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October 19, 2011


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From what I can tell, every winery in the area had harvest challenges, and it is amazing to see their resourcefulness in dealing with them. Fred's crews picking in the dark in their vineyards below us is just one example. Thanks, Evan, for painting a pretty good picture of what has been (and is still) going on here in the Finger Lakes.

Thanks for the remarks, Todd - You're in a very interesting position to see the action!

A few other comments on this vintage. First, "challenging" does not equal "bad." I've had some tell me that it's unfair to call this a challenging vintage because people will automatically think it's a bad one. My response is that our readers will understand the difference.

Every site is different, so general vintage stories are never easy. This year is all about site condition and sorting. I have to wonder if the wineries that hand-sorted for the first time this year will now make that practice permanent.

And FWIW, here at Sheldrake Point, our harvest is mainly future tense, not past tense. As of today, October 20, we've brought in maybe 80 tons out of the 200 we'll bring in. It's seeming like the sort of year that rewards patience--I'm sure hoping so!

At Forge we did a pass on Tuesday in the last of our Riesling vineyards, taking out the most fragile fruit. Everything that is left is of great quality and should (?) continue to hang nicely if Mother Nature goes a bit easy on us.

PS - Another challenge will be to get Cornell to give Ben some more funding up at Geneva to hire some assistants. It sounds like he has has it pretty rough up trying his best to keep up with sample requests.

I have a question about bob's comment regarding chaptalization. Chaptalization is something that is frowned up more recently in the wine world, even though it's been done for centuries. Although it's still legal in many places, it is illegal in one of the most important places relating to the FLX, Germany and Austria (in the Pradikat wines). I can understand the use of chaptalization in dire circumstances, where all of your fruit is unripe, or in a case where maybe you are looking to use your fruit with low sugar levels in an entry level wine (think "QbA" in Germany), but if you have sufficient ripeness why is having a lower alcohol level not OK? Plenty of dry and kabinett German Rieslings come un at 10% and under very often. If you have a rigorous sorting regimen it seems to me that you would be able to get by in a vintage like 2011 without use of sugar, and still make your dry, semi-dry and possibly even Late Harvest wines if you have the patience. You also say how you will be "minimalist" in your chaptalization in 2011. Does that mean in other years you have been heavy handed? I would think that chaptalization should be something that is used as a last resort to "save" a wine, the way deacidification would, or use of pesticides in the vineyards to save your fruit, not as a way to just boost alcohol level or mouthfeel to please the masses. Not saying that is your intent, but I am curious as to your beliefs and regimen regarding this practice.

Mark: Great comment, and I know this is something you and I have spoken about (usually while drinking a sub-10% abv German riesling).

Often, it seems like there is a desire on the part of producers to get rieslings up to 11-12% abv. I honestly don't know why, but I'd love to hear from some of our winemaker readers. (I'm not just talking Finger Lakes, by the way).

There are also people who back-sweeten. Absolutely.

“That's because there was so much rot, so much compromised fruit, that old techniques would generally not be enough. Some growers will say that they "sort in the vineyard," which makes a hand-sorting line unnecessary. Most of the time, this is spin, and in 2011, this is a recipe for a mixed batch of wines, to say the least. General filtering and fining won't be enough to handle rot-affected juice.”

Evan, in an otherwise fine article about the challenges of the vintage on the growers of NY, comes this frankly silly comment about hand-sorting, later pushed even further by the slightly bizarre statement “Consumers should not be afraid to ask a simple question in the tasting room, when the 2011 wines are for sale: Did you hand-sort the fruit that year? Or, how did you adapt to the challenging vintage? “

Perhaps you’re mixing the hyperbole with facts, but I’d like to know how sorting in the vineyard is a recipe for a mixed batch of wines? CAN IT BE a recipe?, yes I suppose, if the vineyard crew is careless – that kind of defeats the purpose of that. Of course we know that machines can’t see to hand-sort anything whatsoever in the vineyard and tend to bring in as many leaves, sticks, and MOG as grapes as you can see in that picture above, but good hand harvesting is not to be sloughed off as an impotent method in 2011, with sorting tables the singular means to a clean wine.

The reason I bring this up is that our crew hand-sorts in the vineyard, and since most of them have been here for nigh on a decade, and Charlie for 40 years, they have become extremely adept and talented harvesters, even under challenging circumstances like this vintage 2011. When a lug of grapes arrives at the crusher here they look like they were hand washed and pruned with a tweezers (hyperbole.) The grapes certainly come with a bare minimum of rot. Another reason for that is that if your vineyard, as you say “there was so much rot, so much compromised fruit” one would have to take a very serious look at your spraying program and how to NOT allow that to happen. I know it happened to many folks down here too, but it didn’t happen to me, and it didn’t happen to Bedell or Mudd or many others who work so hard and are more experienced (perhaps conservative) growers.

I take issue specifically with the “facts” that seem to invade so many blog posts (but so FEW of yours and Lenn’s actually) which are really just regurgitated opinions of this person or that. Calling it “spin” is to call “most” of the people who talk to you liars, and that’s too bad. Is it not your responsibility to get to the truth and tell us what that is, rather than disappointedly call out the spin? Many less important blogs spend way too much time drawing weak conclusions from what they see and hear, and ponderously handing it back to the reader as some new factual discovery (as if somehow they were the first ones to ever find Chianti and report back on this amazing unearthing.) That is why I feel this site (NYCR) has absolutely and everlastingly transcended the term “blog” and moved on to “journal” or whatever you’d like to call it, and for that reason I find weakness in this article’s core.

Jim - I understand your point, and I'm happy to elaborate.

I have not worked 40 harvests, but I've worked every job there is. I've sought out the work, and done it at many places, over multiple years. The best writers, I believe, stay fresh by staying in the midst of harvest's din. I'm not placing myself among the best writers, but I'm trying to learn from the best writers' actions.

It is always difficult and even a bit dangerous to write general posts. How was the vintage, someone will ask. Well, it's entirely possible that one site saw 12 inches of rain in October, and five miles away, another site saw 2. We can see where generalizations might take us.

So this type of story is not going to be perfect. However, from my experience with many wineries and in talking to many growers, I will stand firmly behind my generalized view that "sorting in the vineyard" does not equal the impact of hand-sorting after picking. That said, it's fair to say there are two camps. The first is the group that spouts slogans. "We sort in the vineyard, so the fruit is always great!" I'm not calling anyone a liar. I have no doubt that they do some work in this regard. But I've also seen harvested fruit at dozens of wineries. The slogan does not match reality, far too often.

Then, of course, there is the camp that rigorously works the fruit before picking. Meticulous care, tireless work, often pristine fruit. Obviously, I think that's great.

Now, do I find that equal to hand-sorting? No, I don't, but it's close. Hand-sorting is the final protection. And I've seen the impact of just a tiny amount of sour berries sneaking in. It doesn't take much. Given the fact that grapes are alive and changing, I'd always prefer a hand-sort, even if there were excellent vineyard work being done. I'd also want to know when the latest field sorting was performed, and what the weather had been since.

I don't seek to offer all the answers, but I do want to straight with readers. The Finger Lakes and Long Island bear many differences. I hope none of my comments are taken as maligning work down there, or the hard work that anyone is doing.

Now, when it comes to rot, I would say the one who is maligning folks in the industry is not me! I realize how wild this season was, and the pressures involved. I respect those who found a way to bring largely rot-free crops in. But I don't think that anyone who suffered rot is automatically screwing everything up. Tough vintage, but the best practices will prevail.

One other point... I've had more than one grower say to me, "THIS is why you'll never see fully organic or bio-d growing up here. Too much disease pressure." It leads me to wonder how the Shinns of the world are doing in a challenging time. But that's for the Long Island Editor!

Evan, thanks so much for your response which does clarify everything I suspected - that you're a thoughtful writer and honest voice. I think it is possible that the post, as you pointed out, attempts to say more than it can.

For further clarification, in our case, the sort in the vineyard is done in the hand - that is, a bunch is picked and then picked over with the fingers until nothing but good fruit is placed in the bin. Not to be confused with culling bunches still hanging on the vine awaiting a mechanical or human harvester to come take it all away.

The Long Island editor is going to wait until more of the harvest is done here to write his harvest wrap-up.

You can count on some insight from David and Barbara at Shinn Estate, as well as that from several other folks :)

Jim -

Hmm, you raise an important distinction, and now I fear my post might give the wrong idea. When I hear the locution, "We sort in the vineyard," it means that vineyard crews keep an eye on rot and disease, and ostensibly pick out bad berries or bunches as necessary. It does not, however, mean that sorting is performed in the vineyard AFTER picking.

In other words, what I'm often told is, "We do such a good job of growing fruit that we don't need to sort it once it's picked." And to that I would respond, that's absolutely a fair position to take. I know growers who work their tails off, and there is rarely much work to do when the fruit comes in. But that's why hand-sorting can be the last line of defense; few of us can catch everything.

I'd add to that the fact that some hand-sorters are sharper than others. There is no absolute. We're back to generalizations.

One step further, I don't know the threshold for detecting, say, botrytis in Merlot. Let's say one winery hand-sorts it out, but another just picks and crushes. How much botrytis does there need to be before I can detect issues as a consumer?

Hey, I don't think of chaptalization as being any more or less evil than any other wine adjustment I might do: increasing or decreasing acidity, fining to remove or smooth tannins or phenolics, sugar additions to already finished wine, etc. I don't want to do any of these things--my basic philosophy is that the best winemaker is the laziest winemaker--"don't just DO something, stand there." My goal is to make wines that taste like they came from here, in the Finger Lakes, so to the extent I have to change wine chemistry from what resulted from growing the grapes in the Finger Lakes, that's a bad thing.

That said, you gotta do what you gotta do. The wine that Bob was talking about is ultimately intended for our entry level white, our Luckystone White. A large part of that will go to distribution, so the people buying it won't taste it before they buy it. Because that's true, I feel some obligation to not have wild style changes year-to-year. Going from 12.2 alc to 11% or maybe a little less is probably okay, to my mind, but dropping to 10 would be a bigger deal.

The other thing here is that I think part of the reason people look down on chaptalization is that they're confused about the difference between physiological ripeness and brix at harvest. They're not always well correlated. We've had years like 2005 where we had high Brix grapes that weren't, even at harvest, physiologically ripe. This year the Riesling we're talking about was physiologically ripe, in terms of flavor and seed brown-ness and flesh development, but was low Brix (17.2). So I took it up to 19 Brix so that the final wine would have an alcohol around 11.

A word about table sorting is cost - there is no doubt it is expensive, sometimes way expensive.

I completely understand a winery that is not looking to increase their tonnage cost by anywhere from 10 to 30%.

So back to that customer asking about if the winery hand sorted or not. What happens if the response is "yes and that is why our wine is 20% more this year." How does that fly? Should we have variable, vintage to vintage pricing?

That might be another post all together but I wanted to put it out there.

From my limited experience at a handful of commercial wineries with very different sorting techniques, I would say that sorting once the fruit is picked REGARDLESS of machine or hand harvest yielded the best result, and it's an important distinction--consumers shouldn't assume that "machine harvest" or "vineyard sort" mean much on their own. Fine sorting pre-machine-harvest followed by careful sorting on a table after picking virtually eliminates the problems with machine harvesting (with the exception of the bruising and crushing of fruit by a cumbersome harvesting machine, the effects of which are made worse on a very hot or rainy day).

At the winery I've worked that was least careful about sorting, we used a machine harvester a few times as needed and brought in sopping-wet totes of grapes across the spectrum of quality, leaves, twigs, bugs, etc. and did not sort thereafter. At the winery that was most careful, hand-harvested grapes (after a few passes of vineyard sorting) were brought to the cellar and hand-sorted berry by berry by a team of up to 20, then bounced sans pump into tubs and lifted into tanks. Obviously, those are extremes, and it showed in the final product.

I personally would not begin the fermentation process with grapes unsorted by careful and experienced human hands regardless of how they arrived at the cellar and how the season went--I'm not running a business or making commercial wine, of course, but I know many winemakers and winery owners who would agree.

Julia - At least there are no baboon spiders in the Finger Lakes! I think...

Rick - In Europe, the custom is for prices to change. In the States, it seems to be that price variation is an admission of a shift in quality. Instead, it should be perceived for what it is: A concession that some vintages demand longer hours and more expense to produce a high-level product. As a consumer, I have no problem with that. In fact, I'd be happy to pay more for 2011 Finger Lakes wines, assuming quality is high.

We will see if it is possible - perhaps some sort of transparency is in order.

Thanks again for the great article.


How will the challenges of this year affect the ice wines? Are fewer growers taking the risk of letting the fruit hang?

Laura - It's a good question. I hope we'll get a few answers from folks in the industry.

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