Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rain Dance

There's no better way to see an entire industry scramble than to mention a threat of rain while most of the valley's vines are still bearing fruit. Consult the National Weather Service, and we're getting a solid 5-8". Consult and we've just but a 40% chance of showers. I walked a block with a winemaker who purchases grapes from the Paradigm estate earlier today, and her exasperation seems appropriate to mention here. "I like to imagine all those meteorologists sitting around throwing darts at a board. 'Gonna rain? Sure. How much...well, just hit a number and we'll tell them that.' They have no idea how insane it makes our lives!"

So scramble we will. Our Merlot is ready to harvest, and was a pick that, pre-storm warning, we'd earmarked for a Tuesday arrival. The rain will apparently besiege the valley Monday evening. Alright then, we say, we'll harvest Monday morning and be happy. But the other two producers who take our Merlot, and the one who takes some of our Cabernet, want their grapes now. Tomorrow. Yesterday. So early today we sit down with our vineyard manager, query him with the robustness and staying power of the picking crew he's assembled, and wonder how we can make this happen. Done, he says.

Within an hour, the winery was a cluttered mess of picking bins, frenzied winemakers, and energized pickers, all awash in the melodic timber of excited Spanish. The luxury of a methodical harvest has left us. What we're faced with is the art of intelligent compromise - what needs to come in, what could come in, and in what we have the confidence of allowing to ride out the storm.

A big rain is a legitimate concern - moisture on the fruit can exacerbate mold concerns, canopies that have already begun their gradual decline might not bounce back, and, above all else, the rain makes working outside just a trifle more challenging. Dusty dirt quickly becomes sticky mud, and your feet will never, ever forget the chill of a cold, wet October morning.

Our Merlot buyers will get their fruit this weekend. For both producers, this means processing in one weekend what they would normally process in one week (since we are, without a doubt, not the only grower they are harvesting this weekend). Crews will work overtime, double-time, whatever time is needed to carry the grapes from picking bin through to tank. This is the beauty of what we do. Harvest flirts with routine, it alludes to control, but at its essence we are all at the mercy of the sun, the clouds, the wind. I have yet to meet anyone truly dedicated to this industry who would have it any other way. We are an agricultural society, and as such we are all loyal disciples of the church of Mother Nature.

The upside here is that the wines we've made so far, and the fruit that we're picking this weekend, are stellar. Consolation prizes, perhaps, for the frenetic dance we've been forced into to prepare for the week's precipitation. The grapes left out hanging have strong canopies, and should tolerate the rain well. Forecasts for the days following the storm are clear, and truthfully, a little rain does nothing more than wash the dust off those late-ripening varieties.

When everything is picked, when tanks are dry and barrels are topped and buttoned up for a cozy winter's nap, this week's drama will be an interesting talking point in the grand story of the 2009 vintage. But for the moment, the adrenaline of knowing where we need to be and what it will take to get us there is enough to remind us that we are all but pawns in a much larger game.

Molly Lippitt
Paradigm Winery

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