter.  It couldn't be more needed.

This past year was our third drought year in a row.  The impact of drought is cumulative, as vines carry stress over into the succeeding vintage.  And we saw the results at harvest.  Our vineyard produced less than two tons of fruit per acre, and we'll make just 12,000 cases of wine in total from the 2009 vintage.  In 2006, our last vintage that followed a winter with decent rainfall, we made close to 19,000 cases.  Sure, there were other contributing factors to this year's small crop (most notably frost) but you just can't expect a grapevine to produce much fruit if year after year you give it less water than it really needs.

That's why I've spent more time this year than any before poring over different weather web sites, calculating where we are versus the same time last year, and, yes, calling Mabel enough that I'm worried my wife is going to start to be Tiger Woods-suspicious of me. 

I didn't grow up with a farmer's day-to-day appreciation of the importance of weather.  While snow (it was Vermont, after all) was an invitation to play, rain was an interruption to the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.  Drought, in New England, meant that we had to water the gardens a little more often.  The grass was still green, and the apple orchard still made apples -- not that we would have noticed if the trees had produced 30% less crop.  It still would have been an order of magnitude more apples than we could eat or process.

Managing a family winery brings a unique set of stresses, of which this obsession with the weather is just the latest.  Some are just those of managing an enterprise: knowing that the decisions that you make could possibly make the difference between being able to have a business the next year or not.  That was the principal stress for me in the period between 2002 and 2004, when our production had recently risen into the 15,000 case level, and we had about three years to get our annual sales from around the 5,000 case level to something in reasonable balance with production.  Now, with sales comfortably up to around 18,000 cases this year, it's hard looking forward and knowing that because of the past three years' low rainfall, we're just not going to have enough wine in 2010 and 2011 to sell to everyone who's used to getting it.  I wrote 18 months ago that even as it was becoming clear that the economy was struggling I was worried about running out of wine.  Now, two short crops later, it's a fact, which makes the recent run of great press that we've received a little bittersweet.  As much as we appreciate the recognition, we don't have enough supply of wine to take advantage of the opportunity.  I've found myself saying, with respect to this press (the most recent of which was our best-ever score from the Wine Spectator this week) that when it rains, it pours.

A little more real-life pouring like we've gotten this week could go a long way toward reducing the number of times in the next few years we will have to say "regretfully, we're out of wine". 

Will it happen?  I'll be giving Mabel another call before bed.