Harvest 2018: The Soul of a Card Counter

It was an August of glancing blows.  The rains came and fell heavily on the west side of Mount Alto, and then again on the east side of the James River, but each time, the eastern slope of Mount Alto was spared the worst.  It’s all about perspective, getting 5” of an inch of rain in a month when the next mountain over gets 10” makes you feel lucky.  It was no lazy August, but given the rain we did get, we had astonishingly small berries on the clusters, excellent fruit chemistry, and were actually entertaining fantasies of 3 more weeks of sunshine and a relaxed harvest of perfectly ripened grapes.  The skins of the Cabernet were just starting to feel supple when a pre-hurricane cold front dropped over an inch on us.  Berry weight jumped up rapidly, and a very small portion of the berries began to split, and we began to sweat — but then 5 days of sunshine and 90+ temperatures dried up the split berries, and returned berry weight to its modest baseline — we felt that we’d dodged another one.  We checked in with Matthieu, and agreed that another 10 days or so would be perfect — so we’d count on our luck to hold with Florence coming up the coast.  We checked in with Luc Tessier to help us screw up our courage for the days to come…

 “You see, to make a great wine, you must have the soul of a gambler.” - Luc Tessier

“You see, to make a great wine, you must have the soul of a gambler.” - Luc Tessier

And then we took one on the chin.  An inch one night, 2 inches the next, and the clusters began to fall like dominoes.  The soul of a gambler got exchanged for the soul of a card counter — we estimated our risks and measured a rapidly escalating level of of fruit loss, and put the cards on the table (the sorting table that is — ok, no more gambling analogies).  Harvest was a tempest: we tried to balance speed (every hour more berries split) with accuracy, field-sorting to remove hopeless clusters.  The decision to harvest was made at 11 pm on a Sunday — we all called in our work favors to get the day off and started first thing Monday morning.  We worked dawn till dark with intermittent rains — in all another 3” falling before we could finish up (making an even 6” for the last 3 days of the season).

 What a machine?! And damn those are some good-lookin’ berries!

What a machine?! And damn those are some good-lookin’ berries!

Once we reached the winery, we sorted clusters again on the conveyor belt, sent them into the destemmer and then passed the berries over the vibrating sorting table to insure that only intact berries reached the fermenter.  Ultimately, the final yield got reduced by about 40% due to all of the triage, but it was what we needed to insure healthy grapes.  With an early harvest like this, and modern wine-making techniques, it can be tempting to try to intervene — put back what nature left out. But given that this was only the 2nd harvest on our new site, we had no way of truly knowing what might be missing — David was fearless, insisting that the only way to understand our terroir was to follow a low-intervention route with the goal of simply seeing how it had responded to this rainy vintage (David really does have the soul of a gambler). 

 Mary Lou with one last minute bit of sorting after the crush.  photo: C. Burda

Mary Lou with one last minute bit of sorting after the crush. photo: C. Burda

So, Matthieu navigated an old-school approach, fermenting in neutral barrel, with just twice daily punch downs to gently extract from skins and seeds lest green flavors resulted from our early harvest. In contrast to tumult of the last couple weeks before harvest, fermentation delivered one pleasant surprise after another, first yielding a surprisingly dark color, and then a highly aromatic nose, with red-berries all over the palate.  And as fermentation came to a close we realized we would suffer none of the “green” flavors so feared in a vintage like this.  Perhaps the few weeks of dry in July and the modestly wet August were all we needed?  Perhaps it’s just terroir?

Fermentation is done, and the vintage is now resting in barrel, and we’ll let it be till spring, then we’ll start evaluating it.  Early forecast is that it will be a wine to release and drink early — a wine for pleasure if not contemplation — which will be just fine by us.  This was an exhausting vintage — hard-working, nail-biting, comfort-zone expanding — and we’re thirsty.

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