Harvest 2019 is almost in the books, and winemakers across Santa Barbara County are hosing down cellars, and washing caked mud off boots and red-grape stains from their hands and fingernails.
A new vintage is being put to bed, so to speak, to age in tank, barrel or concrete.
The winemakers, who just weeks ago were picking well before first light and likely asleep before 8 p.m., are free to share details about the 2019 harvest.
For my annual harvest recap, I spoke with three winemakers, each with at least 10 years in the industry: Fabian Bravo of Brander Vineyard in Los Olivos, Joshua Klapper of Brave & Maiden Estate in Santa Ynez, and Jessica Gasca, co-owner and winemaker at Story of Soil Wine.
All three producers voiced elation with certain elements of the 2019 vintage — namely, the grapes’ record high levels of natural acidity, concentrated aroma and flavors, and the saving grace of plentiful rains that soaked vineyard soils last winter.
As in 2018, this year’s first picks leaned toward “historically normal” dates — those of early September rather than the mid-August starts found in 2016 and earlier, they noted.
Temperatures also mimicked those during 2018; the weather throughout the growing season was “temperate,” or mild — not too cold, not too hot (at least until September).
Therein lies the key to the higher rate of total natural acidity noted by all three winemakers. Grapes that ripen in cooler regions display higher levels of tartaric, malic and citric acids because they mature slowly.
I met Bravo and vineyard founder Fred Brander in the cellar on Oct. 18. That morning, the crew had picked some cabernet sauvignon from vines planted in 1975, Bravo said.
Brander’s harvest pace had slowed from September’s six-day work weeks to being “90 percent done as of today,” Bravo told me.
Brander’s first 2019 pick was four tons of sauvignon blanc on Sept. 4, 10 days later than last year’s start. On Sept. 7, Bravo said, “we got in more fruit, and then we picked for four weeks straight, six days a week.”
Brander specializes in sauvignon blanc — this year, that meant “30 to 35 separate picks” — and the current vintage has the white Bordeaux varietal in its sights.
In early September, “we picked on the lean side,” Bravo said.
When September grew (and stayed) hotter, “the sauvignon blanc grapes we picked second came in richer, around 26 brix.”
Having a “lean” pick and a “richer” pick of one grape created “a wide spectrum of flavors, from acidic to more tropical,” he said. “We have not seen this spectrum of flavors for the past two years, as the yields (then) were bigger.”
Bravo described this year’s yields as down 40 percent across all grape varietals. That said, flavors are very concentrated as yields are down.
About those winter rains?
“Rain is always nice to cleanse the soils of salt, and having a ‘real winter’ with colder temperatures” helps ease the vines into dormancy.
Bravo and his wife, Megan, produce uber small-lot sangiovese and pinot gris under their own Bravo Wines label. Total case production is 200 — “a good level for us to be able to sell ourselves.”
On Oct. 24, I reached Klapper of Brave & Maiden on the phone. Klapper, a winemaker there since 2014, called the current harvest “easy and smooth.”
“We started with sauvignon blanc early in September, and worked all the way through picking reds for rosé in late September,” which he termed a “late pick” for rosé.
“In late September and early October, the heat started,” Klapper said. It came, then left, but returned and continued until mid-October.
When we spoke, Klapper told me that all of Brave & Maiden’s red grapes would have been picked by the following day, Oct. 25, and come the following Monday, so would the Semillon. The always-late-to-ripen mourvèdre grapes for the 2019 rosé would likely be the final fruit for the season, he said.
So pleased was Klapper with the grapes’ natural acidity levels that he said “the wines almost made themselves.”
For his own 5,000-case label, Timbre, Klapper sources grapes from the Santa Ynez Valley all the way to Monterey County.
“This year one was a great year for pinot noir — great color and concentration,” he said.
Winemaker Gasca, co-owner with her husband, Brady Fiechter, of Story of Soil Wine, started their label in 2012 with 150 cases. Gasca estimated that her 2019 production will top 2,000 cases.
Her focus is on “single vineyard and single varietal wines, using minimal intervention for wines that highlight a sense of place.” Among the wines are sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, gamay, grenache, syrah and more.
When we spoke outside Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria on Tuesday, Gasca and her crew were finished with the harvest but in the middle of pressing off red wines. In fact, they had completed three press loads that day.
She, too, noted the vintage’s high acidity levels: “Those acids! They are crazy!”
Gasca said she hopes that she and others will learn from the vintage’s acidity levels — the highest she’s observed in 10 years.
“The natural acid is just really cool to work with … the higher acids will be a teaching quality,” she said.
Last year, her first pick was just one day later — her pinot noir from Duvarita Vineyard, on Sept. 7.
Like Bravo and Klapper, Gasca emphasized the aromatics and flavorful tastes of the 2019 grapes. “There are vibrant colors and tastes — off the chart,” she said.
If the season’s steady and cool temperatures “made” the 2019 vintage, the winter rains ran a close second. Klapper termed the rains a game-changer for the next five years, and Gasca recounted that a vineyard manager for a prominent Sta. Rita Hills vineyard watered only once all season, and when he dug down about one foot, he found moist soil.
“The rains were definitely a buffer,” she said.