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Vines, Wines, and What’s Best About Springtime

By Andrea Firth

Vineyard owners and winemakers across Napa, Solano and Contra Costa counties work almost 24/7 during the long and hectic days of the grape harvest in the fall. Once the new vintage’s wine is put to bed in barrels, you might assume that winegrowers head off to a remote, quiet, sunny beach for a few weeks vacation and a well-deserved break. Not so. Unlike the grapevines that promptly shed their leaves and take the colder nights as a cue that it’s time for a winter rest, winegrowers do not have the luxury of a three-month respite to store up energy for the next growing season. There is always work to be done on the farm and in the cellar.

Local Happenings spoke with three winegrowers in the region about the harvest wrap up, winter work at the winery, and why they always look forward to spring.

“It never really stops,” says Ron Lanza who, with his parents Chick and Adrienne and his brothers Rick, Larry and Ken, owns and operates Wooden Valley Winery & Vineyards in the Suisun Valley of Solano County. The Lanzas grow several grape varietals on the 350-acres they manage throughout their eight-mile stretch of the valley. The 2011 harvest started in August for the early ripening varieties and continued at a demanding pace until the last of the red grapes were fermented and put in barrels in mid-November.

Dave Pramuk, a partner at Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa County, agrees that there is not much time to rest between seasons when you work in the wine industry. “After the harvest is done, you breathe a big sigh of relief and hit the reset button,” says Pramuk. The weather created some challenges during last year’s harvest as crews raced to pick Biale’s prized Zinfandel grapes before an early rainstorm hit the area in mid-October. “The grapes came in really fast. About 90% of the harvest happened in three days here.” says Pramuk, “And it was not until the end of November, when the last of the new wines were processed and put in barrels, that the 2011 harvest was wrapped up, “ he adds. “Winemakers do not even think about taking a break until that point.”

The 2011 harvest was a bit frenetic for Dave Parker, the owner of Parkmon Vineyards based in Moraga as well. Parkmon Vineyards is one of a handful of commercial wineries in the Lamorinda area of Contra Costa County, a triangle of three cities that includes Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda. Over the past five years, Lamorinda has established a burgeoning boutique winegrowing industry, sourcing grapes from many of the 100 backyard vineyards that are dotted throughout the three suburbs.

Parker and his crews were on the move at harvest time picking the grapes from the 1,500 vines in his own backyard along with grapes from eleven other small, suburban vineyards. Because several of the latter ripening grape varieties are grown in Lamorinda, Parker was also working to beat the onset of the October rain along with the onslaught of wild critters eager to get at the plump, juicy grapes. He and his crews completed the majority of the 25,000-pound harvest in a single week, and the last wine went in barrel the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Despite the intensity of the fall workload, all of these winegrowers transitioned almost immediately to their winter month activities—preparing the vineyards for the next growing season, readying wines for spring release and generally getting caught up.

Throughout the winter months, all the vines “get a haircut,” a hard trim called pre-pruning. On the first pass, the bare vines are cut back several feet, shedding the summer’s unruly growth. The neatly trimmed vines look like spindly fingers extending about six inches above the head of the vine at the top of the thick, brown trunk. While pruning methods vary, most vines will undergo a final pruning close to the onset of the spring growing season. “At that point the sap in the vine is beginning to rise, so we will often see a drop of moisture at the cut,” says Pramuk.

Bottling the harvested wines from the current and earlier vintages takes place in the winter too, starting with the white wines. “The young whites that are fermented early will typically be bottled in February and March,” says Lanza. He likes to bottle the early whites while the weather is still cool.

And, there is always work out in the vineyard and inside the winery, even as the vines stand dormant in the winter, Parker finds some relief in the fact that the time sensitivity and urgency of the harvest has been lifted. He uses the winter months to focus on sales, marketing and updating the company website.

As winter winds down, winegrowers like Lanza, Pramuk and Parker look forward to spring and the untapped potential that lies sleeping in the vines, ready to burst through when the first buds break.

Bud break is when buds on the vine open to reveal where a new shoot will soon emerge.  Bud break typically coincides with the onset of spring in most vineyards. At Wooden Valley Vineyards, Ron Lanza expects some bud break around the first week of March. “Chardonnay and Pinot are the first grapes to come out, that’s when it all starts,” he says. Although vintages and seasons vary and microclimates and grape varieties differ, Lanza usually finds that shoots on the early vines are coming out by late March. “It’s fascinating to watch how fast the shoots grow, especially as it gets warmer. It’s incredible, within a month the shoot can grow up to a foot.”

What Dave Parker enjoys about spring in his vineyard, which extends up the hill behind his home, is the symmetry that he can see in the uncovered, trellised vines. “I am reminded of the order of things,” says Parker, “You get a real sense of the structure of the vines.” And when the rain cooperates, his vineyard cover crop of fava beans and alfalfa provides a lush green contrast to the naked vines.

“One of the most beautiful phases of the winegrowing cycle happens in early spring,” says Pramuk, “Just as the growing season gets started the wildflowers are in bloom and the bare vines are engulfed in swaths of mustard grass that often grows between the rows. It’s a spectacular sight.” Franciscan Friars, who spread mustard grass seeds along the trails between the missions, introduced the bright, yellow-tipped grass to the region 400 years ago, and it now grows wild throughout California. Fortunately, the non-native weed and the grapevines maintain a happy coexistence says Pramuk. In addition to serving as a beautiful backdrop in the spring, mustard grass provides nutrients and is typically tilled back into the soil in April as the ground dries.

All three vintners agree that one of the highlights of spring is the release of the new wines.  “There is a built in anticipation for the new release wines which makes it an exciting time,” says Pramuk. At Biale Vineyards, spring marks the release of the winery’s Black Chicken Zinfandel. The popular red wine has a cult-like following and the 2009 vintage has been sold out for months. The 2010 Black Chicken is eagerly waiting in the wings for its introduction in April.

Dave Parker highly recommends trying the white wines released each spring. “The new white wines that come available are a good harbinger of what the vintage will bring,” says Parker. “Whites like Sauvignon Blanc, dry roses, or an unoaked Chardonnay are lighter in body, higher in acidity, and really refreshing on a warm spring day.” Parkmon will be offering a new vintage of a dry rosé made from locally-grown Sangiovese grapes in its spring release line up.

“Spring is the biggest release time for everything, whites wines and red,” says Ron Lanza, and he encourages wine lovers to experiment and to get out to try a variety of new wines. “What is great about the new white wines is the younger the vintage, the fresher and better tasting they are,” says Lanza. But he also finds spring a great time to try the newly released red wines from the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Wooden Valley Winery will have two of its award winning reds, a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, available in the tasting room this spring.

Take a hint from the wine experts and take advantage of what spring has to offer. Drive through the wine country to witness the beauty of the vineyards early in the growing season and get a jump on the summer crowds and stop into the tasting rooms to experience the spring release wines.

Be the First to Taste It

Try these spring release wine picks from Ron Lanza, Dave Pramuk and Dave Parker.

From Wooden Valley Winery and Vineyards, Solano County

•     2011 Suisun Valley Sauvignon Blanc

•     2009 Suisun Valley Merlot—San Francisco Chronicle 2012 Wine Competition Gold Award

•     2009 Suisun Valley Cabernet Sauvignon— San Francisco Chronicle 2012 Wine Competition Silver Award

The Wooden Valley Tasting Room is open from 11:00 a.m. to
5:00 p.m. everyday. 4756 Suisun Valley Road, Suisun Valley, CA, www.woodenvalley.com.

From Robert Biale Vineyards, Napa County

•     2010 Black Chicken Zinfandel, also known as the “Spring Chicken”

•     2010 W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel

•     2009 Basic Black—Biale’s special blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourverdre and Barbera

Wine tasting by appointment, call 707-257-7555. 4038 Big Ranch Road, Napa, CA, www.robertbialevineyards.com

From Parkmon Vineyards, Lamorinda, Contra Costa County

•     2011 Rosato di Sangiovese Koelmel Vineyards—a crisp, dry rosé made entirely with Sangiovese grapes

•     2010 Voignier Parkmon Estate Vineyards,

•     2009 Debbie’s Cuvee Parkmon Estate Vineyards—the fourth vintage of this proprietary Grenache based blend

Parkmon Vineyards’ wines are available for purchase online, www.parkmon.com, and served at several restaurants in the Lamorinda area.

Andrea Firth is a freelance writer based in Moraga with her husband, two teens, and a dog named Pepsi.