A Winery in Winter
Our new cover crops keeps the vineyards green all winter long.
Here’s what the next few months holds for us:
The vines have done their work for this year. We’ll let them rest while performing some clean-up work in the vineyards, removing dead brush from the trellis systems and cutting all the canes just below the first catch wire.
The main activity in the vineyards is the growth of our cover crop, a mix of clover, vetch, and oats, which we planted a few weeks ago between the vine rows. It may be wintertime but this mix of flora is bursting bright green out of the dark, rocky soil.
As a cornerstone of our sustainable agriculture, cover crop does double and triple duty. It prevents erosion during this rainy part of the year and it controls weed growth. This unruly vegetation also creates a habitat for beneficial insects such as spiders and ladybugs, which prey on vine pests such as leafhoppers and blue green sharpshooters.
Next spring and summer the cover crop will compete with our vines for water and nutrients, thus choking back the vigor of the vines and driving their roots deeper into the soil. And when the cover crop dies it enriches the soil with nitrogen and other great nutrients.
In the cellar things are quiet. We’re putting to bed the wines from the 2008 harvest – doing final blends, getting them into barrels. And we’re starting to plan for bottling the almost-finished wines from previous vintages in the coming months.
We’ll finish cleaning our trellis systems and hold off until next month for the final pruning. The decision of when to prune is critical, in part because as soon as you do it, you trigger new growth. With the danger of frosts looming between now and the first of April, we don’t want too much growth during this dicey period.
The bigger concern is to avoid a fungal disease called eutypa dieback. Essentially, pruning briefly creates an open wound on the plant making it susceptible to the airborne eutypa spores.
In the old days, 20 or 30 years ago, vineyard crews would start pruning the day after Thanksgiving. In that way, one worker could prune an entire vineyard over the course of the winter. But with the onset of eutypa, it became necessary to wait until the vines were emerging from winter dormancy when the pruning wounds would heal much more quickly.
In the cellar we’ll be racking the 2008 reds, which means we’ll move them from one barrel to another as a means of gently ridding the wine of sediment.
In the last week of the month our winemaker, Elias Fernandez, will be at the winery at 5 a.m. starting up the bottling line. The first wine in the bottle this year will be 2007 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay.
Elias gets to the bottling line two hours before it’s started up so that he can personally steam clean every fitting and hose that will come in contact with the wine. He calls the bottling, “second crush,” because it’s so critical to the outcome and quality of the wine.
There is also some traveling to be done this month. Dad (John Shafer) is attending the Naples Wine Festival at the end of month.
Bottling continues. Elias doesn’t catch much of a break as we head right into bottling of 2006 Relentless.
In February we start our final pruning, which will take us into March and April. In one day, a skilled vineyard worker can prune about 300 vines. With just over 1,000 vines per acres on our 200 acres it’s easy to see why it takes a good deal of time to do this job right.
Later in the month, on Saturday, February 21, falls another big auction -- Premier Napa Valley. This an auction for the wine trade that features one-of-a-kind wines sold in barrel lots to buyers from around the world. It’s a great opportunity to spend time with friends in the trade who we haven’t had the chance to see for some time.
-- Doug Shafer
As of the first of March we’re facing three months of heavy-duty vineyard work. It’s the season when you’re behind before you start. The vines are emerging from their winter slumber and their buds are ready to burst open. We’re about another two weeks away from first budbreak and the first varietal out of the starting gates will probably be our Merlot. The other varietals will follow in fits and starts over the next month.
Budbreak signals the exciting start of another growing season. The down-side is that if buds start cracking early in the season, our vineyard guys lose sleep thanks to frost potential.
We monitor temperatures with thermometers that are stationed throughout our vineyards. These little high-tech gadgets are miracles of the wired age. When temperatures drop to 33 degrees (Fahrenheit), they automatically call our vineyard guys David Ilsley and Alfonso Zamora-Ortiz on their cell phones and beep a frost alarm. This usually means David and Alfonso have to climb out of their warm beds and drive to the vineyards to monitor the temperatures and humidity. (The lower the humidity, the greater the potential for frost damage.) If temps dip to 32 degrees, it’s time to crank up the wind machines.
The wind machines are super-sized versions of any fan you might have at home. They tower 40 feet over the vineyard and their huge spinning blades circulate a layer of warmer air, which usually hangs anywhere from 15 to 30 feet above the ground. This movement of warmer air raises the temperature around the vines three to four degrees – just enough to avoid frost damage.
While it’s no fun getting up at one in the morning to monitor the weather from your pick-up truck, the one comforting thing is that lots of other growers are doing the same thing. On a frost night in Napa Valley, you’ll see vineyards everywhere weirdly illuminated by the flashlights and headlights of vineyard guys on frost duty. If you head to 7-11 for coffee, you’re likely to find fellow growers looking for a dose of caffeine themselves.
The end of frost season is, as a general rule, May 1.
During daylight hours – sleep? Who needs sleep? – David and Alfonso work with a crew of about 15 guys who perform a great deal of skilled hand work in the vineyards. They mow cover crops (sometimes by hand using sickles), tie or train vines to the trellis systems, and plant new vines to replace those that are dead or diseased. Once the buds break open, out come the first shoots, the early leaf growth and the flowers that’ll become grapes. Our vineyard team will remove extra shoots and leaves and other greenery to ensure that the fruit will receive a good mix of sunlight and air.
Visit again in the future for a slice of life in June, July and August.
-- Doug Shafer
Thanks for stopping by this part of our website where we offer a snapshot of life here in the Stags Leap District.
The season we’re entering was once a relatively slow time in the vineyard. By now pruning was finished, frost season was over, and you would have sprayed the vineyard floor with heavy duty herbicide, so you didn’t have a single weed to deal with for months.
The days of sitting back and watching your vines grow are gone forever. Today, for example, we control weeds by mowing, by hand sickling, and by choking them out with aggressive planting of beneficial cover crops. We spend 40 percent more man hours on weeds alone than we used to in order to farm in ways that are environmentally friendly.
During the past 20 years, vineyard life has changed — certainly for the better. And today the
summer months are some of our busiest of the year.
If you’re reading this, you may have some interest in learning the language of the vineyard. Here’s some vocabulary that will give an idea of the scope of work we’re now doing:
Tucking — Right now the vines are growing rapidly and if left to themselves, they would sprawl out in all directions. To avoid this kind of unworkable chaos we train the vines on extensive trellis systems, ensuring that the main branches move upward through the trellis wires. This gives the fruit optimum exposure to sunlight and offers beneficial access to the cool temperatures in the late day and evening hours. So at this time of year we move through the vineyard and tuck each of these branches inside the system of wires keeping the vines moving onward and upward.
Suckering — This refers to pulling off the small extraneous shoots or "suckers" that grow from the main laterals, or branches. Eliminating extra foliage allows the vine to focus its efforts on fruit development.
Leafing — This would more accurately be called “de-leafing,” but when you’re working quickly in a vineyard the fewer syllables the better. When leafing we remove leaves by hand largely to give the fruit the right mix of sunlight and shade. Too much foliage on the vine will leave the fruit’s color unevenly developed at harvest. Too little will result in overexposure to the sun, which results in the same kinds of things that happen to you and me — sunburn and raisining.
Sulfuring — To control mildew, we spread powdered sulfur throughout the vineyard two or three times each month. This practice, approved for organic farming, is a way to control one of our greatest challenges.
Green harvest —To help achieve concentration of color and flavor in our fruit, we start removing clusters and even individual grapes that we know won’t make the final cut. Not only does this eliminate middle-of-the-road grapes, but it also allows the vine to devote more of its vitality to the remaining fruit. About 80 percent of the way through veraison (around the first of August when the fruit softens and takes on color) we start thinning the crop. Drive up to the winery at this time of year and you’ll find clusters of fruit lying on the ground because we’ve trimmed away anything that would give us inferior wines. The fruit we "green harvest" isn’t a complete loss. It will return to the soil, enriching it and becoming part of a future growing season.
Throughout the season, we visit each of our vineyard blocks evaluating the fruit and the foliage, deciding when things like leafing and thinning need to happen. Each block ranges from one to nine acres, so you can imagine how much time it takes to tend some 200 acres located here in Stags Leap District and south through Oak Knoll and Carneros.
By the time harvest comes around we have examined these vineyards, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, cluster by cluster and in some cases grape by grape, all to ensure that what we bring to the crush pad will be the best Mother Nature has to offer.
-- Doug Shafer
Harvest at Shafer
By this time of year, the wait is over – harvest starts. By the first couple weeks in September we’re headlong into the circus of picking, crushing and fermenting.
Our day at Shafer starts before sunrise checking that day’s weather forecasts. Just like the wine we make, we're hoping for a balance. Too much heat can make the sugars in the fruit rise drastically and cause raisining. We may have to scramble to irrigate whole or partial vineyard blocks. Cold weather, rain, too much humidity - all of these can all trigger a variety of responses from our vineyard team.
We’re in the vineyards at first light sampling fruit. Sugar levels rise and fall throughout the day, so we sample in the early morning hours, which is the same time of day we’ll eventually be picking. On these sampling walks we’re looking for a balance of elements. Are flavors going to peak in a day? Two days? A week? Are sugar and acid levels where we like them?
Beyond those things, we look for physiological ripeness. How does the berry separate from the stem? It should come off easily. What does the seed look like? In ready-to-pick fruit the seed is brown and crunchy and doesn’t hold on to much of the pulp (think of Grape Nuts cereal). This kind of seed will impart softer more mature tannins to the wine. An underdeveloped seed is hard, green and bitter and will transfer those qualities to the wine.
During harvest we will taste and examine fruit from more than 100 vineyard blocks that range in size from one to 10 acres in size.
While we’re performing sensory evaluation of the fruit, we also collect berries at random throughout the vineyard and take them back to our lab. Here we put on our chemists’ hats. We squeeze the fruit taken from each block, strain the juice into a beaker and test it for Brix (sugar) level, total acidity, seed profile and other markers.
The decision of when to pick is often not clear cut. Sometimes we’ll get a mixed reading. The sugar level we tasted in the vineyard doesn’t always match up with the numbers we're getting in the lab. So we go back and do it again.
The goal, of course, is to pick the fruit at the peak of ripeness. We check and re-check, taste and re-taste. Because once the grapes come off the vine, they can’t go back.
Typically by early- to mid-September we'll start bringing in the first bins of fruit; in some years it’s a race between Merlot and some of our younger Cabernet to see which variety is ready first. In other years Chardonnay will be the first that’s ready to go.
The picking crew is the same team of guys who’ve been tending the vines throughout the year, so they know these vineyards backwards and forwards. They start before the sun shoots its first ray over the Stags Leap ridgeline.
The fruit arrives at the crush pad in small white bins and goes onto a shaker table that moves the fruit toward the destemmer. As the table gently shakes the fruit, it gives the crush pad team a chance to visually inspect the fruit and then by hand remove any remaining bits of foliage or underdeveloped grapes. After the stems are removed the berries go to a second moving table that allows us to remove any lingering stem pieces or remaining immature berries. Finally the berries go through our optical sorter, the last step in our quality control approach. This high-tech computer-based equipment allows us to program in the size, shape, and color of the berries we want to keep. As the fruit flies past a scanner, the sorter rejects any grape that does not fit the profile of the fruit we have created. Only the ripest, most beautiful fruit is crushed. A big day for Shafer means we crush 60 to 80 tons. A more typical day is between 20 and 40.
Throughout harvest, the cellar is a logistical circus. The red must (the crushed grapes - juice, skin and seeds) goes right away into tanks for fermentation, where most will stay for seven to ten days. The juice from Chardonnay - pressed gently in whole clusters - goes into tanks for settling for several days, then into individual 60-gallon barrels for fermentation.
As time goes on a game of shuffle-the-tanks begins. Those tanks needed for one new must/juice/wine, are now needed for the newly harvested fruit coming in day by day. Every hose, every pump, every fitting is put into service. Our work orders, in which we map out what happens to the avalanche of fruit, must, and wine on a given day, can stretch to ten pages. And the day can last 16 to 18 hours.
By mid-October the fruit will be in. In November the sound and fury of harvest will be officially over. We’ll be doing some racking and preliminary blending. Otherwise the wines will have finished fermentation and will be “put to bed” in their barrels. The reds will be racked again - a process of sediment removal - and the lees on the whites will be stirred weekly to increase softness. And in 14 months to three years, depending on the wine, it will be ready for bottling.
-- Doug Shafer