A Picking Party

The land in front of my house was carved out of a vineyard, and my friend who sold me the land still farms the remaining grapes. No money changes hands, but the advantage to me is that I get to live in a vineyard. While most of the grapes are mechanically harvested Concords, there are about eight rows of Chardonnay that we usually hand pick, because they are worth over $1,000 a ton on the market, compared to less than $300 for Concord.

Cluster of chardonnay on its way to the bin.

Cluster of chardonnay on its way to the bin.

My neighbors and I have been doing this together since I moved here, and conditions today – dry with temps starting out in the mid-50s – were ideal. This compares with 2012, when due to some miscommunication with a winery, the grapes got a bit overripe, it was a warm day, and the yellow jackets were out in force circling around our sweet and sticky hands.

While the weather was perfect, the picking was slow going. Normally, all the vines would have had their canes (young wood from which the shoots form) tied to the wires, and we would have had a well defined fruiting zone with large, regular clusters of grapes. This year due to winter damage, pruning and tying was done with a goal of preserving whatever survived, resulting in irregular clusters of fruit all over the place. The task today was to pick about two dozen boxes that had been sold, comprising three rows. The remaining grapes are still looking for a home, which is odd considering that we should be in a suppliers market. Sadly, a quick check of the marketplace shows no activity for Chardonnay. This is possibly due to last year’s record quantities, but for whatever reason is seems hard for growers to catch a break.

Neighbors enjoying a beautiful morning at work.

Neighbors enjoying a beautiful morning at work.

After about three hours, the boxes are filled and we enjoy some lunch and each other’s company. A home made 2008 Chardonnay is tasting quite well, and considering it is not a commercial wine, it is impressive that it is holding its own after six years. The gentleman in the center is looking through a refractometer, confirming our grower’s estimate that the Chardonnay is at about 19° of brix. Hopefully, we will get another few weeks of good ripening and a buyer.

Lunch break, including a home made 2008 Chardonnay from these vines.

Lunch break, including a home made 2008 Chardonnay from these vines.

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Tasting Grapes

Before leaving for California, I asked owner/winemaker Nancy Irelan at Red Tail Ridge if I could visit upon my return and taste grapes with her. She thought everything would be gone, but invited me to check back. A week later, harvest is continuing to develop slowly, and she directed me to a few rows of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Pinot Noir getting close.

Pinot Noir getting close.

The Pinot Noir was in three blocks comprising the Mariafeld, 113, and 114 clones. Pinot Noir is the oldest vinifera grape cultivated, with a history going back at least to Roman times. Due to its age and genetic breakdown, it has more clones than any other varietal. Its susceptibility to disease and inconsistency from site to site give it its reputation as a “heartbreak” grape. The 113 and 114 trace their origin back to Burgundy and are small clustered. The Mariafeld (Swiss origin) has larger berries, is more open, and is better suited to more humid areas. Its higher acidity makes it attractive for sparkling wine.

Not particularly knowing what to look for, I walked among the rows and sampled a few grapes from each block. The Mariafeld was bitey and had harsh seeds, and was clearly not ready. The 113 was sweeter, softer, and quite nice. The 114 seemed just slightly lagging behind. Although Nancy was busy, I ran into one of the assistant winemakers, who gave me some pointers as to how he evaluates fruit, and learned that I had “passed.” In fact, some of the 113 had already been picked.

While we always enjoy validation, the real art lies not in distinguishing Plot A from Plot B, but rather in distinguishing Plot A today from Plot A yesterday, and determining whether Plot A tomorrow will be an improvement. Nancy had also pointed out that since it rained overnight the flavors would be muted. So many variables, so much art.

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Veering Left — A California Sortie

In conjunction with a family wedding, we had the opportunity to visit California last week, flying into Los Angeles and driving up through the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Paso Robles, and a few other regions. Years ago, visits to California were frequent, and California was largely about Napa and Sonoma when many of today’s mega-wineries were boutique shops. We were totally enamored of what the region offered, and it’s interesting to reflect on whether it was because it was good or because we didn’t know any better. In his excellent Vintage Experiences newsletter, Dan Berger wrote about how styles and winemaking changed in California, and this adds another level of confusion to the question of what we liked and why.

AmByth Estate near Paso Robles.

AmByth Estate near Paso Robles.

One of the foci of this trip was getting a bit in depth with the so-called “Rhone Rangers” – wineries and winemakers who have embraced varietals from warmer regions of France such as Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and blends thereof, which some refer to as “GSM.” We particularly enjoyed the wines we sampled as Andrew Murray and Stolpman in Santa Ynez, and AmByth Estate near Paso Robles. The wines had depth, balance, and alcohol levels were modest despite the warmth and lack of rain.

Old dry farmed vines near Paso Robles.

Old dry farmed vines near Paso Robles.

Particularly enjoyable was AmByth, where we had a private tasting with Mary Morwood Hart, who is the wife of the owner/winemaker. The AmByth wines are dry-farmed and grown biodynamically, and fermented in beautiful clay vessels imported from Italy. Like several other producers in the region, AmByth is also growing Italian varietals, notably Tempranillo and Sangiovese. The most fascinating aspect of tasting the Rhone blends was experiencing the effect of different formulas on the palate. Most of our red blends here are Bordeaux blends, and while a trained palate might recognize differences between a Cabernet Sauvignon forward blend and one dominated more by Merlot, the effects are subtle. With the Rhones, a Mourvèdre forward blend and one with Grenache in the lead were clearly not the same wines.

Clay fermentation vessel (Amphora) at AmByth.

Clay fermentation vessel (Amphora) at AmByth.

Our travels also took us through some areas that were more focused on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, notably the Santa Rita Hills where we visited Domaine de la Côte. The Pinot here was silky smooth and quite Burgundian. A delightful surprise was opening and sharing a 2012 Pinot Noir from Red Tail Ridge. We had no idea how a Finger Lakes Pinot would compare with one from a region known for this varietal, but the answer was: astoundingly well. Our host agreed that the Red Tail Ridge Pinot would not have been considered an outlier as part of a flight of Santa Rita Hills wines.

Arriving at the wedding in Santa Cruz, we took some time to drive up to Bonny Doon and were again delighted at the Rhones and the overall quality of everything they were doing. On the other hand, the wines at the wedding were Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau St Jean Fumé Blanc. These again were two wineries once considered boutique back in the day. The Fumé was tolerable, but the Cabernet Sauvignon achieved something remarkable. It tasted like absolutely nothing.

It is impossible to travel through this area without being constantly reminded of the drought. As a gentleman in one of the tasting rooms noted, if they don’t get some rain this year, not only will the vines be in trouble, but they will have to figure out how to live. On this score, it is on the one hand amazing to see some of the gifts that California wine country has, but we can’t be thankful enough for the plentiful water here.

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Harvest is Here

Actually, it has been for about two weeks. Unlike the equinox, it is neither a single event, nor a point in time. Rather, it is more like leaves falling. Somewhere, a leaf is first, another is last, and while time passes between them, there is an ebb and flow.

Ready for picking tomorrow.

Ready for picking tomorrow.

Many of the grapes that come in first are natives and hybrids used to make juice or bulk wine. The harvester shown above will be busy with Elvira and Aurore tomorrow, neither of which are suitable for a varietal, but which bulk and acid to blends. Some of these grapes will be going to nearby Canandaigua to join other components of Red Cat (owned by Hazlitt) and Arbor Mist (Constellation Brands).

One important exception are vinifera grapes that go into sparking wine. The three  used in classic French Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. These grapes are picked early in the season, because sparkling wine needs high acidity. There are several Pinot Noir clones called the “Champagne” clones that are often used, because they have larger berries that the smaller, more fruit expressive still wine clones. Pinot Meunier is finding its way as a varietal, with Finger Lakes offerings by Dr. Frank and Standing Stone.

The mechanical harvester at work with catcher in close formation.

The mechanical harvester at work with catcher in close formation.

Harvesting is an interesting ballet, the picture above being from 2013 when we were treated to a ride. As the harvester goes between rows, shakers cause the berries to fall towards the ground, where as many as possible are scooped up by conveyors and passed along to a catcher. The catcher shuttles between the vines and trucks that will soon be on their way to a neighboring winery or, in the case of commercial juice, half way across the state.

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Meh!

We finally had an opportunity yesterday to stop by Shalestone on east Seneca Lake. It has been a favorite since our first days of touring here, and the picture eloquently states what is unique about it. “Red is all we do.”

The sign that sets Shalestone apart.

The sign that sets Shalestone apart.

Back in the late 1990s when Rob and Kate Thomas started the winery, this was an absolutely heretical statement. Fortunately, as the region has matured, it had improved to being only odd (but in a good way). We were fortunate that Rob and Kate were pouring today, and we looked forward to Rob’s waxing eloquently as we asked how Finger Lakes reds were going. Surprisingly, his words and body language almost translated to what in current vernacular might be interpreted as “meh!”

We talked a bit about a statement made several months ago by Bob Madill that perhaps the Finger Lakes shouldn’t even be doing reds. Rob provided some helpful interpretation, noting that the problem was really about consistency. He said good Riesling can be made in just about any year, while good red requires a good vintage, and despite improving viticulture and winemaking, he could not envision an investor coming into the area to set up a large red wine production.

Shalestone has always had interesting blends in addition to darn good varietals. One of our favorites, which regrettably was sold out, is a Lemberger/Merlot/Syrah concoction called “Lemberghini.” In its absence, we made out way through a 2011 Merlot, a 2012, Cabernet Franc, a Meritage-like non-vintage Harmony (2011 and 2012 fruit), and the 2012 Pinot Noir. Harmony is part of Rob’s strategy to even out the good and less-than-good years. Of the wines in the lineup, the Pinot Noir really sang, and a few minutes into more conversation, it was still dancing around on the palate.

The real surprise was a bottle called “Beyond Rosé,” consisting of 50% Lemberger and 50% Zweigelt, which is another grape used widely in Austria. Shalestone plans to release a 2013 Zweigelt varietal in the spring. The wine was darker and richer than most Rosé wines we have had, and indeed it had two days of skin contact with a bit of juice blended back in. It was refreshing like a Rosé, but with a very satisfying body. And as nicely as Lemberger has done here, it will be interesting to see how the Zweigelt does and whether it catches on.

This is so much appreciated.

This is so much appreciated.

Although we don’t get over to Shalestone very often, a Rob Thomas story has stuck with me since even before I moved here. My late wife and I were tasting one day after we were already planning to move into the area, and I had some notions about growing grapes after my software career was done. Rob listened, nodded his head, and said, “Harv, there are probably a lot of things you are good at.” Everything I have learned about grape growing since then confirms the wisdom of his statement.

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Harvest Approaching

Another sign of harvest approaching is the first issue of the always excellent Veraison to Harvest newsletter published by the Cornell Cooperative Extension. The newsletter begins at some point after veraison and is distributed weekly until the last stages of harvest. Reports span vineyards from Lake Erie to Long Island, and in addition to tabular data and graphs on maturity, there are interesting topical articles.

Data in the newsletter confirm our observations of a cooler and wetter season than normal. Summarizing conditions, Tim Martinson notes that sugar measured in degrees Brix in a more or less normal 2013 ran 3 to 6 degrees behind comparable readings in the abnormally hot 2012 season, and 2014 observations are yet another 3 to 6 degrees behind 2013. The table below shows Brix, pH, and titratable acidity for four vinifera varietals. As grapes ripen, sugar goes up (higher Brix), while acid decreases (higher pH and lower TA). Finger Lakes vinifera are typically picked in the high teens or low twenties of Brix, and this determines our typical 11 to 13 percent in alcohol (as a rule of thumb, half Brix).

Indicators of Grape Ripeness, 2014 Compared to Prior Year
Source: Veraison to Harvest, Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Volume 1, August 29, 2014.
Varietal (Comparison) % Brix pH TA (g/l)
Riesling (2012) 9.1 (12.5) 2.66 (2.79) 24.7 (18.5)
Chardonnay (2013) 13.3 (14.6) 2.83 (2.98) 17.1 (13.6)
Pinot Noir (2013) 14.0 (17.6) 2.87 (3.00) 16.5 (10.2)
Cabernet Franc (2013) 11.3 (13.2) 2.70 (2.82) 20.8 (17.0)

To help interpret the data, the latest observation for Riesling indicated a Brix of 9.1, compared to 12.5 in 2012. Comparisons for the other three varietals were against 2013. Varietals have their own calendars with, for example, Pinot Noir maturing earlier than Cabernet Franc. As things unfold, the winemaker is hoping for clean and mature fruit coming in steadily. Last year, conditions were such that much more fruit arrived at the crush pad in too short a time, resulting in long hours and a lot of anxiety about tank space.

After yet more rain yesterday, we are in for a dry and warm stretch, with Friday highs forecast to be around 90. We could use a lot more of this.

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Do You Ship?

This is a question most of us have asked while visiting wineries, and we probably have not thought much beyond the “yes,” “no,” or “yes, but not to [fill-in-the-state] answer. We had the opportunity recently to research the issue and were amazed at the hodgepodge of state rules and the burden placed on small businesses.

UPS

Within New York State, wineries can ship to residents (no more than 36 cases per year to any one resident) as part of their winery license. They must used an authorized shipper, and packages must be clearly labeled as containing alcohol. Packages can be delivered only to persons of age 21 years or older (signature required). With regard to other states, the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) maintains reciprocal agreements with 24 states that allow wineries in New York to ship to residents in the other state. These agreements are subject to various limitations, such as quantities and number of shipments per year. The SLA ensures that shipping between states is on equal terms so that if, say, Connecticut limits New York State wineries to x number of gallons, then Connecticut wineries shipping to New York must follow the same restrictions. Beyond details of these agreements, wineries must follow all laws and regulations of the destination state.

Two very useful sources of information on wine shipping are the California Wine Institute and ShipCompliant. The Institute primarily serves its California member wineries, but has a rich stock of information on its website. Details on state shipping laws are provided by ShipCompliant, which is a partner of the Institute.

In general, issues surrounding shipping wine to a consumer involve the possible need for the winery to:

  • Have a direct shippers license in the destination state.
  • Register its brand.
  • Provide a bond.
  • Pay taxes.

In most states that allow shipment, a direct shipping license is required. One exception is the state of Connecticut where, in the case of a small farm winery, shipping is allowed through an in-state transporter (e.g., UPS). Otherwise, the winery must apply for a license, which might be free or might cost a few hundred dollars. Each state has its own documentation requirements (possibly requiring a bond), and the process takes as long as it takes.

Beyond licensing, wineries can expect to pay tax in the destination state. There may be sales tax (percent of price), excise tax (cents per gallon), or both. For some states, sales tax may vary depending on the county to which the wine is being shipped. Tax may be due monthly or quarterly with varying due dates, and the winery might be required to use the state’s on-line tax filing system, which can introduce another learning curve into the process. On the other hand, some states require not only forms, but also paper copies of all invoices.

For a fee, ShipCompliant can manage the shipping process for you, can integrate with the transporters’ data systems, and even pay taxes. Easy Wine Licensing (a ShipCompliant partner) can also obtain licenses and manage renewals. The only rub is that small wineries are hard pressed to afford their services. Thus, the onus is on the owners, or perhaps the tasting room manager or an outside sales person, to use whatever tools are available – phones, calendars, copiers, and Excel spreadsheets.

As frustrating as this all is, one can only sympathize with the needs of states to protect their revenue base. As far as taxes go, wineries are treated no differently than Amazon or mail-order electronics or plumbing parts suppliers. Sadly, because wine is alcohol, consumers in about half of our states have no access to any New York wine except wine produced by large commercial wineries that are represented by wholesalers. Where boutique wine can be shipped, the need for small businesses to deal with both licenses as well as taxes creates steep hurdles.

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