As the 2017 vintage winds down, I have been thinking about the inclination of the human brain to simplify and generalize. I have noticed this tendency in the way we make many of the crucial decisions in quality winegrowing. We become fixated on one pet parameter and try to use it exclusively to make decisions. Two examples that come to mind are our decisions on irrigation and our decisions to harvest. In my experience, I have had more success when, rather than become fixated on one factor, I instead take a soft focus approach; a tactic that integrates the many factors that affect the outcome I am seeking.
I was reminded of this earlier in this harvest season while walking a Napa Merlot block with my old friend and mentor, Jean-Claude Berrouet, the former technical director at Chateau Petrus. We were tasting berries and he commented that he thought the block was very close to harvest. I replied that I didn’t think the skins were soft enough to pick. Since adopting Berry Sensory Analysis in 2009 as a tool to assess grape maturity, I have been known to say that I pick on the basis of skin ripeness. JCB commented that if we waited for the skins to be perfect we would have undesirable jammy characters and lose the freshness that was currently apparent in the fruit. I thought that this was a great reminder to not get hung up on a sole factor in a decision as important as when to pick.
In the 4 decades I have been involved in winegrowing I have seen the pet picking parameter go from Brix, to TA, to pH, to Malic acid, to color, to IBMP, to seed ripeness and to skin ripeness. Not to mention weather and the state of the vines. It seems that we are constantly searching for a silver bullet that will become the sole index of maturity and correlate with wine quality. I have come to believe that all of these factors need to be taken into account simultaneously. Depending on the idiosyncrasies of the growing season, several may become more important than others, so we must always keep an open mind and observe, observe, observe.
In the last 7 years of working with Fruition Sciences we have measured an increasing number of parameters to determine when and how much to irrigate. Again I have seen a tendency to want to find one measurement to use as the primary indicator of vine stress. I have come to realize that here again the soft focus approach is more effective and flexible. When assessing a vineyard block we have found field observations, weather forecasts, growth rate, water deficit index, leaf water potential and porometer readings need to be all taken into account. Different measurements are more useful and usable at different phases of the growing season. I used to be frustrated when they contradicted each other. I now find that to be the most interesting scenario and the one that takes experience and intuition to interpret.
To quote the band Dawes:
“It’s a little bit of everything
It’s the matador, it’s the bull
It’s the suggested daily dosage
It’s the red moon when it’s full
Oh these psychics and these doctors
They’re all right and they’re all wrong
It’s like trying to make out every word
When they should simply hum along
It’s not some message written in the dark
Or some truth that no one’s seen
It’s a little bit of everything.”
Check out previous post from Daniel here
Daniel Baron is a viticulture and winemaking consultant based in Napa, California. He began his career in the early 1970’s as a field worker in the vineyards of Knight’s Valley, became one of Dr Harold Olmo’s last graduate students at UC Davis and one of only 6 people to intern at Chateau Petrus, his being the only one-year internship. He was General Manager of Dominus Estate for 12 years and Director of Winemaking at Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars for 22 years. He utilizes an integrated approach that combines precision farming, collaborative leadership, science-based winemaking and old-world artisanal techniques to produce vibrant, moderate alcohol wines.
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