The Fires of October, 2017

As I sit here trying to write this blog about the devastation in the coastal wine country, I’m finding it hard to even start. It all still seems so unbelievable.

Although we here in the Sierra Foothills seem to have more “experience” with wildfires, the speed, heat and sheer destructive force with the fires in Napa and Sonoma is not something we’ve seen here. And with this series of fires since Monday, we have so far been spared any impact.

I suppose I really need to start by saying that we at Madroña are far removed (80 miles or more) from these October fires. The major fires are concentrated in the counties of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino, or what we think of as the coastal range of mountains. We are located across California in the Sierra Nevada range of mountains.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t look every morning at the weather conditions and fire maps trying to discern where the fires are burning. We have friends who have lost houses and others who have been evacuated. And with the wine industry being as closely connected as it is, we know many of the wineries damaged or destroyed.

The fires are the topic of our conversations, even as we continue to harvest, and also the topic from consumers in the tasting room.

In the tasting room, I’ve tried to answer questions from purely an agricultural point of view (not trying to include the loss of homes, schools and businesses, as I personally can’t even absorb this myself). The challenges farmers and wineries face are huge. To be honest, harvest is probably the worst time for such fires to occur.

Please put yourself into the shoes of the farmer. We work all year long, investing our time and money into a crop, counting on the pay-out at harvest. What that means is that there can literally be one day of picking grapes that pays for the entire year and our subsistence. Luckily we’ve heard that the majority (up to 3/4) of the crop had already been picked. But for the other farmers in the burned areas, it could mean losing the crop.

Now losing the crop this year doesn’t necessarily mean losing the vineyard. Had you asked me last week how easily vineyards burn, I would have laughed since it’s hard to get even dead vines to burn. In fact, vineyards are often considered firebreaks, low density of vegetation with hydrated (green) plants.

However, these fires in Napa and Sonoma were so hot that even some vineyards sustained damage. Which then brings about the question of insurance. A farmer might consider getting crop insurance with rainy/cold weather in mind, and I imagine this covers all damage to grapes. Personally, even though we run the risk of frost in spring damaging our crop, we have never gotten crop insurance.  But would a farmer have fire insurance for the vineyard (with replanting costs being $10K-$15K+ per acre)? That would be akin to getting flood insurance up here in the foothills. That’s now something that we are looking at!

This is new situation, and we will see how resilient the vines are.

From the winery side, harvest is also the worst time to have these fires. For one thing, the grapes still out on the vine can absorb some of the smoke into the leaves and berries. Called “smoky taint”, this was an issue with the Mendocino fires of 2008. Since then, many other regions have experienced the impact including a small amount here in 2013 with the smoke from Rim Fire near Yosemite. (Ironically, the King Fire in 2015 was a mere 3 miles away, but was no impact for us due to favorable wind conditions.) Essentially, smoky taint can give wines a character that ranges from a hint of smokiness to old campfire to dirty ashtray. There are ways to lessen the impact with winemaking, and it can even be filtered out, but the challenge exists in areas layered by smoke.

The other main issue that some wineries are facing is electricity. There are still sections of the region that are without electricity, and it’s almost impossible to do winery work without it. And remember that during crush, the wines are fermenting. Our job as winemakers is to take care of them by regulating temperatures, pumping the wines over (to keep the skins wet), and pressing when the wine has the perfect balance (to get the wine away from the skins and control the tannins). Without electricity, this is all a challenge, and that’s assuming you’re not picking.

Lastly, working (such as picking and crushing) in smoky conditions is difficult. Work days should be shorter if at all. This has the personal impact as well as the crews picking are counting on this payday of work just as much as the farmer growing the fruit.

Having said all this, there are a couple of points that need mentioning. Although the fires are some of the worst California has seen, not all vineyards and wineries in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino are impacted. Most continue to harvest and work with only a few wineries having been damaged. And the regions are rallying together finding generators for electricity, sharing harvesting equipment and helping each other out with processing at different wineries. These difficult conditions bring out the best in people, and be sure that the wines of 2017 will reward their efforts.

These are just a few of my thoughts, being a winery far removed from the fires but close in concern for those in the thick of it.

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Early Pick Riesling by Tim Wright

Tim RieslingIn the summer of 2013, I attended the Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle, Washington. The Riesling Rendezvous is an international event co-hosted every three years by Chateau St. Michelle and Dr. Loosen (of Germany) that brings together producers, wine and food experts, and Riesling aficionados, for tastings and seminars. (You can find my gonzo reporting of the event here.)

Tasting Rieslings from bone dry to sweet, from months to decades old, from Australia to Zealand (New, of course), paired with the widest imaginable range of foods, I learned a lot about the potential of Riesling. One of the revelations was about how fresh, bright and texturally rich a dry, or very nearly dry, Riesling could be. Many of these Rieslings were also relatively low alcohol, having been picked at a much lower brix level than what I assumed was necessary to achieve fruit character of mature ripeness, yet did not sacrifice complexity of fruit or spice. This was my inspiration for attempting an early-pick Riesling.

The goal was to achieve the balance and intensity of fruit character we expect from our Dry Riesling, while perhaps accentuating the minerally aspects of the texture by having slightly lower alcohol than our traditional Dry Riesling. This was not really a risky proposition; we do frequent sampling of the vineyards in the run-up to harvest, so that we can hit exactly the ripeness, brix and characters that Paul wants for each variety. If the profile of the samples didn’t meet our standards at the early-pick brix level, we could always just let it continue to ripen to the normal levels. But, we decided that the characters in the sample at 20 brix was worth picking and doing the experiment…you be the judge of the result.

2015 Riesling – Single Vineyard Fact Sheet


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What Does All This Rain Mean?

Sprocket in the Rain croppedI’d have to say that the number one question I’m getting right now in the tasting room is, “So what does all this rain mean for the vineyards?” With over 80 inches of the stuff this last winter, I wish I really knew what it all means.

I can certainly give you things I have noticed from empirical data. The first would be that the weeds (excuse me, I “meant” cover crop) just keep growing and growing and growing. And every time we finish mowing, it rains again for another generation of these guys!

I’ve also noticed that although our vines budded out normally (in mid-April), the post cooler cloudier weather has actually put them behind a bit. We’re in the latter part of May, and some vines still only have a few inches of growth. (Still, it’s amazing how a few warm days it takes for a vine to catch up!)  We’ll see when we flower, and then we’ll know more.

If, however, I were asked to prognosticate as to what all this rain will mean for the grapes this year, this is what I would say.  “It’s going to be a good crop!”

Now, first remember that wineries, no matter what they are talking about, are always thinking about marketing. Accentuate the positive and glaze over the challenges.

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Daring with Pairing – Passport 2017

Madrona Vineyards welcomes you to Passport 2017, where we have designed a food and wine pairing adventure for your enjoyment!

Wine and Food – the ultimate and decidedly rewarding puzzle.

So….are you willing to exceed conventional wisdom, question pairing taboos, and explore beyond your food and wine comfort zone? We have devised a progression of courses paired with a range of wines, designed to astonish and delight. Let us guide you on this culinary journey!

(Further down, we have also provided information on the ART OF THE BLEND, featuring our El Tinto and our Quintet).

Pairing #1 – Naan Bread Pizza and 2011 Syrah, Signature Collection

 The Recipe -A staff created recipe of chimchurri sauce with minced olive, fontina cheese and topped with a kale salad)

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2017 Portopia Recipes

2016-portopia-3You asked….and here they are!  The recipes from our Portopia event.

New-World Port 2005 – Beet Goat Cheese Arugula Salad

New-World Port 2010 – Serious Mac and Cheese

New-World Port 2016 Futures – Garlic Arugula Spinach Walnut Pesto Pizza

Non-Vintage Port Lot 21 – Garlic Sauteed Mushrooms

Rucksack Cellars 2013 Seco – Chorizo Sausage Skewer


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The Art of Pruning – Part 2

The art of pruning back a vine or a tree is all about finding the right balance for improving fruit quality and quantity.

The first thing to understand is that only buds from last year will produce fruit this year. So imagine a grapevine that has one cane from last year, and this cane has 12 buds. Each of those buds will produce a new cane this year (with two or three clusters of grapes). But the next year (without pruning) the vine may have 144 buds (12 canes with say 12 buds each) and following year (without pruning) might have 1728 buds (144 canes with 12 buds each).

The image is a vine out of control, trying to sustain all that growth with essentially the same root system. What ends up happening is that the canes get spindly and the grapes clusters (if there at all) are smaller and smaller. Thus the wild grapevine near a creek we’ve all seen.

For many, the beauty of vineyards is how the vines all line up perfectly with such spectacular precision and elegance. Screw those people! All this “perfection” takes time and effort on our part, both in the choice/implementation of the trellising system and the continual training of the vine.

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The Art of Pruning—Part 1

pruning-part-1bIf you think back to the origins of agriculture, no doubt the domestication of animals was one of the most important changes our distant relatives could have made. Equally innovative is the concept of preparing soil and the planting of gathered seeds to produce a needed crop.

But if you think about it, the concept of “pruning” is almost counter-intuitive. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “prune” as “to cut off or cut back parts of for better shape or more fruitful growth.” That’s all good, but there’s a huge leap in thought that produces the concept of pruning.

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