A short Essay on when to Harvest Wine Grapes. - By Greg Saarloos / by Keith Saarloos

Greg is one of the most interesting Saarloos' 
Without a doubt he will become one of the greatest winemakers in this valley. 
In the mean time He has to do things like the Essay below.
He is taking the gut feel of what we do and making it take form. 

Greg Saarloos is a pretty Mysterious Guy.

Greg Saarloos is a pretty Mysterious Guy.

When to pick grapes is possibly the single most important decision a winemaker will make for a particular vintage. Without starting with the highest quality or optimum ingredients, the chef cannot make a world-class five star meal. He must go to the market and select the freshest salmon and then go to the farmers market and buy the freshest herbs to season and dress that night’s plate. All of which require years of experience and the dedication to wake up each morning at the crack of dawn to get the freshest ingredients to make a superb entrée. A winemaker cannot decide to when to pick his fruit without fully understanding what is happening in the vineyard. He must make many trips at dawn to sample fruit for analysis and even more importantly taste the variances. One must consider at what time in the morning we will be picking and under what circumstances? When picking at three in the morning, one must know what the condition the fruit is in at that given time; if it is twenty two degrees and the fruit are little pebbles or if it is eleven in the morning and the grapes shred at any form of contact. What are the vines telling you? Are the leaves still preforming photosynthesis which in-turn adds more complexity to the clusters? Has lignification occurred and are the vines are starting to shut down? What is the condition of the seeds? Are they still green and tannic or are they able to be chewed and swallowed? Do you have to take a leaf blower and blow all the leaves out of the fruiting zone in order to pick the fruit and not half a ton of leaves? What is the weather forecast predicting? Is it going to be hot and dry and the fruit will dehydrate concentrating the flavor and sugars or is it going to rain and dilute the clusters and have quarter size berries? I think the biggest overall factor when it comes to deciding when to pick is the taste of the fruit and the weather forecast. Living in a moderate climate of California, I am use to warm summers, which leads to elevated brix and declining pHs and lower TA’s, all of which are manageable, but may not be desired. When picking fruit taste has to be number one. I understand that this is controllable to an extent. When farming hundreds of acres and having multiple variables this is difficult, but at this point you are looking for “ideal” numbers. In the case of vagrants camp vineyards, they are farming almost 20 acres of chenin blanc and is manageable to measure all of which I have brought up as well as variances in taste. If there are noticeable differences, these must be charted and sampled individually in order to fully understand what is going on in this particular vineyard and more specifically block and or clone. For example, when to harvest Grenache? Grenache is an interesting varietal, picked at different levels and flavor components; one varietal can have multiple outcomes. I like seeing Grenache hang as long and physically possible and as long as weather permits it to. The longer the hang time the more flavor develops and more of a meaty aroma and flavor smacks you in the face. Taking everything into account, the warmer the region, the higher the brix and lower the ph and TA’s. The colder the region, grapes will have to hang longer in order allow brix to climb and ph’s to remain constant and allow flavors to develop. Because of the zone in which are vineyards are located, we picked Grenache in the last week of October this last year; following was a couple days of rain which would have diluted flavors and sugar in the fruit. The brix were at 28.4 and the ph was 4.09; which by normal standards would have been blown way out of proportion and not have been desired. Because of our technics we were able to bring the must to a desirable level and ferment a must at levels in which would have been a perfect growing year. From the outside looking in we were crazy to do what we did, but the proof is in the pudding and our philosophy is number one. Without taking the taste and weather into factor we would have harvested a Grenache at 26 brix with and ph of around 3.75 and played it safe, but stylistically we would have sold out and not been true to ourselves and what our palates desire.

For vagrant camp vineyards picking purely off a sugar content is dangerous because of the past year and current drought situation fruit will be higher in sugar and lower in acid, so the more you can embrace this the better off you will be. Being able to adapt to year-to-year variances starts with knowing your vines and what it is telling you in terms of taste, not in terms of numbers. The more you pick off of numbers the more you will find yourself trying to make salsberry steak into fillet mignon.

With all of this being said sampling a vineyard is crucial and not something that should be left to one or more interns. Interns should be cleaning tanks and racking so that the winemaker can be sampling and tasting and collecting data to make one of the single most important decision of the year; when to pick the grape. The best way to do this is to walk a vineyard block by block choosing clusters un-biasedly and collecting not only brix, ph, and ta’s, but also the average weight of the cluster to judge year to year variances. Nothing can compare to visibly watching the vines age through the year within the weather patterns and seeing how the fruit is reacting. All of which take a tremendous amount of time and effort, but anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. In order to make those ribs that fall off the bone you must slow cook them for hours on end monitoring every variable possible constantly. The winemaker at vagrant camp should take the years variances into account and implement technics to highlight that year’s vintage and make the best wine possible from that particular year; not to make a vintage imitating another. The best winemakers and farmers don’t have a formula or recipe; they go with the flow and take what is given to them and make the best damn wine they possibly can. All of which is the reason you don’t have the same amount of grand cru vineyards year after year; some may be a grand cru and the next may be a premier cru. Not specifying what particular vineyard, but saying it is still from this village in this region.

All in all I would say the winemaker should be the one sampling and deciding when to pick off of their personal judgment based on what they have seen on day-to-day variance’s. Take random samples from blocks that are similar in flavor and sugar and acid levels; pick possibly on different dates, ferment separately and end up blending back together. There is no substitute for having a real understanding of what is currently going on and making not a hypotheses but a factual decision on when to harvest and what technics should be implemented to highlight that particular vintage, not just to emulate their perceived benchmark year of chenin blanc. No one-year is identical and that is what is exciting to me. We are not making the same recipe year in and year out, we are making a living and breathing entity; wine is not to be cloned or manufactured but to be organically molded by the hands of the farmer and not messed up by the winemaker.