Prelude to a Post-Harvest Post

This past Friday I was attending a little post-harvest  celebration with “the wife” where I had the opportunity to meet the guy who does grape sourcing for her company, I’m assuming for many of the brands.  Anyhow, he was chatting with the general manager and winemaker from “the wife’s” winery and was telling us about some of the growers’s situations.  This year has been a rough one, if you’ve read the papers or some of my earlier posts about the weather you may have already heard it has been challenging.

My Spring post:

A follow up regarding the cool Summer:

So, this sourcing manager was recounting a story about a vineyard that got a touch of the first frost of the Autumn (this last Wednesday).  The canopy of the grapevines were completely wiped out, and the grapes were shy of harvesting level brix.  Without leaves, the grapevines can’t continue pumping sugar into the fruit.  That’s bad news for growers, because without enough sugar in the grapes, their crop is worthless.

I rarely think about this aspect of wine.  I’m usually on the final destination side (yep killing wine by pouring it down my gullet).  Imagine spending an entire growing season, fully expecting to sell your crop after tending to it for a full year.  Caring for the vineyard, by minding the soil pH, checking for and removing pests, pampering and optimizing each and every vine, all for nothing.  Every dollar that was pumped into making the grapes grow, spent and gone, with the assumption that you could sell it, even having a contract that assuring you that you would have someone to buy it.

Here are some articles from local media sources talking about the funky year:
(Harvest Starts)
(Coastal Fog Affecting Growers)
(Rain Stalls Harvest)

Anyhow, harvest is over here in Sonoma County.   I’m sure some growers may be picking their hanging fruit, hoping that the sugar is somewhere in the acceptable range, but after a full week of rain and cold, I’d say there isn’t much hope for them.  I’m going to try and get out to interview some more winemakers and growers to see how the season turned out for them.  I’ll try and talk to some viticulturists too and see if we can get some insight into what impact this year may have on next year’s growing season.

But now, I’m going to pop open a bottle of the stuff we all love, and toast the growers who are affected by this FREAKY 2010 season, may next year bring better luck and prosperity!

Cheers and Happy Halloween from The Norcal Wingman!


What good is a bunch of cold grapes?

Well here we are, firmly in the middle of Summer and damn it’s Hot!  Hot everywhere but here in wine country that is.  I have heard that this is going to be the hottest year on record, McClatchy has a report stating that according to NASA 2010 is on track to be the hottest year ever, 2009 WAS the Second Warmest ever recorded according to NASA, but here in Wine Country we’re hoping to get some Summer weather to warm up these grapes.  By this time of year the grapes should be well into verasion.

Grapes in Verasion - Photo Credit Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog

I wrote up a piece earlier this year that talked a bit about how the long and late rains might affect the vineyards and I thought I’d follow it up with some info on what this cold might be doing to our beloved grapes.

Once again I’ve called upon the local experts to get the lowdown on some of the terms that I hear used and also asked for some commentary and color on their predictions of the 2010 growing season and vintages.

Here’s what Dr. Merilark Padgett-Johnson, instructor for the Viticulture program at the Santa Rosa Junior College.

NC: I was wondering if you could add some color to the discussion.  Is there an easy way to explain what “degree days” are, so non-farming/non-viticulturalists could easily grasp the concept, and include some of the science that goes into calculating it?

M P-J: Degree days are what it sounds like, heat units accumulated over time.  Grapevines achieve net growth when the temperature is over 50 degrees F.  Under that threshold, no net growth.

Degree days (DD) are calculated by taking the daily average temperature  (max temp + min temp /2),   then subtracting 50.  This is gives you the degree day figure for that day. For example, if the max temp for one day is 78, and the minimum is 56, that average is 67; subtract the threshold 50 from 67, you get 17 DD for that individual day. Degree days are calculated individually, then accumulated daily over the course of the growing season.  Different cultivars have different degree day requirements for ripening their fruit.

NC: Secondly I was wondering if you had any commentary on the weather and your predictions for the effects it may have on the 2010 vintage.

M P-J: Predictions I don’t do, who knows?   We just hope to get enough degree day accumulation from here on out, to meet the DD necessary to ripen the fruit.

I asked my sources at another local vineyard to pass my questions on to their Viticulturist and they were kind enough to respond and have provided some outstanding insight and detailed information about their concerns.  I’m also including a document written by them which they put together back in May with predictions on this year.  I’ve taken some basic Viticulture classes and this is some interesting stuff.  I’m very sure I don’t grasp all of the nuance, but any of you out there who are steeped in vineyard management and viticulture should really appreciate it!

NC: I was wondering if you could add some color to the discussion.  Is there an easy way to explain what “degree days” are, so non-farming/non-viticulturalists could easily grasp the concept, and include some of the science that goes into calculating it?

Viticulturalist: A degree day is the measure of accumulated heat between two set points (calendar dates).  It’s known that certain varieties of grapes need a set amount of degree days to ripen.  For example if you wanted to plant variety “A” in a valley, and you know it takes 2500 degree days to ripen variety “A”, you wouldn’t plant it in a valley where the total degree days are 1500.  So, in regards to knowing what to plant and where, it is a very useful tool.

The degree day model is also very good for predicting the life cycles of insects and plant pathogens.  This is extremely helpful because we can time our spray application to be the most effective.  There is a degree day calculator available for most plants, insects, and plant pathogens and is readily available.

We know are fields very well, and we know the timing of three major events, bud break, bloom, and verasion.  We can gauge whether the season will be early or late based on the timing of those three events.  My experience has been farmers don’t talk about degree days in regards to ripening and when to harvest.  Grapes samples are taken for analysis two to three times a week for at least a month before harvest.  The analysis will basically give the percent sugar, titratable acidity, and pH.  Those are what usually determine when to harvest.

NC: Secondly I was wondering if you had any commentary on the weather and your predictions for the effects it may have on the 2010 vintage.

Viticulturalist: I’ve attached a document my assistant, <name deleted> and I wrote about the upcoming 2010 season back in May.  It has turned out a very good predictor of what we are seeing in the vineyards in terms of bloom/shatter in relation to yields, and Botrytis Bunch Rot.

My prediction for the upcoming vintage is the slow, cool, wet, growing season may not be a bad thing for the early ripening varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc.  Provided they are planted in an early ripening area.  The grapes that manage to ripen without getting a bunch rot infection will be outstanding.  I just don’t think there will be many grapes without rot this year.  I also think some of the later varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Zinfandel may never make it off the vine.  Those later varieties will have trouble making sugar (ripening) because of the cool, extended growing season.  The possibility of them rotting on the vine is very high.

NC: Do you have any other thoughts on how strange the year seems?  For example all the rain we had, well into late Spring/early Summer, etc.

Viticulturalist: The running joke in the vineyards is no year is ever normal.  However, this year is particularly challenging.  The long wet cool spring, followed by a cool and summer has placed the vines about 3 weeks behind schedule.  In a “normal” year we would begin harvest the last week of August.  We are expecting harvest to begin around the 10th-15th September.  The longer the grapes are on the vine the greater the risk for pathogen damage, particularly bunch rot.  It is quite possible we could lose at least 20% of the crop.

Here is the growing report shared with me detailing predictions of the 2010 Grape Growing Season:

The 2010 growing season has been plagued by nearly two solid months (April and May) of below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation.  In fact, statewide, the month of April ended up being the 12th coldest on record.   Furthermore, the excessive precipitation delivered in April made it the top ten wettest in the North Coast in the last 100 years of record keeping.  Currently, for the month of May, we are experiencing unseasonably cool temperatures and weekly precipitation events.

This combination is contradictory to what is commonly considered ideal viticultural conditions for these two critical months.  The consequences of the prolonged cool and wet spring have not yet revealed themselves completely, but from experience, it is possible to predict with some confidence what they will be.  Two areas in particular are worth noting: an increase in disease pressure both short and long term and the unavoidable effect on bloom and eventual yield.

The primary disease concern is Botrytis cinerea, a fungus favored by wet conditions.  The resulting infections can affect shoots, leaves and clusters with necrosis that often leads to the loss of the affected tissue.  Only the much cooler than normal temperatures have prevented widespread infections from appearing this year.  The major concern is the ability of the fungus to go dormant inside the flower cluster, and when warmer and drier weather returns and the ripening clusters are exposed to free water of any kind – be it from rain, fog or heavy dew, the fungus will begin to sporulate and the cluster will begin to rot from the inside.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are well-known for their susceptibility to the fungus, and it should be expected that botrytis bunch rot will pose a serious threat as the season moves into harvest.

We have also noted the presence of a rarely-seen abiotic complex this year that is affecting Pinot Noir.   The complex is characterized by the sudden discoloration and death of leaves located at the mid-shoot position.  This affliction has been observed by other growers in our area and appears to be quite pervasive.   It has recently been determined that the necrosis is caused by an accumulation of ammonia resulting from an abnormal build-up of nitrogen.  This occurs because the unseasonable cold has retarded vine growth, and the nitrogen which has been taken up by the root system is not used but instead pools up in the shoots and leaves.  It is currently unclear what the progression of this problem will be or what longer term effects it will have on the affected vines.  However, with soil temperatures running in the 50’s, (another unfortunate consequence of the cold, damp spring ) – as opposed to the 70’s, where they would be in a normal year, it is almost certain this problem will continue to appear as long as the late-season rain and abnormally cool regime prevail.   We have also seen many mid-cane shoots in Chardonnay which have slowed their growth to the point of cessation, with the shoot tips giving every indication their growth has stopped for the year.  This is problematic because the shoots have not reached a length which will adequately ripen the grape clusters which they are supporting.  While it is hoped this phenomenon may be reversed somewhat by a return of normal late spring/early summer temperatures, it may be difficult to achieve given the stage of the vine growth cycle.

With regard to the inhibition of bloom, we have already observed many of this year’s early-blooming grape flowers being prevented from successfully completing the entire process because of the excessively cool and damp weather.   The cap (calyptra), which covers the male flower parts (the filaments and the pollen-bearing anthers), is staying attached to the flower instead of falling off.  This keeps the pollen grains from landing on the opening of the female flower part (the stigma) where a pollen tube will begin to grow leading to successful fertilization of the ovary and the eventual production of a grape berry.  The dampness also has a deleterious effect on the ability of the pollen grains to be easily released by the anthers that hold them which also has a negative effect on pollination.  For these reasons, viticulturists are fond of seeing bloom time weather that is warm (not hot – lest the pollen grains become dessicated in the heat) and dry.  In due time, the amount of unfertilized berries will shatter off of the grape cluster, and we will have a much better idea of how our potential yields have been affected by this almost unprecedented combination of rain and cold.

There are very possibly two other negative consequences of the late and protracted bloom: irregular ripening of the fruit and a later than normal harvest which may confront October rains should they occur.  The irregularity of the bloom and pollination will likely end up causing problems for accurate sampling as, even within a single cluster, flowers may have been pollinated serially over a period of several weeks.  Under these circumstances, berry sampling would be an exercise in frustration.  This is perhaps a year when cluster sampling might prove to be a considerably more accurate tool in assessing fruit maturity.  If the maturity of normally earlier harvested vineyards is pushed back to later in the year, while the usually later harvested blocks remain closer to their average harvest date, it is possible that many disparate blocks could be ready for picking at the same time – a logistical nightmare for both the viticultural and enological sides of our operation.

One last point to make would be the effect on the 2011 crop.  In all likelihood, there will also be some longer term effects resulting from this spring’s egregious weather.  It is well-known that bud fruitfulness, which heavily influences the potential size of a crop, is determined in the late spring and summer prior to that crop’s actual appearance on the vine.  A basic requirement of fruitful buds is ample sunshine on the shoots and canes that bear them.  Given the lack of sunlight so far this year, bud fruitfulness (or lack thereof) for next year’s crop is rapidly becoming an issue.  In addition, the excessive amount of water in the ground will only encourage rank vegetative growth on the vines – particularly when the weather gets warmer – leading to increased shading of shoots and canes and necessitating leaf and lateral pulling to encourage better sunlight penetration into the canopy.  If, as we suspect, a number of the shoots have stopped growing as mentioned above, the probability of this abundant supply of water being channeled into lateral growth becomes even higher, exacerbating the shading of next year’s fruiting buds and leading to a lighter yield in 2011.

As you can see, this is going to be an exceptionally strange year, even the experts are expressing concern and there may even be lingering effects for the following vintage!  I hope this is interesting to you too.  I’ll try to follow up with these folks after harvest and see how everything turned out.  So keep checking back!


Tom Simoneau, “The Wine Guy” – A Make-a-Wish Charity Auction Lot

A few months back I attended the annual Make-a-Wish event at the Sonoma-Cutrer vineyards and was lucky enough to win one of the live auction lots, the Wine Experience with Tom Simoneau “The Wine Guy.”

Make-A-Wish May 2010
Make-A-Wish May 2010

The stars aligned and we were finally able to schedule this event and get together to taste some great wine, eat some great food, and have some amazing conversations about the juice we all love.

Here’s a little background on Tom, I snagged this clip from his website, (I’ll add some personal color from our experience).

Tom Simoneau, the KSRO Wine Guy for the past thirteen years, knows the wine business. A grape grower, a winemaker, a wine marketer, wine educator, wine judge and wine critic, Tom Simoneau is the walking definition of “Wine Guy”.

Born in Maine and educated in Boston, Tom shunned graduate school at Boston University to form a country rock and roll band. It was his musical career that eventually placed Simoneau in wine country. “We based our California operation in Healdsburg because it reminded us of Maine and it was close enough to San Francisco, so we could pursue our dream of a record deal.”

Since Tom is “The Wine Guy” here is a his syndicated wine minute from our Make-A-Wish Event:  Click Here to play audio – Make-A-Wish072910.

Tom Simoneau - The Wine GuyNorcal Wingman on-air Live this Thursday!

I will be on the radio with Tom Simoneau this Thursday, July 29th around 4:30 PM, on KSRO’s The Drive with Steve Jaxon.  You can listen live by visiting and clicking on “Listen Live” or tuning into 1350 AM, if you live in the greater Sonoma County area.  The Drive is on daily, from 3:00PM to 6:00PM (Pacific Time of course) and usually features local Sonoma County luminaries, of a much higher caliber than myself.  Check it out HERE.

Tom and his wife Brenda really put out the red carpet for us. We decided upon a Cabernet Sauvignon tasting and Tom said he had something creative he’d put together for our group.

Our group, was not an ordinary tasting group, I can’t remember what Tom said exactly, but he said he was going to really have to put something special together.  Included in our tasting crew were Sonoma-Cutrer’s new winemaker, Mick Shroeter (formerly of Geyser Peak & Penfold’s) his lovely wife Linda, my wife’s Aunt and Uncle who are also wine grape growers and home winemakers, and me and “the wife.”

The Tasting Crew - Pictured (from left to right): Brian & Michelle Wing, Mick & Linda Schroeter, Sharon & Bob Duste, Brenda & Tom Simoneau

Upon our arrival we were greeted with glasses of Chandon bubbly and we began getting acquainted over some fantastic hors d’oeuvres, prepared by Tom’s wife Brenda.

Chicken Salad on Fresh Cucumber
Chicken Salad on Fresh Cucumber

Now, just to be clear, Tom and Brenda’s house, “Simoneau Ranch,” has one of the most spectacular views of the Alexander Valley that I’ve ever seen.  They’re located just east of Hwy 101 in Healdsburg and the view from their back porch looks across the Simoneau vineyards, and up toward the Geysers and off to the right in the distance you see Mt. St. Helena, a truly stunning spectacle!  Anyhow, I digress.  We chatted about wine and toured the property.  Tom showed us his vineyards and gave us a nice look at his cellar where he has cases upon cases of wines stacked to the ceiling, ribbons and awards for his wines, and some empty bottles, “trophies” of past experiences, each with a story.

After the tour it was back up to the house where we enjoyed some more snacks and tasted Tom’s two wines, a Chardonnay, “Brenda Lee’s,” a lovely, lightly oaked Chard, with about 10% malolactic fermentation, and his Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  Oh, I forgot to mention, Tom used to sell his grapes to Silver Oak up until recently when the economy tanked so now he just makes his own Cab (it’s great by the way).  Well after some tasty snacks, a goat cheese flan (see recipes below) and some bacon wrapped figs stuffed with blanched almonds, we got on with the main event.

Tom and Brenda had set up a double-blind, Sonoma versus Napa, no-holds-barred Cabernet Sauvignon battle royale!

Double Blind
Six Cabernet Competitors

The Cabernet Contenders:

From the West (Sonoma County):

2005, Jordan, Alexander Valley, Cabernet Sauvigon, $52
2005, Chateau St. Jean, Cinq Cepages, Sonoma County, $75
2004, Robert Young, Scion, Alexander Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, $58

From the East (Napa County):

2006, Oakville Ranch, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, $60
2006, Swanson Vineyards, Alexis, Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon
, $75
2005, Revana Family Vineyards, St. Helena, Cabernet Sauvignon, $149

All Set for a great Tasting
Table for 8 with 48 Glasses

We each tasted though the wines together and discussed the characteristics and qualities we saw, smelled and tasted.  It was quite an educational experience for me.  Having both Tom Simoneau (who also teaches wine tasting/judging at the local community college) and Mick Schroeter discussing and dissecting the wines and then sharing what they experienced and comparing that to what I was getting out of them was really cool.

A Great Tasting
Blind Tasting Crew at Simoneau Ranch

It gave me insight into what a world-class wine maker looks for when tasting and judging wines.  It also made me feel pretty good about my own palate and overall sensory capacity for wine, I’m making some incremental improvements (if I do say so myself).

So when it was all said and done, we had a clear winner and two wines that were so close that second and third place could have been combined into a tie for second.  Here are some of the scoring details:

First Place: 2006, Swanson Vineyards, Alexis, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon. Big and Juicy with grainy tannins, hints of licorice.

Second Place: 2004, Robert Young, Scion, Alexander Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon.  Coffee and Cocoa cover this Alexander Valley beauty, great tannic structure that is well representative of the AVA.

Third Place:  2005, Chateau St. Jean, Cinq Cepages, Sonoma County Red Wine.  Soft and supple, ripe red fruit and easy drinking tannins make this Sonoma Valley Red shine.

And the Winner is...
The Favorite Cabernet Is...

A great time was had by all and I can’t wait for next year’s Make-A-Wish event so I can try and win again.  Not only did we have some great wine and great conversation but the money made from Tom’s donation and my winning bid goes to help out a great cause.  The Greater Bay Area Make-A-Wish Foundation® grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength, and joy.  Please support them if you can, it’s an amazing organization.

Again, I want to extend a heart felt thank you to Tom and his wife Brenda for being such gracious hosts.  This was truly an exceptional experience and it could not have been possible without their generosity to both the Make-A-Wish foundation, and to us.


Below are the recipes of a few of the outstanding treats Brenda Simoneau prepared for us, Enjoy!  Be on the lookout for a cookbook by Brenda in the not to distant future.

Savory Goat Cheese Flan

Recipe by Brenda Simoneau

1 cup half-and-half
8 oz. sour cream
3 eggs
1 tsp. kosher salt
8 oz. Bucheron goat cheese
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
2 tbsp. of unsalted butter at room temperature

Depending on the size of your ramekins (custard cups) generously butter 6 – 8.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

While the goat cheese is cold remove the rind, place goat cheese in your mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it come to room temperature. Once at room temperature, mash with a fork. Add one egg at a time mixing well. Add the sour cream and mix well. Finally, add the salt, thyme, and half-and-half. Mix well.

Divide the custard among the ramekins, place them in a baking dish, and add very hot water to the pan so it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake until the custards are set, about 25 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven. Place the ramekins on a cooling rack and let sit for about 5 minutes.

Serve warm in the ramekins or run a knife around the edge of each ramekin, turn them out, and serve with a simple green salad.

Kalamata Olive Breadsticks

Recipe by Brenda Simoneau

1 tsp. active dry yeast
5 oz. warm water
1 tbs. olive oil
2 cups of flour
1 tsp. salt
30 pitted kalamata olives roughly chopped

This recipe makes about 76 skinny breadsticks. You’ll want to set up more than one baking sheet, so you can quickly rotate them in and out of your oven.

Stir the yeast into the warm water in a large mixing bowl. Let it stand for about 10 minutes. Stir in the olive oil.  Add the salt, chopped olives, and 1 cup of flour. Stir until everything comes together. Add half cup flour and stir until the dough comes together. Add a ¼ cup of flour and stir until the dough comes together. Lightly sprinkle some of the remaining flour on your work surface and knead the dough. Sprinkle and incorporate more flour as needed until the dough is smooth and soft.

Pat the dough into a rectangle (roughly 6” x 14”) on a surface that you can use a knife on. Lightly brush with olive oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit for 30 minutes.

Heat your oven to 350 degrees.

The dough should be very elastic now making it very easy to shape your breadsticks. Cut off a piece of dough about as thick as a finger. Lay it on your work surface, roll back and forth as your hands work out to the ends. This stretches out the dough to the desired length. Remember they will puff up in the oven to about twice the thickness that you rolled them out to. Lay them about an inch apart on the baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, turn the pan and bake for 10 more minutes. Continue baking and checking every 3 minutes or so until they’re crisp and golden.

Chicken Salad

Recipe by Brenda Simoneau

1 poached boneless, skinless chicken breast
¼ cup diced celery
¼ cup chopped pecans
2 tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon
½ tsp. salt (or to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ sour cream

Slice the chicken against the grain, and then chop into small pieces. You want about one cup. Place the chopped chicken and all other ingredients in a bowl. Mix together. Taste and then adjust the salt and pepper.

Serve on cucumber slices, crackers, or toast.