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vested interest Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Rich SalvestrinNM:  How is early ripening an advantage in the production of your wines in particular?

RS:  Well, I would say because we know we can always attain the ripeness level to get the structure we need.  Even in a very late year, the challenge would be to get the fruit profile away from any green flavors, plus the acids low enough and pH high enough to where the wine is balanced — in some areas, growers are going until mid November before they're harvesting their grapes because they have to wait that long before they get the ideal flavor profile and get the acids to a level where it doesn't have to be aged 25 years before you can drink it.  For us, it's the reverse: we have to work on making sure to keep the crop on the vines long enough that we get the sugar and get the acid to drop, but we have to make sure we keep it on the vine long enough to get the flavor development and yet with a low enough sugar that we don't too high a level of alcohol [in the finished wine].

NM:  And that brings to my next question and concern.  Even though, in some ways, it could be advantageous that you experience early ripening, the flip side of that is less hang-time — doesn't that pose the danger of compromising on tannin ripeness and complex flavor development?

RS:  I don't believe so.  I think of the vine as a factory and, over time, it's going to produce based on the yield that's on the vine, balanced with the canopy that provides the energy to ripen the fruit.  If the vine is in balance, it's going to take a certain amount of days to deliver nutrients to the fruit to get it to where it needs to be.  So, we've got sugar content, acid content, the pH of the fruit, and flavor development — all those things have to come together to ripen the fruit.  If you're in a location that's hard to get the fruit ripe, you're going to need to leave it out there longer; you have to do that.  But as long as the vine is in balance, and you can read the vine and manage it correctly, why would it make a difference how long the fruit is on there if you can attain flavor, acid balance, sugar balance, and pH?  In fact, the longer the fruit is left hanging, the more stressful it is for the vine and the longer it takes for the vine to recover.  Whereas the sooner the vine is harvested, the sooner you can irrigate and fertilize it, and the sooner it will take up nutrients and store carbohydrates for the next year, keeping the vine healthy.

We also prune a little bit earlier.  Some growers prune extremely late — in February or March — and that will delay ripening.  We start pruning in January and finish by the end of March.  The vines that are pruned in January are going to push bud prior to whatever is pruned in late March — because the longer you delay pruning, the longer you delay bud push.  So the number of days to harvest could be within a small range, but if you wait to prune until the extreme end of the season, before the vines begin to grow, you'll delay bud push and thereby delay the whole growing season.

NM:  How much of everything you've just described is a function of your own choices as vineyard manager and how much is a function of this specific location or of the greater St. Helena appellation?

"As long as the vine is in balance, and you can read the vine and manage it correctly, why would it make a difference how long the fruit is on there if you can attain flavor, acid balance, sugar balance, and pH?"

RS:  Well, I think you make decisions based on the site that you're on.  So, our practices come from our experience growing grapes here and what we've learned from that, along with the choices that we make based on what this site and its climate give us.  We make management decisions based on what we know about our given site.   And what we do here is actually different from what we do four miles away [in the Sauvignon Blanc vineyard].  Every site needs to be looked at in that way.  In my opinion!  {laughing}

NM:  {laughing}  Well, basically, it really is about opinion, to a large extent, right?

RS:  Yes, absolutely!  And there's so many different variables and so many different things you can do — from vine density to trellising to irrigation to cover crop to canopy management — and then you've got the weather, which you can't control.  But you have to know your site well enough to understand what given climate conditions in one year will mean to your vineyard and the resulting fruit that's produced from it, and how you manage through it.



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