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Elizabeth Nixon
May 17, 2016 | Custom Crush, Harvest, Methode Champenoise, Sonoma County, Sparkling Wine, Sparkling winemaking, Wine Country, Winemaking | Elizabeth Nixon

Rack & Riddle Vineyard Visit: Checking the Status of the Vines

Last week our Executive Director of Winemaking Penny Gadd-Coster led part of our winemaking team on a vineyard visit to check the health and status of our grapes in the Carneros appellation of Sonoma. Bloom is underway for both Rack & Riddle’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, with south-facing vines showing the most advanced bloom, and north-facing vines about ready to blossom.

As a member of our business development team, I was honored to tag along, receiving interesting answers to all my questions from our executive director Penny and winemakers Steve Fredson and Carolyn Craig (the two winemakers who went on this trip, out of our team of seven full-time winemakers).

Over the following weeks leading up to harvest—sparkling wine grapes are typically harvested in late July or early August—the entire team of winemakers will take turns making vineyard visits every other week to check on the health and status of our vines and grapes. Observations will be discussed and passed along with instructions to the vineyard managers.

“We’re looking at how much shoot thinning they’ve done, should we do more for the time of the year it is, how are the clusters looking, are we on time and on average—those types of observations,” said Penny.

These grapes will go into numerous separate winemaking programs at Rack & Riddle: blended into different lots of four sparkling méthode Champenoise varietals in our Rack & Riddle brand of Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé. The grapes will also be used in premium blends for our wide selection of private label méthode Champenoise sparkling wines, available for wineries or businesses.

The wines will age an average of 18 months en tirage, so the grapes in bloom you’ll see in the photos and videos below will become the juice for sparkling wines that we can drink in about two to three years.

Our winemakers observed everything looking very healthy, with only small, infrequent disease spotted on a couple Pinot Noir vines; as Penny said, “Caps are a flyin’”—revealing the stamens of the blossoms and releasing a sweet scent in the air. Thinning had taken place to allow air to circulate, and suckers removed from the trunks and rootstocks.

Here are some of the questions that popped up for me as I tagged along.

Elizabeth: What is the status of the Pinot Noir vs. the Chardonnay at this point (in mid-May?):
Penny: The Pinot Noir is about a week ahead of the Chardonnay; generally for harvest we pick the Pinot Noir grapes first, but within three to four days usually we’re already picking the Chardonnay; sparkling wines are picked earlier than table wine grapes.

E: What’s the purpose of a rootstock?
P: Each of the vines is on a rootstock to encourage or enhance the growing area for the vine and create resistance to certain pests.

E: Being right next to the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I imagine the biodiversity is beneficial?
P: There are certainly more bugs and wildlife. With grape growing we’ve changed the land, so how can we make use of it without stressing it further, and keep those beneficial bugs? Not getting rid of the bad bugs and also the good, but keeping the balance.

E: What is this chalky pink residue where some of the vines/trunks have been pruned?
P: When they trim the vines, they sometimes put a solution on the vines to keep them from bleeding, to prevent molds.

E: What happens to the few vines that are diseased?
P: A few do have some diseasing, with some vines barely hanging on. They’ve interplanted with newer, healthy vines. Eventually the diseased vines will die off.

E: Can you predict anything at this point about harvest?
P: There’s a pretty good crop on the vines. I don’t like to make predictions about what harvest will yield until May is over—but then you can start to look at predictions, whatever those are worth. Everything is looking on track—we’re not seeing any major issues at this point, but that can change drastically in a month to two months.

E: How does the climate here affect the grapes?
P: With the cooler weather and the fog, you get nice, small berries. There’s not too much vigor so they ripen and get a lot of fruit flavor.

E: What is the soil like here?
P: The soil is basically what you would find at the bottom of the bay. A lot of debris has created a lot of nutrient-rich soil, but there is enough sand that in the summertime going through here this is going to be silty and sandy… It’s an interesting area that we’ve recovered to grow grapes. All of the stuff that has died in the bay—plants, animals, bugs—we’ve got great fish emulsion here!

E: Why did they disk so deeply between all the rows?
P: Deep disking has been done to help aerate the roots, then it also tills in the nitrogen sources from the cover crops.

E: What could a frost do at this point?
P: A frost at this point could kill the grape clusters. Usually these are on little temperature alarms to let you know when it gets to a certain temperature, and they have fans to control temps. At this point we don’t want to shoot-thin too much—you want to have the backup plan. Thinning too much can make the vines a little more vulnerable to frost, which we do have to worry about until about June 1st. I don’t see anything in the forecast—they do say it will stay cool, which is good because we got off to a little bit of an early start; people did some late pruning to keep that vigor down a little bit.

Thank you so much for the vineyard tour, Penny! We look forward to tagging along on many more of your vineyard check-ups!

P.S. If you’re looking for a home for your grapes this year, check out Rack & Riddle’s full-service custom crush programs for both sparkling and still wines. Click to request a custom crush quote. From grape to bottle, to riddling and disgorging to just finishing and bottling your wine, Rack & Riddle offers every winemaking service you may need. For those seeking sparkling or still wine shiners, take a look at Rack & Riddle’s private label wine program of award-winning wines. The shiner program turn-around-time from order to finished case goods is an average of just three months. Contact Rack & Riddle or call anytime to discuss your needs: 707-433-8400





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