Harvest 2022 Recap: We Emerge Cautiously Optimistic
October 10, 2022
On Friday, with the bin of Counoise pictured below, we completed the 2022 harvest. The combination of our earliest-ever start and a (roughly average) 51-day duration meant that we tied with 2013 for our second-earliest-ever finish, with only the frost impacted 2001 vintage finishing earlier. Our rock star harvest crew deserved to celebrate, as they powered through our busiest-ever week on their way to a 9% increased amount of fruit compared to 2021 in a harvest that was five days shorter:
2022 will likely always be defined by the ten-day heat wave that began on August 31st. You can see it clearly in this graph of high temperatures by day, as well as the cool stretch that followed, culminating in our unusual September rainstorm September 18th-19th:
We were already harvesting before that heat wave hit, thanks to warm early-August weather and relatively light crop levels, but that definitely kicked it into high gear. It's remarkable (though hardly surprising) how closely the harvest by week tracks the temperatures, most notably in our busiest-ever week of over 130 tons between September 4th and 10th. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:
Because of the heat-induced sprint in early September, this seems to me to be the kind of year which will separate the wineries with a secure source of labor from those without. When you get an extreme event (typically heat or rain) it impacts an entire region. All the growers and wineries, faced with needing to pick at an increased pace, are competing for the same finite number of field crew. If you can't get the crew, you can't pick. Sugars can spike, acids can tumble, and the cells of grape skins can start to break down, opening the door for insect damage or rot. But we've given our core field crew year-round employment since 1996, which means that we're able to keep up with what's going on in the vineyard. Sure, it's more hours of overtime and more expense. But it's within your control. That's why it's the challenging vintages that shows the true quality of a winery's team. In a year like 2021, everyone should make great wine. That won't be the case this year. But I feel good about our prospects.
Yields were down 8.2% overall off the estate vs. 2021, and averaged 2.37 tons/acre. That's the lowest that we've seen this century except for the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years 2009 and 2001. And yet that number could have been worse. Like 2009, we had the twin impacts of drought and frost. But the most serious frost, which came late on May 11th, was localized in an 11-acre section of the vineyard we call Nipple Flat. I'd estimate that this one below-freezing night cost us three-quarters of our production from that section, which includes our largest block of Roussanne and additional sections of Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Vermentino. Lo and behold, those were the grapes that were seriously down:
|Grape||2022 Yields (tons)||2021 Yields (tons)||% Change vs. 2021|
Complicating year-over-year calculations is our decision to start regenerating some of our weaker blocks by pulling out the vines and building up the soils before planned replanting this winter. Last year, we pulled out vines in two areas,. each about three acres: a block of Mourvedre down on Nipple Flat (which turned out to be good timing, since it would have gotten clobbered by frost anyway) and our second-largest block of Roussanne at the north-east edge of the property (which turned out to be a bummer, since our largest Roussanne block was on Nipple Flat). So we have about six fewer acres in production in 2022 than we did in 2021. All this means that the yields picture looks better that it might appear, as despite our third drought year in a row, the non-frozen sections of the vineyard generally saw yields slightly above what we saw in 2021. That's evidence that the early rain that we got last winter, and the work we've been doing with our flock of sheep to build up our soils' water-holding capacity, helped give the vines the reserves they needed to withstand the stresses of the August and September heat. It also bodes well for quality.
Help is on the way. In the last couple of years we've planted nearly 30 new acres, including blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, and Clairette Blanche. Much of that is on Jewel Ridge and based on the quality of the first tiny picks we did off those blocks this year seems likely to be the gem its name suggests. And this and next winter we have plans to plant an additional dozen or so acres of Picpoul, Vermentino, Cinsaut, and Roussanne. I'll share more news on that as it happens. It does mean that for the second year in a row our choices in blending are surely going to be constrained. I'm particularly concerned with what we're going to do with the Esprit de Tablas Blanc from this vintage; the wine has never been less than 45% Roussanne, and even if we assume all the Roussanne we harvested is good enough to go into the Esprit Blanc, which isn't a guarantee, that would cap our production of that wine at 1,500 cases, which isn't really enough for the many things we use it for. So, we'll have a challenge on our hands at blending time. The low quantities also preclude us having enough of any single white grape to do a varietal wine in the quantities we'd need to send it out to our 8000 VINsider Classic Club members. But I have faith that we'll figure out something fun and creative to do. Stay tuned on that too.
We had 115 harvest lots, an increase of five vs. 2021. These included three fewer estate lots (82 instead of 85) and eight more Patelin lots (33 instead of 25). That will be a silver lining to this harvest: we were able to source some great, new vineyards for Patelin, and our quantities of these wines should be assured. In fact, we were able to get enough Patelin that our overall quantity of fruit that we processed this year is up about 9% vs. 2021. In the photo below, the estate lots are in yellow, while the purchased lots are purple on our completed harvest chalkboard:
One way that you can get a quick assessment of a vintage is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2010, our average degrees Brix and pH at harvest:
|Year||Avg. Sugars||Avg. pH|
While 2022's sugar numbers are very similar to 2021's, we saw lower acids due to the heat and drought. The result were numbers remarkably like 2016, which was culmination of the five-year 2012-2016 drought in California. The 2016 vintage was an outstanding one in terms of quality, so that's good. But eventually, we really do need some rain. Fingers crossed for this winter.
In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and the first thing he mentioned was the pace: "It was an insanely hectic month which beat us all up. I think we scared the interns a bit." But he's happy with what he's seen in the reds so far: "The Pinots and Syrahs are tasting super. Not massive, but complex, with good depth of color." Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take on the whites: "they feel a little more luscious because of the high-pH year. They're sultry, I think." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2022 even better in coming weeks.
Now that we're done picking, it can rain any time, though there's nothing in the immediate forecast. We've already returned our flock of sheep to the vineyard, where they're eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure. This should give the soil's microbial activity a boost as soon as it rains:
Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, along with our sorting table and destemmer. And we're going through the white barrels one by one and making sure that they're topped off. A little head space is necessary when it's bubbling away actively, but once fermentation slows down we need to make sure each barrel is full:
After the challenges of the growing season, we're grateful for the return of a slower pace. And we're excited that it looks like quality will be good. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "Everything is tasting really beautiful. I just wish there was more."