S1 EP0019 - In the Vineyard

Veraison has arrived, the light is changing, and harvest is on the horizon.


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Episode 0019:

Finger Lakes Viticulture – August 17, 2021

As I’ve mentioned, I’m from California.  I was born and raised until I was around 11 years old in Huntington Beach, I spent a few of my teenage-hood years just outside of Rochester, NY, and then returned to California and lived throughout the state until I was around 30 years old.  Living in the mild climate of southern California skews the way you perceive seasons.  Warm and beautiful summers merely give way to mild winters.  The pool is never covered and winterized, the sun rarely gives way, and the garden is lively nearly the entire year.  Perhaps it was a form of seasonal deprivation I experienced growing up, or maybe  it is something that most people perceive, but I find myself becoming more attune to the changes in temperature and weather generally as I grow older in the Finger Lakes, and even more specifically to the way the light changes.  The light, the reflection in the leaves, the glow on the horizon, the changing times of sunrise and sunset, are the precursors that hint at coming change.  In the late winter and early spring, these changes are exhilarating and enticing.  They foretell the promise of unknowns.  As August creeps towards its end, and summer begins its wind down, it is not necessarily the temperatures that foretell what awaits, but a glowing premonition which prepares our bodies, our minds, and the plants for what is waiting days, weeks and months into the future.  The observation is empowering, it’s a primal instinct that signals to your body that you are in tune with your place.  It is also humbling.  You do not have a veto, you can not change this course, nature will always prevail.

Beginning a week ago, I commented to my wife that the light is changing, the great wind down has begun, and the phase changes of the season are set in motion.  Harvest is coming.  There is still so much time ahead of us, so much ripeness to attain, but the culmination of the 2021 growing season inches closer every minute of every day.  

In our In the Vineyard segment from 2 weeks ago, we explored via a long-form discussion with Finger Lakes winegrower Jeff Morris, a bit of how this vintage has progressed, and put it in the context of his farm and past vintages.  I hope you learned some things in that episode that shed some new light on grape growing in the Finger Lakes.  When we last spoke, we had followed the arc of record warmth and continuous hot days in June, we discussed the stretch of continuous wet weather that put disease pressure on the vineyards, and unlike our friends in California and out-west, we prayed for the rains to subside for a bit.  For the most part, they have, and we’ve been able to get the disease pressure from things like downy and powdery mildew under control, though we are keeping our eye on weather forecasts. Temperature wise, we have ebbed and flowed with some heat waves, and some cooler weather.  Throughout the last few days, cooler temperatures at night, many as low as 52 degrees have brought some respite, and daily highs have hovered in the high 70’s to low 80’s. As it stands on August 17, we are currently at one thousand nine hundred ten growing degree days.  To put that in context by looking at some past vintages, for the same date in 2020, we were at two thousand thirty seven point three.  In 2019, we had only clocked one thousand eight hundred twenty nine, and in 2016, we were also at two thousand fifteen.  In 2018, we were at two thousand eighty.  We continue to skew slightly warmer than usual.  Our current ten day outlook is showing temperatures continuing to teeter between the high 70’s and low 80’s, but with an uncomfortable return to daily scattered showers.  This doesn’t mean we are destined for a bad harvest, but we do want to start seeing less rain and more consistent dry warm weather.  From my perspective, we are shaping up to be in for a good vintage, which will reflect a general typicity for most Finger Lakes wines.  I also know, we are anywhere from a month to two months from our Riesling harvest, and a lot can happen in that period of time.    

In the vineyards, veraison is everywhere.  Early ripening red hybrids are purple, and grapes like Marquette are inching closer to building their sugar ripeness.  Vinifera grapes, for the most part, have exited or are exiting rapid cell division, and moving towards sugar accumulation.  The skins grow supply, and grapes like Riesling make their freckles identifiable as the berry grow more supple.  Harvest dates are set to reflect a fairly consistent mean this year.  I’m expecting Chardonnay to begin harvesting for sparkling wine around the middle of September, and Riesling the first part of October, and Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc to see its harvest begin later in October.  Although I put most of my emphasis on vinifera, the grape vines with a genetic lineage to Europe, harvest is set to begin as early as next week for some of the hybrid varietals grown in the Finger Lakes.  

The history of wine making in the Finger Lakes is radically different than many other parts of the world.  Our history, dating back to the 1860’s, was heavily focused on native and hybrid varietals that were harvested and made into sparkling wine.  Grapes like Isabella, Delaware, and Aurora.  Though Isabella was the first purposely cultivated grape varietal in the Finger Lakes, and is still grown here today, Aurora has a particularly interesting history.  In the world of hybrid grapes, Albert Siebel is French viticulturist legend.  From his vineyard in Ardeche, in the Rhone Valley, he developed some of the most popular hybrid grapes.  Seyval Blanc, a hybrid I work with to this day, was developed by Seibel.  Aurora, was perhaps one of his most successful endeavors.  He had originally bred and sold it as a table grape, and named the varietal in honor of the Roman goddess of the dawn.  Its propensity to spoilage after picking led to its fall from grace as a table grape, but also its rise in use for winemaking.  After having been brought to the United States in the 1940’s, it became wildly popular for winemaking and by the 1970’s, was the most popular non-labrusca grape grown in New York.  This era corresponded with the post-prohibition rehabilitation of New York wine growing, with giant brands of the industry such as Great Western and Taylor using it across their production.  

The production of these sparkling wines relied on Aurora for providing a strong acid base for the various non-varietal based wines, especially sparkling wines.  Consequently, it became practice to harvest them very early, and use them as a blending component to provide an inexpensive base for building inexpensive sparkling wines.  One of the wines from this production that had grown in popularity once again, was a wine called J Roget.  J Roget was produced by Constellation Brands at their Canandaigua facility, and as mimosa brunch culture blossomed in America’s big cities throughout the 2010’s, J Roget grew with it as the staple for restaurants seeking to use inexpensive sparkling wines for their bottomless mimosa brunch specials.  As Constellation shifted market focus, and sold off a number of brands to Gallo, this particular sku created some issues for the pending Gallo/Constellation  deal.  The Federal Trade Commission, concerned that J Roget would solidify a monopoly for Gallo in the inexpensive sparkling wine category, was a brand that the FTC refused to be included in sale of the portfolio of brands.  Consequently, its future seemed doomed, and the varietal, Aurora, began to be removed from many vineyards.  

It remains to be seen whether Gallo, who along with the purchase of the brands from Constellation acquired the largest production facility in the Finger Lakes, will be producing a sparkling wine to fill the gap that the absence of J Roget has left behind.  I’m certainly not one to question the business model of Gallo, they’ve proven to be exceptionally successful.  The corporate maneuvering of these industry giants, has put many small growers of grapes like Aurora in a bind, and part of this story will unfold as we see the future of Finger Lakes grape growing and wines unfold.  As most small Finger Lakes wineries don’t make wine from Aurora, it really is dependent upon the products they have been used for for generations to continue production.  If they don’t find a market for those grapes, those vineyards will disappear and either be converted to other hybrid or vinifera varietals, or converted into some other agricultural use.  

This background merely sheds some light on the fact that some Aurora is set to begin harvest next week.  The harvest of Aurora, like the light in the sky, is another cue that harvest is approaching.  It is also a cue this year, that the Finger Lakes wine industry is evolving.  Much of that evolution has been pioneered by small family producers, but as with varietals like Aurora and the giant brands that fed the growth of those wines, big players are set to become an increasingly dominant role once again in the region.  The status quo that was shattered in 2020 continues to change with other forces at play.  The story isn’t written, but all of us in the Finger Lakes are a character, whether large or small, in a book that is yet to be written.

If you like this podcast, please be sure to rate us 5 stars in Apple podcasts and like our videos on YouTube.  It really helps with the ratings and in introducing new folks to the show.  Be sure to tune in next week, where I speak with Todd Eichas, who along with his wife Dani, is celebrating the ten year anniversary of New Vines, a Seneca Lake winery and bed and breakfast.  A true micro-winery, Todd and Dani embrace the concept of agri-tourism, and make some of the best Gruner Veltliner in the region while they’re at it.