The Difference a Grower Makes
By: George Balling
We talked in recent weeks about the coming 2021 vintage and all that goes into pulling off a successful year in winemaking. Most times when we contemplate our favorite wines the winemaker is in the forefront of our minds, all they do to turn grapes into really good wine. That journey though, from grape to bottle, starts in the vineyard with the grower, the farmer of the wine grapes themselves. While there are still examples of a single person being both grower and winemaker more often this is split between 2 people.
I was fortunate in my wine career to work at a winery that made some great wine, the main focus of Balletto Vineyards though was the growing of grapes. John Balletto at his roots so to speak has always been a farmer, and in my opinion is a world class grape grower. Balletto only makes a small amount of wine for their own sales and distribution; however, they grow grapes for some of the most notable wineries in and around Sonoma County. It was a great way to learn about much goes into the growing operations, and how much a great grower contributes to the end product.
The best growers now employ very little chemical in their vineyards. Pests are controlled largely by under-cropping. This is the practice of planting crops that grow in the rows between and under the grape vines, that naturally deter many of the insects that can damage grapes. This results in a much “cleaner” grape crop, the kind that the best winemakers prefer.
Crop size is another big determinant of the quality of the grapes at harvest. Most times winemakers and growers will agree contractually on the tonnage per acre they want harvested. The best growers though will make that judgement throughout the growing year adjusting the crop size to get the best quality grapes out of every year while still harvesting enough grapes to keep their business viable. This is the most delicate balance farmers make every year, and a real difference for the winemakers and consumers.
As we approach and pass verasion, when red wine grapes turn from green to purple, canopy management is another delicate dance in the vineyard. Growers will constantly monitor their crops to ensure the grapes are ripening on schedule. In a cooler year the great farmers will begin to thin the canopy, the layer of leaves that overhang the grape bundles, to expose them to more sun and spur ripening. In a very hot year the canopy will remain intact to provide much needed shade and prevent the grapes from ripening too quickly or even raisining.
In these recent years when we have experienced frequent droughts water management has been absolutely vital in the vineyard. Growers have long practiced either dry farming their vines or knowing just the right amount of water to deploy. There is an old saying that goes something like “flowers like to be pampered but grape vines prefer to be tortured”. The more grapevines struggle the better caliber the fruit will likely be. Dry farmed grapes will often produce less tonnage each year but with more concentrated and flavorful grapes. When water is needed the farmers will know the amount to add to keep the vineyard viable, stopping short of an amount that can dilute the flavor of the grapes.
Farmers will get to know each of their growing sites intimately. While the chemistry of grape growing is fairly straightforward, you measure brix or sugar levels and Ph to judge the acid levels in the grapes with sophisticated instruments. The knowledge the farmer has allows him to judge the perfect time to pick, both during the season and the time of day or night to harvest, in order to get the flavor profile each of his winemakers is after, moving beyond the pure chemistry of the grapes.
When I worked at Balletto, I was always impressed at the time John spent in the vineyard and at the winery, he was always the first one there and the last one to leave. He supervised the harvest in everyone of the vineyards the Ballettos owned and managed, working directly with the large crews of workers to make sure all was harvested to his exacting standards. Perhaps the most impressive part of his job though was how prepared all of the equipment was for harvest. Machines were tuned up and ready to go, presses, grape bins, tanks and barrels were cleaned and ready. This produced a timely on schedule harvest most every time. As harvest starts many uncontrollable factors can impact the picking so the best growers make sure the controllable factors are in perfect running condition.
The next time you pull the cork or twist the cap on your favorite bottle think about the grower of those grapes, and talk to us the next time you are in the shop about the talent that is behind some of those grapes each year.