Our 2021 harvest season began August 31 with an early morning pick of grapes from a block at the west end of the vineyard, where ripening has historically been slow. We decided to pick them early and make a rosé, turning what could be a problem into an opportunity. Garry Brooks and his crew at Brooks Note Winery showed up at sunrise to gather the bounty and cart it off to Garry’s winery.
We split the crop – me for an inaugural Panther Ridge Rosé of Pinot Noir, and Garry for a Brooks Note Rosé, with the Panther Ridge grapes providing deeper color and body to the rest of his rosé blend.
The mood was festive, as we enjoyed the time together picking just a little over a half ton of grapes on a block that itself is only a little over one half acre.
This block is very rocky and steep,and the vines have struggled to establish themselves and provide much fruit. Next year we hope to get a bit more production, and taking it out of the loop for Pinot Noir production takes the pressure off our expectations for huge amounts of fruit. Making a little rosé seems just perfect for Block 7.
At the winery, Garry and his assistant winemaker Reid Kinnett gave the grapes a little foot stomping, andthen they allowed the grapes and skins to sit in the juice for about an hour before being drained off to a steel tank for fermentation. The color was gorgeous, and the flavors were full bodied. We were all very excited about the results of our efforts.
When to harvest the rest of the crop was a decision made between us all. With three wineries purchasing grapes this year, it was a bit more complicated. But before I agreed on a contract for each of them, I made sure we were all on the same page about approximately what sugar level we would all be comfortable with. I wanted to avoid having to pick on three separate days for each winery! But it’s still a tough decision, weighing the current status of the grapes, the projected weather, and the schedule of the picking crew – everybody seems to want to pick at the same time.
As it happened, the rest of the harvest happened during two separate nights about a week apart, beginning a little after midnight on September 7, where we harvested all of the Calera clone from blocks 1, 4, 5 and 6.
This is the first night-time harvest for Panther Ridge, and it was so eerie to be out there in the middle of the night, with the crew chatting and singing, and with the tractors moving along the vine rows with bright lights.
Making sure we got all the grapes was a challenge in the dark, and there were a couple of people, including me, assigned to following the pickers to look for missed bunches. After all that work this summer, it would be a shame to leave big bunches behind!
We finished around 4:30 am that first night with coffee and donuts for the crew before they headed off to pick at another vineyard before dawn. I am amazed by the strength and stamina of the men and women on Daniel Chavez’s crew. He has a team that stays with him all year, and their mutual respect and loyalty is apparent. I just love working with this man. He is calm and knowledgeable, and cheerful at the same time. His dog Bandit is always at his side, except when he finds a tennis ball and persuades me to throw it for him.
The final harvest was on September 14, again starting a bit after midnight. I knew the drill by now and had the coffee brewing earlier – with plenty of cream and sugar this time, and homemade blueberry muffins. That night we harvested all of the 115 clone. It was an easier time because these grapes are in Blocks 2 and 3, a more level section of the vineyard, and the crews finished around 4, heading off to their next pick by 4:30 or so.
For both harvests, the grapes were delivered to the wineries between 6 and 10 am – the truck starting at Moshin winery in Healdsburg, where Adrian Manspeaker, my winemaker and owner of Joseph Jewell wines, makes a single vineyard Pinot Noir for me and for himself.
We split the harvest and manage the blending later in the year, with different oaks chosen for our various vintages. Then the truck headed to Lynmar Estates Winery where winemaker Pete Soergal plans to make a Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir blend. Finally, the truck arrived at Brooks Note Winery around 9 am with the last tubs of grapes.
The wineries all like to get the grapes cold – hence the advantage of harvesting at night and delivering early in the morning. For the first few days, the grapes are allowed to “cold soak” – allowing the grapes and skins to add color and flavor to the wine before fermentation and alcohol get involved (which can lead to astringency and bitterness). Wineries use dry ice or cooling tubes to bring the temperature down, or if the grapes go into a steel tank they can be cooled down and regulated automatically.
Brix results (sugar content) from the grapes ranged between 23.5 and 25.6 at harvest, so the resulting wine should be around 14% alcohol, more or less – about the same as for previous vintages. We’ll know more when the wine has completely fermented in the barrels.
We are so excited to be working with three wineries this year for the Pinot Noir. It will be interesting to see the results from the various winemakers, and to compare the styles and similarities to see how the vineyard flavors come through. Adrian plans to keep our 2021 vintage in barrel for 16-18 months depending upon how long it takes to soften the tannins from the Panther Ridge grapes. The skins of Petaluma Gap wines are often thicker due to the windy climate, producing rich red wines that need some time to mellow and develop their nuanced flavors. It will be at least another year before the wine is bottled. Winemaking is definitely a test of my patience!
We look forward to tasting the wine in barrel at the other wineries to see how the flavors compare.
Overall, it was a great harvest and the winemakers seem very happy. Our yields were perhaps a bit below what we had hoped, but we brought in about 12.5 tons (versus 9.4 tons last year), and the quality of the grapes was terrific.
Yields across Sonoma County were lower because of the drought. This winter’s rains so far have been promising, and we are enthusiastic about the 2022 growing season. Here’s to more great Pinot Noir for all!
Many thanks to Chris Kittredge Photography for contributing images to this blog.