We consider harvest to be the cymbal-clashing climax of a successful season in the vineyard. Once the crop is in (usually in September), we begin anew by returning much needed water and nutrients to the soil. A cover crop is a great way to accomplish this, and now is the perfect time to get it established before winter. Once the cover crop is planted, we restore any other needed nutrients to the soil via "fertigation" using our drip system. Then a good long drink is the prescription, via overhead sprinklers or drip, to both get the cover crop germinated, and give the thirsty vines a drink, which will encourage a brief but important flush of root growth.
As the leaves begin to fall, a series of bud dissections under a microscope gives us a good idea of next season's cluster count and size before we begin pruning. This is an excellent tool for knowing just how many viable buds to leave behind to establish a balanced crop for the following season. Then the pruning can begin in earnest. Our Pinot vines are trained as permanent cordons, so we prune back to "spurs" of one-year-old wood. We may go through with a tractor to quickly hedge off the bulk of the canes, but then a crew needs to walk through to do the final pruning, counting, and cutting - no substitute for the human eye! This period often coincides with our wet season, so the vineyard soils can get pretty soft. Given a decent dry spell, we will mow the cover crop, which accomplishes a "mulching" of the pruned canes. It's also a good time to control weeds between the vines.
Throughout the late winter and early spring we note the progress of the swelling buds, which is temperature dependent. Shortly after "bud break", when we actually see growing shoots (usually in March), we begin the growing-season-long process of pest control, beginning with regular sulfur dusting. We also keep a wary eye on the air temperature just before dawn, when frost damage is a serious threat, and sometimes requires intervention such as overhead watering and/or air circulation in low, frost prone areas. Also during this time, when the shoots are a few inches in length, a crew will go through the vineyard snapping off unwanted shoots from the spurs (shoot thinning), and extra shoots that emerge from the trunk and base (suckering).
Sometime during the month of May we see the vines begin to flower, and the valleys fill with the delicate scent. This is also an important time weather wise, as in the pruning process we've already selected the number of clusters we desire (generally two for every bud not pruned off), and we are hoping for good weather to facilitate berry set (fertilization). Cold, rainy weather can cause "shatter", and clusters will end up containing tiny green shot-berries, which never get ripe.
As shoots lengthen, movable canopy wires are snapped into place to support the shoots in a vertical position, allowing for plenty of sun exposure within the fruit zone, which is usually just a few inches above the cordon itself. If necessary, individual leaves and lateral shoots can be removed from around the fruit zone as well, although care must be taken to not over expose clusters on the side of the vine that receives the hottest afternoon sun.
n June we begin the process of moisture monitoring. Here in the Russian River Valley, we are blessed with a fairly arid summer climate, which slowly dries out the water table as the growing season progresses. By carefully observing the water content in the soil, as well as the moisture content in the vines themselves, we can track and maintain a small amount of water stress, which results in smaller berries with more concentrated colors and flavors.
Mid-summer in the Russian River Valley is when the utter magic of the place is palpable. Early to rise, you will awaken to a rather chilly morning enshrouded by thick, mysterious fog. It is under this blanket that the Pinot Noir vineyards "sleep", maintaining aromatic delicacy and precious natural acidity. Wake-up calls may not even be placed much before noon, when the fog reluctantly breaks up, and the day rapidly warms. This is when the vines get to the business of development, soaking in the warm Sonoma County sunshine, and synthesizing sugars for shoot growth and berry ripening. However, most of us are putting on layers by early evening, as the heat rising in the valley draws in the cold Pacific air through the Petaluma gap and up the river valley itself, sending the vines back to a long, dreamy night.
Another important mid summer task is cluster thinning. We are always on the lookout for that extra cluster that can be dropped, or that defect cluster with shot berries or some other problem that can be left on the ground. But in the midst of the color change we call "veraison", we have one last chance to ensure even ripening throughout the vineyard. When approximately 85% of all the berries have turned from green to red (usually in late July), we will drop any clusters that have 50% or more green berries. If we didn't do this, in another couple of weeks, all the clusters would look the same, but the lagging clusters would still be lagging in ripeness, and would later get harvested along with the truly ripe fruit, ultimately giving their tart, herbal flavors to the wine.
As the berries approach harvest time in late summer, we continue to ensure they have just barely enough water to become fully mature without raisining, which allows us to harvest at complete ripeness. The final decision is done by taste: when the fruit tastes so good that we would just as soon eat it as make wine from it, it is time to pick. And the season begins anew…