Moving Into Bloom

I was in the vineyard yesterday assessing the shoot thinning being done by the crew in the Pinot Noir. We will need to make at least one more pass later in the season to break up spotty areas of congestion in the canopy, but mostly it looks like the guys are doing the job I want. As they finish the Pinot today they will move right into the Syrah, where the canopy is already looking very leggy.

As I noted earlier, the Pinot clusters look like they are going to be smaller than average this year. It looks like we will end up with about 15-17 clusters per vine, and I will be very surprised if they weigh more than 90-95 grams each. This works out to a projected yield of 38 hL/ha (2.3 tons/acre).

It has been cool, overcast and breezy since the heat spell two weeks ago. The persistent low pressure centered over the west coast is forecast to elongate and flatten, allowing for some weak ridging and slightly warmer tempearatures Sunday and Monday. Another cold trough is projected to drop in early next week, but the extended suggests warmer conditions by the first weekend in June.

Right now we need this kind of even weather. Yesterday I started to see the beginning of bloom in every varietal at the Estate. So long as the temperatures remain moderate and we don't get any rain over the next two weeks we should have a good flowering and set. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
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"Greening" The Packaging A Bit

Since 1998 I have been putting our most expensive Pinot Noirs in heavy glass. I liked the "presence" conferred by the size and heft of these oversize bottles.

I have re-evaluated this position. A number of considerations have led me to the conclusion that these bottles are no longer appropriate for the majority of our wines.

First, most people don't notice the heavy bottle until it is pointed out to them. This suggest that the conveyance of a sense of "worth" is subliminal at best. When I have had consumer feedback on these oversize bottles it has mostly been negative: the bottles don't fit in some wine racks.

Second, a case of wine in this oversized glass weighs 50 pounds, compared to about 37-38 pounds for standard glass. I have been really fortunate that I have not injured my back after 22 years of throwing around big and heavy stuff in the winery, but I am starting to feel it when I have to restack a pallet of this heavy glass. I'm developing a new appreciation for the strain this weight may impose on the folks who work for me.

Third, it is self-evident that the extra weight is not environmentally-friendly. Fourth, and related to point #3, is that the costs to manufacture (and so the cost to purchase) this heavy glass has increased dramatically in the last year and a half.

Bottom line, glass that was arguably justifiable at $16/case – when we were producing only about 500 cases of Pinot a year – is far less so at $24/case, as we grow toward 1,200 cases a year of Pinot Noir.

To be sure I am still going to put some wines in heavy bottles – very limited and exclusive lots, and charitable donation packages that get etched and painted – but it will only be on the order of 100 cases a year or so.
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Mandatory Composition Labels

On everything we eat and drink? This is a very real possibility in the near future. Today I was reading this article in Fortune Small Business about the push to add nutritional labeling to restaurant menus. This resonated with me because of the push to get the TTB to mandate "nutritional" labeling on alcoholic beverages – wine included (1, 2, 3, 4).

The gist of the FSB article is "embrace the trend" or more like, "roll over and give in to the inevitable". Personally, I believe "nutritional" labeling to be a misguided notion on so many fronts, with a clear caveat – people who may die from allergies to specific foodstuffs and additives absolutely must know what's in what they are eating. Short of avoiding the risk of death, however, whose interests are served?

I'm not an expert in the area of government nutritional policy, so the attentive reader should take my selection and presentation of the following information with the proverbial grain of salt. Also please note that I use "food" as a term to cover what we drink as well as what we eat.

Nutritional labeling as we know it has a fairly brief history. The Federal government started to allow voluntary nutritional labeling of foods only in 1972. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, this was meant "to address concerns about hunger in America and promote consumption of adequate amounts of key nutrients."

By the mid-1980's there was a push in a new direction by public and private interest groups to make labeling mandatory, "with the intent of helping consumers to modify their eating habits to prevent or delay the onset of" chronic diseases where research suggested a causal relationship to elements of dietary intake.

Mandatory labeling for most processed and packaged was codified and signed into law with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. It was another 10 years before FDA got close to mandating nutritional labeling on fresh foods, particularly meats, poultry and fish. It appears that to date these regulations have not been enacted – any labeling you see on these products is voluntary.

The big change in policy direction occurred in 2004 with the publication of a couple of reports commissioned by FDA: one entitled "Calories Count: Report of the Obesity Working Group" and the other from the National Academy of Sciences on the "Scientific Criteria To Ensure Safe Food", plus the signing of the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004.

The first report identified obesity as a target to be addressed by nutritional labeling policy. The second reinforced Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) as the FDA's approach to food safety – the same approach FDA uses to ensure drug safety. The new law "requires the labeling of any food that contains a protein derived from any one of the following foods that, as a group, account for the vast majority of food allergies: peanuts, soybeans, cow's milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat."

Today there is a push to mandate these directives for everything we ingest – including a meal prepared at a restaurant, and the wine served with it.

The TTB has proposed rulemaking on revised content and nutritional labeling of alcoholic beverages. This proposal has generated significant comment during the public review period. Leaving aside the question of whether TTB has statutory authority to regulate wine as a food or a drug, or whether FDA has authority to regulate alcoholic beverages, my guess is that we will see new labeling rules somewhere around 2010 – given the historical 10-year cycle.

As I stated above, I believe nutritional labeling is misguided on many fronts, especially for hand-made "artisanal" products. First, I reject the notion – implicit in the current direction of FDA policy – that food must be treated as "medicine". Imagine the traffic stop of the future: "OK buddy – license and registration, and I'm going to need to see a doctor's prescription for that Burger™ you're eating."

I believe this idea that food is medicine is a peculiarly American concept, rooted in a pernicious Puritan ethos that has permeated our culture from its outset. Throughout history humankind has eaten to live, and done fairly well. It is only recently in human history that the focus has shifted such that we must eat to be "healthy". I propose (and I don't think I'm alone here) that the shift is a consequence of the increasing availability of heavily processed and commoditized food.

Second, it's my opinion that mandating nutritional labels to address the public health problem of obesity is patently ludicrous. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, if nutritional labeling could curb people's eating habits we should be seeing rates of obesity decline. They certainly are not.

I think it is clear that as a culture we consume too much. The nutritional labeling mandates embody the explicit assumption that the informed consumer will consume less. This is a Pollyanna fantasy, that completely discounts the huge commoditized food industrial complex which spends billions on marketing in order to get us to consume more.

In a dystopian world (I call it the "Food of the Eloi" scenario) we would all consume huge quantities of doctor-approved, highly processed, tasteless, odorless, barely nutritive and properly labeled pap – very expensive pap – and live for hundreds and hundreds of years on it. But in the real world I believe (and there's plenty of good research to back me up) we would all be healthier – and somewhat thinner – if we choose to eat and drink smaller quantities, and less processed products.

In general I support the idea that we all should know what goes into our food. But I also believe that the idea of nutritional labeling can be taken too far, and for specious reasons. I believe that some of the proposed rulemaking crosses that line. I do support full disclosure of what goes into our wine, but I'm not convinced that a complicated data panel added to each sales unit is a smart way to go.

I like the idea of expanding the concept of the NutritionData website, streamlined to work on mobile devices like cell phones. That's what I'm gearing up for, whether or not TTB mandates a nutritional panel on each bottle.
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What The...? Rain!?

The heat spell broke on Friday – in fact the temperature dropped nearly 20°. Saturday started out cool and breezy, and then it started to rain. We only received 0.20" here in Sonoma, but more at the vineyard.

I spoke with a friend yesterday whose vineyard had suffered from the big frost a little over a month ago. Lucky for her, most all of her varietals bloomed out during the heat spell – for others who are in the middle of bloom, this weather will add insult to injury.

For me, only a few vines of Tannat at the top of the slope are in bloom – so long as the rain stops and it warms up, we should be OK.
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Benefits Of The Hot Weather

Pinot 667 May 16, 2008The heat spell pushed vineyard growth. This is our Pinot clone 667.

Pinot 667 May 16, 2008I was happy that the leaves didn't scorch in the heat. It looks like the Pinot clusters are going to be small this vintage. In fact, all the varietals at the Estate look like they are throwing smaller-than-average clusters this vintage. Well, almost all...

Tannat May 16, 2008This is Tannat at the top of the slope, where the vines are protected from the cold air settling from the hills above. This cluster will be as big as a human head by harvest.

Tannat May 16, 2008Look a little more closely – these clusters are blooming, more or less when I might expect them to in a "normal" year.
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Cooler Today?

Yesterday it was between 100° and 110° here in our Valley, depending on where, and who was doing the measuring. This morning the hot northeast winds were gone, and it was 15° cooler at dawn than yesterday. It is still going to be hot today, but I think the worst of this wave is behind us. I'm going to squeeze in a vineyard visit this morning to check for scorching.

Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of attending the annual Sonoma tasting put on by Silicon Valley Bank at John Ash & Co. This event is a unique twist on the standard wine industry meet & greet -- the bank staff assembles wines from their impressive list of clients, and then the staff pours the wines for the winemakers and owners (it's usually the other way around).

I got to taste some great wines and chat with old friends (Dave Ramey, Merry Edwards, Ted Elliott, Bill Hunter) and some new ones (among them, Doug Stewart of Breggo and Chris Costello of Kosta Browne). Over several glasses of 1986 Ch. d'Yquem (courtesy of SVB) Doug, Chris and I had a long discussion about "why Pinot Noir doesn't get the same respect as Cabernet in the market" -- not that we came to any conclusions.
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Heat Wave!

We woke to the second morning of our first real heat spell of the season. Yesterday I saw 99° F in town around 2 pm. Record highs were set all over the Bay Area. Expectations are that it will be eight to ten degrees warmer today than yesterday -- I can believe it as at dawn today the temperature was already 82° F. And it is windy.

We saw this coming and have prepared by watering up the vineyard. There's not much else we can do. I'm hoping that the sudden change -- we were seeing 60's and 70's just a few days ago -- has not caught the vines left-footed. We will see in a couple of days if wilt and leaf burn starts to show up in the tender shoots.

On the up side, this heat spell should comprehensively kill off any incipient mildew in the vineyard. When the heat wave breaks we will put out a sulfur spray and I will reset my models for determining when to make the next application.

Looks like we are in for more of the same tomorrow and Saturday. Forecast is for some slight relief starting Sunday, with a trough possibly bringing cooling by the middle of next week.

Time for me to go check and make sure the cooling at the winery is working properly -- yesterday was the first time it ran since last October.
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Staying Busy & Supporting Charities

Saturday we were invited by our presumptive new bankers to attend the Hospices of Sonoma barrel tasting and big board auction. This charitable event is the brainchild of Ted Elliott, an old friend from my days at Sonoma-Cutrer and owner of TR Elliott winery. The annual Sonoma auction, modeled on the famous vente des vins at the Hospices de Beaune, features 30 or so producers from the Sonoma Coast appellation showing off special lots of Pinot Noir created just for the event.

This year the participating wineries were showing their best wines from the 2007 vintage, which yielded some really spectacular Pinot in our neck of the woods. A great deal of work by the volunteers and professionals was evident, and the event was as glitch-free as any I have ever attended. But despite a lovely venue, good food and entertainment, enthusiastic auctioneers, and great wines and other auction lots, there was a distinct lack of high-roller bidding this year.

I think it may be evidence of a slow economy. Or maybe other potential bidders found their credit cards suddenly tight, as I did. Before the event I called AmEx to let them know I might be putting through a big charge for charity. For the first time ever I was told that I could not charge any higher than my average monthly billing over the last year, and not even that amount, as my current - not overdue - balance was not zero. Thanks so much American Express for leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Here's wishing AmEx consecutive quarterly losses and a big hit to their stock price.

Anyway a number of ten-case lots did not sell out, though there was some excitement over several producers' offerings - those not necessarily the best wines of the day IMO.

I was fortunate to score a case of the beautifully-balanced 2007 Pinot from Lynmar Estate, made by my friend Hugh Chapelle.

Hospices of Sonoma is a wonderful event supporting charities that have been near and dear to my heart since my days working on the WCC auction at Sonoma-Cutrer. I hope to participate in the future.

At the auction I introduced myself to Doug Wilder, who reviewed our 2003 Pinots for Vinfolio, and personally invited him to come to the winery for a barrel tasting.

And speaking of barrel tastings, I put on a doozy yesterday for two VIP couples. The guys operate Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City, just east of the southern tip of Manhattan and north of Ellis Island.

Some of their investors are oil & gas guys with business interests on the Gulf Coast - which may go toward explaining why the background image of LLM's website is a map of Galveston Island and Texas City instead of the Hudson and Upper New York Bay. Really Ron & Dwayne (and Nat), what's up with that?

Today I tentatively have another tasting scheduled with a very nice couple we met at Hospices of Sonoma - enthusiastic bidders who were as mystified as we were by the relative lack of action. I hope to show them a little more entertainment today.

And now for some weather news... Yesterday we woke up to the "morning low clouds and fog" that normally characterize our weather pattern here in Sonoma Valley. What's news is that this was the first day in over a month that the weather was "normal" as opposed to the unusual cool, clear dry and breezy conditions we have been experiencing - which BTW we have again this morning.

The cool weather means the growing season is getting off to a slower start than it has for the last several years. Here it is, already the first week of May, and we only have about an inch or two of growth on the vines at the Estate. How Continental.

I'm still waiting to see what damage may have been done to this year's crop by the multiple frosts we have experienced here in 2008. Estimates are currently that county-wide grape crop losses due to frost are at least 15%, with some vineyards experiencing losses of 60%-80%. There is talk of applying for disaster relief.
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