The grape harvest is underway

Thomas Lifson
California's glorious grape harvest is underway again. All signs indicate a great year for most varietals. Of course, compared to France, for example, California never has a bad year. But some years are better than others. It is too soon to tell if 2007 will be a spectacular year, but at a minimum most grapes this year will be damn good.

One corrollary of this information is that when buying California wines it is sometimes a good idea to look for years that are regarded as less stellar, because you can get some awfully good bargains, and you can buy better wine than you could afford from years where demand is higher. I still have some excellent 1998 vintage California red wines in my cellar, wine which was in effect remaindered and sold well below normal asking price, simply because consumers who read that 1997 and 1999 were better vintages (yes they were, but not terribly much better for many fine wines) snubbed perfectly good 1998 wines. (You can't do this sort of bargain hunting with French or Italian wines, however. Bad years in Euorpe produce bad wine.)

Below is a picture of my business partner in Sunset Cellars, Doug Sparks, who is "punching" the "cap" on a fermentation bin holding half a ton of juice and grape skins  from Zinfandel grapes grown in the Suisun Valley.
punching the cap on 2007 Zinfandel grapesRed wine grapes go through primary fermentation with the grape skins right in the bin because the skins add color and tannins to the juice. But they float to the top and can dry out and form a cap. Hence, they need to be punched down in order to stay moist and work their magic. This can be accomplished by mechanical means in large fermentation tanks, of course, but fine wine needs gentle treatment. The huge organic molecules which form and give character to fine wines can be broken by rough treatment. "Hand punching" is one of many labor-intensive practices which distiguish fine winemaking from cheaper methods. Fermenting in half ton lots also adds to effort and costs, but there are special advantages to it, too. Maybe I will write more about that some time in the future.

The Suisun Valley is California's best-kept secret of an appellation. We have located our new tasting room and winery in Suisun Valley because we think its soil, climate, and growing reputation as a source of top notch grapes make it the up-and-comer growing region. It just happens to be next door to Napa, but has escaped major notice by wine lovers until very recently. People who know will tell you that Suisun Valley today is very similar to what the Napa Valley was like before the tourists got wind of it.

I think that the look on Doug's face tells you what you need to know about the wine he makes. This is a man who loves wine, wine-making, and who chose this line of work in order to make the best possible wine from the best possible grapes, at the best possible price. It will 2.5 to 3 years before the grapes fermenting here are ready to be bottled and sold.

You can see the fermentation bubbles if you look closely. Don't tell Al Gore, but that is carbon dioxide gas, a natural byproduct of fermentation, and an essential element of life.

As is wine, in my book.
California's glorious grape harvest is underway again. All signs indicate a great year for most varietals. Of course, compared to France, for example, California never has a bad year. But some years are better than others. It is too soon to tell if 2007 will be a spectacular year, but at a minimum most grapes this year will be damn good.

One corrollary of this information is that when buying California wines it is sometimes a good idea to look for years that are regarded as less stellar, because you can get some awfully good bargains, and you can buy better wine than you could afford from years where demand is higher. I still have some excellent 1998 vintage California red wines in my cellar, wine which was in effect remaindered and sold well below normal asking price, simply because consumers who read that 1997 and 1999 were better vintages (yes they were, but not terribly much better for many fine wines) snubbed perfectly good 1998 wines. (You can't do this sort of bargain hunting with French or Italian wines, however. Bad years in Euorpe produce bad wine.)

Below is a picture of my business partner in Sunset Cellars, Doug Sparks, who is "punching" the "cap" on a fermentation bin holding half a ton of juice and grape skins  from Zinfandel grapes grown in the Suisun Valley.
punching the cap on 2007 Zinfandel grapesRed wine grapes go through primary fermentation with the grape skins right in the bin because the skins add color and tannins to the juice. But they float to the top and can dry out and form a cap. Hence, they need to be punched down in order to stay moist and work their magic. This can be accomplished by mechanical means in large fermentation tanks, of course, but fine wine needs gentle treatment. The huge organic molecules which form and give character to fine wines can be broken by rough treatment. "Hand punching" is one of many labor-intensive practices which distiguish fine winemaking from cheaper methods. Fermenting in half ton lots also adds to effort and costs, but there are special advantages to it, too. Maybe I will write more about that some time in the future.

The Suisun Valley is California's best-kept secret of an appellation. We have located our new tasting room and winery in Suisun Valley because we think its soil, climate, and growing reputation as a source of top notch grapes make it the up-and-comer growing region. It just happens to be next door to Napa, but has escaped major notice by wine lovers until very recently. People who know will tell you that Suisun Valley today is very similar to what the Napa Valley was like before the tourists got wind of it.

I think that the look on Doug's face tells you what you need to know about the wine he makes. This is a man who loves wine, wine-making, and who chose this line of work in order to make the best possible wine from the best possible grapes, at the best possible price. It will 2.5 to 3 years before the grapes fermenting here are ready to be bottled and sold.

You can see the fermentation bubbles if you look closely. Don't tell Al Gore, but that is carbon dioxide gas, a natural byproduct of fermentation, and an essential element of life.

As is wine, in my book.