2014 Harvest Reflections

The 2014 harvest is officially behind us. Rain is hitting the ground and we are preparing for the December bottling of our 2014 Rose. The rest of the 2014 wines are completing malo-lactic fermentation and we can now start reflecting on the harvest.

 

  • Warmth- The warm weather started early. In January many regions in California reported bud-break 2 months earlier than normal. Although we had bud-break in March here at Halter Ranch, I firmly believe that the vines’ metabolism jump-started in January. Grapevines have an internal clock which dictates the amount of energy the vines need to ripen fruit.  Once this clock starts ticking it can’t be stopped. Weather patterns may accelerate or slow down specific growing stages (ex. warm weather will speed up veraison- the changing of color from green to red in red wine grapes), but the overall growing cycle of vines is difficult to stop. Harvest was the earliest I’ve seen in my 15 years of winemaking. This was the first year I spent Halloween with my kids instead of worrying about a fermenting tank. The grapes were harvested because they were ripe. Inclement weather never forced our hand. We had a small amount of rain on Halloween, and then nothing until late November. The grapes could have stayed out longer, but their internal clock struck twelve in late October….

 

  • Dry Ground- The last three years it has felt quite different when stepping into the vineyard. The ground is dry, grasping for any moisture available. There is no “bounce”, no sponge type feeling that comes when you get good rain. I think the effect of this lack of rain is a much bigger problem than most realize. We have plenty of water in our wells, and yes we can irrigate. But a grapevine’s root structure spreads underground. Think of it like an oak tree. An oak tree’s root structure is roughly the size of its crown. Grapevines’ roots spread underground in the same way. Irrigation emitters on a drip-tube drop water in one place on each side of the vine. The water percolates but never reaches a lot of the roots that are outside the linear line of the drip tube (as compared to rain which acts like a shower and soaks everywhere) . Those roots then have a harder time up-taking nutrients. Lack of nutrients results in less canopy growth (less leaves). Each leaf on a vine is a photo-voltaic energy source for ripening the vine’s grapes. Low rainfall equals fewer leaves, fewer leaves equals less energy, and less energy equals less fruit that can be ripened. I’m glad it’s raining outside right now….

 

  • Early is good- 99% of the time, early harvests are good harvests. And I’m not saying that because I like Halloween. Winemakers like to pick grapes at optimal maturity (and each winemaker has their own idea of what that is, and that’s a whole different Blog Post…. and a controversial one!). Optimal maturity can never be achieved if our harvest decisions are forced by mother nature. In cooler vintages there are two obstacles to reaching optimal maturity. First is the scary question –“are we going to get there?” As the season progresses the days get shorter, the weather gets cooler and those little photo-voltaic leaves produce less energy. Ripening slows, and everyday seems like an eternity. This was the case in 2011. Cooler parts of our Ranch, cooler parts of our region, and cooler parts of California struggled to achieve sugar and flavor development. The second obstacle is rain. We all know that the later we get into Fall, the greater the chance for rain.  In cooler vintages grapes ripen at a slower rate, potentially extending harvest into late October and early November. If rain is forecasted, winemakers are forced to make a decision—harvest before optimal maturity, resulting in potentially “green” flavors, or risk leaving the grapes on the vine. If the latter is chosen you could face the following consequences:

o    Dilution- Rain is an unnecessary irrigation. Water at this stage of maturity results in the grape absorbing the water like a sponge, and consequently in the dilution of acid and flavors.

o    Spoilage organisms- Moisture and sugar are prime nutrients for all types of yeast, bacteria and molds. All of these buggers live on the grape skins and thus in the fermenting tank and wine and can ultimately cause problems in the cellar during ageing.

o    Loss of crop- Weathermen aren’t always right. One storm can turn into more. Muddy ground prevents tractors from getting in the field  to harvest, and eventually the crop wilts away. Now you have a lot of explaining to do…..

Early harvests are usually the result of warm weather. Warm weather results in complications as well, such as vine shut-down, due to water stress, and dehydrating fruit. Water stress can be dealt with by the proper use of irrigation, and sorting tables at the winery can remove dehydrated fruit before it reaches the fermentors. Early harvest complications can be resolved, whereas late harvest complications make you lose sleep….

 

Overall 2014 was a huge success. The quality is exceptionally high.  We processed record tonnage for Halter Ranch and had a team that executed our winemaking plan to perfection. There is rain outside my window, we will have Rose to drink within a month, and my kids plastic pumpkins are filled with candy….and I got to help them fill them. That’s a good 2014!

 

Kevin Sass

Winemaker


Wine is an expression of terroir. Or is it?

In a recent issue of the Wine Spectator Jim Laube wrote a column titled “Dim Somms”. This article touched in part on a group of American sommeliers who are expressing an antipathy for wines with elevated alcohol levels. Our winemaking team here at Halter Ranch does a lot of comparative tastings, and the level of alcohol in a wine is always salient to the discussion of a wine’s character. A wine’s alcohol level is one of its most important attributes. Over the past few years there has been a seemingly global rising of the level of alcohol in wine. Many of the most highly rated wines now approach alcohol levels that have traditionally been reserved for dessert wines like Port. Often, when I query winemakers about these changes in winemaking styles I am provided an explanation of the term terroir, generally accompanied by the sentence “I am just working with my terroir”.

This, in turn, has caused me to ponder the concept of terroir. To my mind, terroir refers to influences on a wine that are ecto-anthropic (my word), meaning outside of human influence. Examples of terroir influences would be topography, soil type, rainfall, and temperatures. These influences are either immutable (topography and soil type), or otherwise out of man’s control on an annual basis (temperature and rainfall). In the world of wine, what other influences is terroir up against? The following is my attempt to conceptualize and organize the various influences on a finished wine.

I have divided up the anthropic influences into three groups: planting, cultivating and viniculture. These groups roughly correlate to activities that happen once when a vineyard is first being planted, activities that happen in the vineyard on an annual basis, and activities that happen once the fruit has been harvested.

Planting: Initially someone must select a site for a vineyard. In doing so, they implicitly select a certain terroir as mentioned above, topography, soil type, rainfall and temperatures. Upon this terroir are layered decisions about root stock, clones, row orientation, plant density, trellising system and whether the vineyard will be set up to be dry-farmed or irrigated.

Cultivating: Following installation, the vineyard crew has their protocols, each of which is meant to illicit from the vineyard specific influences on the crop’s quality and qualities. These include pruning, spur positioning, trellising, canopy management, whether or not the vines are irrigated, cluster thinning and finally, yield.

Viniculture: Ultimately the winemaker will call for the pick and the fruit will be brought in—at a certain brix level. (Brix is a measure of solids dissolved in a liquid, in this case sugar dissolved in the grape juice.) If left undiluted and fermented dry, the brix level determines the eventual alcohol level. Once the fruit is brought in to the winery there are a whole host of new decisions and activities: do we de-stem the fruit or ferment whole cluster, do we crush the grape or leave it intact, what pre-fermentation protocols might we employ (cold soaking, pump overs), once the juice is fermenting do we punch down the cap or pump over it, what type of vessel do we ferment in, at what temperature do we ferment, and then when do we drain the tank and call it a day? Now that we have finished fermenting the wine, it is time to age it. This requires a new set of decisions; what kind of vessel do we age the wine in — stainless steel tank, barrel (new, used, French or American), or concrete — do we undergo malolactic fermentation, do we stir the lees, how often if at all do we rack the wine (and if so, how do we rack the wine), length of aging, filtering or fining and finally, what type of container do we put the wine in (bottle with cork, screw top or keg)?

Our winemaker, Kevin Sass, and his winemaking team do a lot of experimenting, both in the vineyard and in the winery. We know from experience that all of these decisions and activities greatly influence the ultimate product. (Why else would we have selected practices?) Which brings me back to the concept of terroir and alcohol levels. There is no doubt that a vineyard’s terroir greatly influences the resulting wine. My supposition is that the lighter the hand (the more neutral the protocols) in the winemaking, the greater will be the vineyard’s terroir’s resultant influence. At Halter Ranch winemaking begins with our vineyard’s terroir, and our vineyard and winery protocols are selected by us in order to craft a final wine in the style we are seeking.   We determine yields, brix levels at harvest and the subsequent winery protocols very conscientiously, with specific desired outcomes for each wine that we make. Certainly, vintage conditions and terroir set the stage on a macro level, but we humans exert an enormous amount of influence at the micro level. Alcohol levels are part of this decision making. process.

Few wine lovers want to drink the same wine every day. What I select to open depends on my mood, my company and my meal. Some occasions call for light wines, others demand richer, heavier wines. Tant mieux. Let’s all celebrate the diversity of our winemaking community and the myriad options they offer us.

Can everyone say cheers!


Work and Play in the Summer Heat

Working in the Vineyard

 

Many know that great wine is made in the vineyard. Our production personnel and vineyard crew have been busy implementing this idiom at Halter Ranch. A block of Grenache in its third leaf was trimmed to one cluster per shoot. Elsewhere on the ranch, a block of Tannat had laterals removed on the morning side; it was also trained, and had wings removed from clusters. These practices produce the highest quality fruit possible, while simultaneously increasing the longevity of the plantings. Removing extraneous growth also takes fewer resources from the soil. Many staff members are raising these young vines while they raise their own children, each with tender loving care.

 

2014solstice1

 

Halter hosted its annual Solstice Dinner under the olive and fruit orchard adjoining the large historic barn. The barn was built in 1851 to house pioneer Edwin Smith’s teams of horses, and the orchard planted almost a decade later. Some of the olive trees exceed seventy-five years of age. The weather was ideally temperate, staying sixty-one degrees Fahrenheit until the dinner ended around 10:30. We began the evening enjoying amuse-bouches with our 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Rose, which Sunset magazine recently awarded Best in Show of its rose panel. Sitting down to a beautifully set table, which included lights submerged in mason jar centerpieces abounding with olive branches, guests found a fresh loaf of bread inhabiting each bread plate. The appetizer featured exquisite burrata, couched with heirloom tomatoes and topped with micro greens, paired with Cotes de Paso Blanc. Second came halibut cheeks paired with our red Cotes de Paso. For the main course, Chef Chris Manning presented a perfectly prepared lamb sirloin that was exceptionally tender and flavorful, paired with 2011 Block 22 Syrah. Appropriate to the setting, the meal concluded with olive oil cake, paired with 2010 Vin de Paille. In spectacular fashion, Kevin and Skylar poured 2010 Ancestor from an Imperial six liter bottle. Thank you to Kendall, Jordan, and Tony for coordinating a luscious event. And thank you to Thomas Hill Organics for providing the menu, executed by Chef Manning. Happy summer!

 


A Bridge to Delicacy

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The 2014 Bridge Dinner sold out before we even officially announced it.  In the past it has been popular among all the dinners we hold onsite, but this is the first time I can recall things moving so fast.  Beyond the beautiful setting and Kevin’s delicious wines I we must credit the reputation and absolutely delectible culinary creations of Suzanne Tracht and her crew from Jar Restaurant in Los Angeles for the rabid and rapid response from our patrons.  On that note, this meal was unforgettably stellar.  (more…)


A Taste of 2012 Tempranillo

Tempranillo - Halter Ranch Vineyard

 

This past Saturday we began a soft release of our first 2012 red.  Also a member of our new Silver Label Reserve line up, this fresh red is ripe for knocking off socks. (more…)


Fresh Greenery and Fresh Plans

Basil!

Basil!

 

There are weeks when it becomes clearly evident just how fast the conceptual Halter Ranch train is moving. This is one such week.  The happenings are as follows.  (more…)


Our Latest Wildlife Photos

The increasing diversity of wildlife caught by cameras strategically placed throughout Halter Ranch Vineyard is absolutely stunning.  Our latest captures are posted below:

 

wildlife - halter ranch vineyard

A Waldo

 

A down on its luck Waldo is captured on film filching a drink from one of the natural springs on the Halter Ranch property.  Has it no shame?!?

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Spring Sprung

Sprung - Halter Ranch Vineyard

Budbreak in Block 4

 

Spring has sprung at Halter Ranch.  A walk through the sunbathed vineyard reveals an ecosystem abuzz with new growth.  The five inches of rain we received weeks ago and the warmth of days since have given the vines and cover crop the boost they needed to blanket the vineyard in bright green.  Weather gurus predict additional rain tomorrow and we welcome it with open arms.  Check out additional observations from the vineyard below:

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Weather News

Weather - Halter Ranch Vineyard

The Weather Station

 

After much consideration and planning, a shiny new weather station has been installed along the Halter Ranch airstrip by Joe Thorp of Signature Ranch Technologies.  Given distinction between weather here on the ranch and weather nine miles east of us in Paso Robles proper, we’ve been relying on readings from Tablas Creek’s weather station up to this point.  For each mile you move away from the town of Paso Robles toward the coast you may add approximately an inch of rainfall and about half a degree of decreased temperature.  As a result we tend to average 25-30 inches of rainfall, and about 5 degrees fahrenheit less on average over the course of a year than Paso Robles proper and vineyards east of highway 101. (more…)


Prepruning and Sustainability

 

Sustainability - Halter Ranch Vineyard

Cesar in Block 28

 

Each year, in late December or early January we embark on the process of pruning the entire vineyard to prepare for the vines’ awakening in Spring.  The first step in this process is to pre prune the long canes from last year’s growth down close to the primary vine (cordon) so that our vineyard crews can go about more delicate pruning without having to deal with 3-4 feet of stiff, whipcord vine above their heads.  In the past the process of pre pruning took 2 full walking passes and 2 full tractor passes through the entire vineyard to complete.  (more…)

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