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The first very wet winter in four years is upon us! This year’s El Niño, caused by elevated surface water temperatures in the South Pacific, is expected to bring about heavy rains and cooler nights. El Niño rains promise a limited replenishment to our water-starved soils…..if we can keep the water from running away! Fortunately, the rains that we’ve had so far have been wonderfully easy, with a handful of daily accumulations totaling not more than 0.9 inches. Since July 1, 2015 we’ve recorded 8.3”, over 2" more than this time last year! What does this mean for the vineyards? Those frequent, light rains allow the soil to slowly absorb the water, which, over time, help to flush out the salts that have accumulated from the prolonged drought. Our concern over heavy downpours at Adelaida is that the steep slopes will simply allow the water to run off, carrying with it our valuable topsoil. To combat this possibility, just before the first rains began to fall we planted lots of peas, beans, white and yellow mustard, daikon radish, and triticale to build up the biomass of our soils. Right now, the vineyards look beautiful with lots of greens and colors, and we know that we’ve done as much as we can to work in stride with Mother Nature.
The 2013 harvest was the earliest on record for Adelaida due to low winter rainfall and steady warmth throughout the growing season. Total yields were about average and quality was excellent. At this early stage, with most of the wines still completing their secondary fermentation in barrel, the reds are deeply colored and the whites are showing great richness and vibrancy.
This year was our first farming organically. The dry conditions allowed us to limit the number of passes we made in the vineyard to control fungi, and, even with those drought conditions, we severely limited irrigation to occasions where the plants would have suffered without it.
On August 19 we picked the first fruit of 2013: A small amount of Chardonnay, Pinot noir from 6 rows in the northeastern part of our HMR vineyard, and syrah from our Viking vineyard. Simply put, the fruit was ready to come off the vine. By way of contrast, and as a demonstration of the effect of temperature on harvest date, in the cool 2011 vintage, we picked the first Chardonnay on September 19, the first HMR Pinot noir on September 23, and the Viking syrah on September 21.
Our final pick of 2013 was muscat for our dessert program from Bobcat vineyard on November 11. We made two passes in the muscat, the first being clean fruit with high sugar and relatively more acid (31 brix) and the second with a little botrytis (at 33 brix). The botrytis infection was limited because of dry growing conditions, and we hope to see more in 2014.
We brought in significantly less zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon in 2013, much to our disappointment. The cabernet berries, in particular, were very tiny, and the Viking vineyard, which was planted in 1991, showed its age by not producing as much fruit. But what that vineyard lacked in fruit quantity it made up for in quality.
The zinfandel vines from Michael’s block, named after our stellar ranch manager Michael Whitener, bore the combined effects of drought conditions and dry farming. The fruit struggled to reach its typical sugar levels, and we made several surgical passes throughout the growing season to balance the amount of fruit with the vine’s ability to ripen it. We’re happy that we did, as the wines so far show great finesse and spice.
In between the first and final picks, we saw much to admire in 2013. The red berries had thick skins, which they synthesized as a result of several environmental and cultural factors, including sunlight, temperature, shoot positioning and low rainfall. The resulting wines have great color and extraordinary tannin. The whites grapes benefited from cool nights, which helped retain their acidity, and careful farming, which kept leaf cover over the fruit to minimize sun damage. Our switch to night harvesting in 2013 kept the fruit nice and cool when it arrived at the winery.
As of June 28, a high pressure system has settled on the entire West Coast, and weather experts are forecasting several days of high heat and possibly record-breaking temperatures. With that projection in mind, and with seeds beginning to harden and veraison on the near horizon, we decided to give the plants some water.
While we employ a technique known as deficit irrigation to control shoot growth and increase grape quality, we want to keep the plants alive. Over the next several days we’ll continue to feed the plants enough water to counterbalance evaporative losses.
These early-season high temps are preferable to those that occur late in the season, as the intense heat induces the green grapes to make sunscreen in the skins, which will provide protection throughout the summer.
When the heat recedes we’ll finish our cluster thinning pass, which we began several weeks ago. This involves culling excessive clusters and those on weak shoots with an aim to balance the fruit load to the age of the vine, its size, the size of the canopy, and the size of the shoots.
With the strong belief that the best wines come from the best fruit, we have begun making a series of major investments in all of our vineyards (HMR, Anna’s, Viking, Michael’s and our newly planted vineyard.) Our two key goals are that every bottle of Adelaida wine represents our vineyards and that our farming practices ensure the long-term vitality of the vineyards.
For starters, we are doing away with herbicides. While convenient, cheap, and certainly effective in the short term, herbicides are unnecessary at best and at worst they disturb the natural habitat of beneficial insects, among other things. To combat weeds, we have purchased a cultivator that cuts weeds in the vine rows without harming the plants.
Next, we are looking to build up the soil health by choosing cover crops that match each ranch and each soil type within each ranch. The cover crops will provide nutrients, erosion resistance, and a home for beneficial insects. As part of this program we will introduce organic compost into the vineyard in the winter.
We are taking a closer look at vine nutrition. As the saying goes--and with some caveats--struggling vines make great wine. This adage has its limits, of course. We don’t want to kill the vines, but we also don’t want them fat and happy. So, we will be measuring the vines’ uptake of nutrients at critical points during the growing season—bloom and veraison—to determine whether they require supplemental micronutrients. And we will also be measuring how much water the vines are seeing by using a pressure bomb.
In the spring of 2013 we planted 23 acres of new vines comprising Zinfandel, Alicante Bouchet, Grenache and Carignan. They are on a steep hillside facing south. We will head-train these plants—that is, they will grow up without a trellis-- and we will farm this area without irrigation.
Finally, we have retained Daniel Fischl of Eartrumpet Consulting to help guide us to reach our goals. Daniel is an experienced viticulturist with clients in Australia, China, Italy, Israel and Napa. His current and former clients include Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bond, Aubert, Peter Michael, and David Abreu.
We’re excited about the way the 2012 wines are developing. While their baby fat is still very much present, the wines reflect in their underlying richness and precision the nearly perfect growing season of the vintage. Not only did warm temperatures return after two consecutively cool years, but yields were up, too.
Rainfall between November and April (when the bulk of the annual precipitation occurs) was slight, especially in contrast to the previous two years, but not critically so, and there was rain into May. We saw budbreak first in our Upper West Block of Pinot noir, followed closely by Syrah and Grenache in Anna’s Vineyard. Budbreak finished in the Lower Viking vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon.
From the end of May into June daytime temperatures were in the 80s and 90s, with occasional spells of heat, which led to even and successful flowering. July temperatures were unusually erratic, with some days in the 70s followed by days that eclipsed 100. Fortunately, the nights were largely cool, which allowed the vines to recover.
The return of seasonably warm days (compared to 2010 and 2011) snapped veraison—the period when the skins soften, sugars accumulate and, in the case of red varietals, color pigments known as anthocyanins are synthesized-- back to its normal schedule.
The heat continued into August, in which we recorded two weeks over 100, but our top-notch vineyard crew stayed on top of thing and metered out enough water to keep the plants transpiring. September was virtually perfect, with warm days and cool nights and only a handful of hot days.
On August 29 we harvested Syrah from Viking Ranch vineyard as our first pick of the year off the estate. From that point on, the action was non-stop for six weeks, as the vineyard and production crews worked tirelessly to bring in fruit at its optimum and process it in time for the next pick. By the time we finished our last estate pick—Picpoul blanc, on October 18—and our last off-site pick—Carignane from Camp 4 in Santa Ynez Valley--we were exhausted but also elated by the vintage’s prospects.