Across the state, harvest is upon us. California winemakers either are readying their crush pads for what appears to be a fairly large crop, or are out among the vine rows, tasting fruit, rolling it around on their tongues or between their fingers to determine if it's ready to pick.
Last week I was in the hinterlands of Sonoma County north of Healdsburg, attempting to determine the same thing in my own amateurish way. I wanted to see if I could tell whether the fruit was ready, walking a vineyard to see if I could taste what winemakers taste.
This was at Lytton Springs, in the Dry Creek Valley, one of that region's famous old vineyards. Used by Ridge Vineyards since 1972, it's planted mostly to zinfandel but also to a number of other heritage varieties: Carignane, grenache, petite sirah and Mataró. That was how old growers planted back then -- zin served as the backbone of most Sonoma vineyards, while other varieties added color, complexity, tannin and a broader spectrum of flavor to the finished wine. They're called "mixed black vineyards" and, to paraphrase Henry Ford, the old-timers loved to blend with different colors, as long as they all were black.
The vines were planted 111 years ago, and the fact that they're there at all today means that even in the 1920s, the wines from this place were good enough to escape the ravages of Prohibition. The vines are trained to grow into what is known as head-pruned system, without trellises, bushlike, irregular, gnarled and runty. Their trunks are scarred from decades of pruning; their leaves a brilliant vermilion veined in green -- a telltale sign of leaf-roll virus, which inhabits old vines like these, coexisting, restricting fruit production until the vine can manage almost nothing at all.
Gazing out on the vineyard is like inspecting a small army of brilliantly clad, extremely old men.
But for the fruit. Between the leaves are grape clusters of a spectacular dusty zinfandel blue, looking good enough to eat. Are they ready?
"Almost ready," says John Olney, who has been making wines here for nearly 20 years, and has been tasting and testing the grapes at Lytton for the last two weeks, monitoring their progress. A cool-weather pattern has stalled ripening here to a standstill, he explains, and he'd like to get to just a slightly lower level of acid before he picks.
"We're just looking to make it over that last hump," Olney explains, "where you taste enough of grapes' flavor, with just a little bit of green, just a little bit of acidity. You have to wait for a little more depth, that extra dimension of flavor."
I bear this in mind as I pick grapes off a few swollen clusters, pop them in my mouth, chewing, spitting out pips, letting the pulp and skin coalesce on my tongue and extrapolating, extrapolating -- how would this taste as wine?
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First impression: a dull sweetness as the skin pulls away from the pulp. The tannins in the skin are fine, grippy but not getting in the way of a resonant, grapey red-fruit flavor. Could be darker, that fruit, I think. While there's plenty of flavor, I can see why Olney would want to wait for that fruit note to deepen, and the hum of acidity to recede a bit.
For all that, it's not much to go on. Fruit is, well, fruity -- simple, fresh, invigorating but lacking the dimensions of wine. It is exciting, though, to have this mental note to compare with a finished wine sometime in the future, when we finally see what Olney has done with it. I'll get back to you in 2014.
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.