As I walked through the vineyard, and heard the crunching of leaves under my feet, the crisp air was a reminder that fall wasn’t too far away. There was the sound of shears clipping in the distance, while clusters of grapes hit the bottom of an empty bin. I looked up into the night sky; the stars were so bright, and the moon looked like a golf ball half-submerged in a pile of soft sand. As I held a cluster of Pinot Noir in my hand — and the juice dripped down to my elbow — I couldn’t help but take a bite. The grapes tasted like candy. Not too sweet, but oh-so-satisfying. I examined the seeds of a single grape, looking for the brown color that told me: It is time.
Everyone loves a good Pinot Noir, but not everyone appreciates just how difficult the grapes are to grow — how challenging it is to turn them into excellent wine. I often call Pinot Noir the “Goldilocks” of grapes; everything needs to be just right. The grapes are thin-skinned, and more delicate than other varieties. They are prone to rot and fungus, and they thrive only in very specific conditions.
Lastly, Pinot Noir grows best where it’s cool at night and warm during the day. One of the reasons I became a winemaker is because I think it’s amazing that you can start with a plant, but then what it evolves into depends entirely on what kind of soil you plant it in. And the direction the wind blows. And where the sun hits the vines. All of these factors determine what the wine becomes.
It’s our job to capture what is going on in the vineyard and have it translate into what we bottle. It all makes you feel so connected to the land, to the place where it came from. To have all of that expressed in the bottle and eventually a glass … it’s pure magic. Pinot Noir is a great vehicle to try to make this magic.
When to Pick: It’s More Art Than Science
As a small producer, I literally do a little bit of everything for my winery. That includes hosting tastings, packing up wine orders for shipping, and even picking the grapes, which we do by hand.
Harvest is always a very exciting and very busy time of year, especially when it comes to deciding when to pick our Pinot Noir grapes. It’s one of the most important decisions we make every harvest, yet one of the most challenging. Some winemakers pick “by the numbers,” meaning, they check the Brix, which is the level of sugar in a crushed grape. This will ultimately determine the percentage of alcohol in the finished wine.
To make a Pinot Noir that’s balanced, we aim for a Brix around 23-24 degrees. To check this in the vineyard, we use a refractometer — it’s like a portable microscope — to give us an initial reading.
While this is a great starting point, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. We also like to look at the physical aspects of the grapes — the color of the skins, the softness and size of the berries, and we like to look at the color of the seeds. If the seeds are green, it is an indication that the grapes need more time to ripen. If the seeds are brown, they are ready for the next step. And of course, we taste the grapes. We always sample grapes from different sections of the vineyards. Veraison — or the onset of ripening — doesn’t happen at the same time throughout a vineyard. Some of the vineyards have a slope to them, where grapes at the bottom of the hill may not get as much sun as they do at the top. Many vineyards have sections where some of the grapes are more exposed to sun — giving them a head start on the ripening process. Others might be in a cooler, shadier area that requires more hang time. The weather also plays a critical role in our picking decisions. We want the grapes to get enough time to ripen, but we don’t want to leave them on the vine so long that they pucker in the heat or develop mildew or fungus from a last-season rain.
This is where harvesting becomes an art: every year we have to adapt our harvesting resources to ever-changing conditions based on what the vineyard has given us. Some years we have picked as early as mid-August. Other years, as late as mid-October.
To ensure we get it right, we tend to pick at night when the temperatures are relatively cool because this gives us more control over the fermentation process. If you pick grapes during the heat of the day, spontaneous fermentation can occur.
Seeking Balance: How We Control Crop Size
As a small producer, one of the most important things we look for when we make the decision to partner with a vineyard owner, is the ability to have creative control in the vineyard. We are committed to making distinctive, terroir-driven wines of the highest quality, and this process starts in the vineyard.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but we actually look to limit the amount of fruit we are getting from each vineyard. Sometimes that means we have to drop fruit to avoid stressing the vines, in which we remove some of the clusters. This allows the energy from the vine to be distributed more evenly, resulting in higher-quality fruit.
When we first started making wine in 2012, some of the farmers we worked with did not appreciate our practice. When you are purchasing fruit by the ton, and weight equals dollars, that is money on the ground to a vineyard owner. Once we started to establish trust, and the vineyard owners were tasting the wines we were making, they realized that we might be on the right track. When our wines get positive attention in the press, so do the growers.
Once the Wine is Bottled, Why Hold Back?
While the style of wine we’re making is not like your typical California Pinot Noir, our philosophy is pretty simple. We want it to be balanced, to have nuance, and to represent the vineyard where it came from. We tend to pick the fruit on the earlier side — to retain its natural acid — because this gives the wine potential to age. In fact, we hold our wines back before release — something that has been part of our philosophy from the beginning. Our current release is the 2015 vintage.
This ageability in wine is something unique we are doing — you don’t typically see California wines made in this style. When you’re a small producer, and are somewhat under the radar in California wine country, it can be a challenge for people to discover you, and you might only have one shot to get their attention. You want to make sure the wines taste really good when they try them, but the next step is to ensure they taste just as good or better down the road. The feedback we get from press and sommeliers is, “This tastes incredible right now, but I can’t wait to see how it evolves in 5 or 10 years.” That makes us feel like we’re not only doing something different, but something right.
Pinot Noir grapes can certainly be some of the most challenging to grow, but they can also be the most rewarding when you get to the other side. This grape can break your heart, but in the end, the wine can send it soaring.
About Tracy Nielsen
Tracy Nielsen is the assistant winemaker and CEO/founder of La Pitchoune. After five-years of trying to break into the wine industry and repeatedly being told no, Tracy decided to make her vision a reality by starting La Pitchoune. It’s this very spirit that now guides everything we do at La Pitchoune. She is also a certified sommelier.
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