A Hallowed Harvest

October 31, 2007

I am going to usurp an idea a friend of ours shared at a harvest party last year. He, (the one who posted the eloquent comment on What is Wine Anyway?), shaped some of his thoughts on the season around the letters for HARVEST and it got me thinking too. So over the past few days, I’ve been pondering the feelings that this time of year arouses in me, and tried to capture them here . . .


HHope. There’s something about harvest that conveys hope to me. It’s the end of a cycle, a time of reaping what was sown in faith, knowing it would grow.

AAbundance. I feel such gratitude during harvest for the abundance that it brings. Some of it is subtle, a smile that creeps up when I smell the sweetness of crushed fruit on the breeze. Some of it is intimate, gathering with close friends to laugh and toast and enjoy the fruits of our (well, their) labors. And some is universal, a feeling that the earth has yielded what it will for this year, and that now is the time for restoration.

RRest. I love how the pace here slows as winter sets in — in the vineyards, in our homes. It’s a time when we’re deepening our roots and gaining nourishment to enable the fruits of the next season to flourish.

VVaried. When I hear people say that California doesn’t have ‘real’ seasons, I always beg to differ (and I grew up in Illinois and Connecticut, so I know what people mean by ‘real’ seasons). No, we don’t get snow (although the Mayacaymas mountains do get dusted every few years, and it is magnificent), but each year I’m riveted by the beauty of the vines in their cloak of colors, and the way the autumn mist adds an otherworldly element in the morning. We most certainly do have seasons here in wine country.


EExuberant. When I think of harvest, I think of laughter. Every year, we help out our friends with harvest in some way, shape or form. I think about laughter floating above the vines as we clip grape clusters row to row. Or the mishaps that weave their way into our collective stories after a day of pressing. And the lighthearted laughter shared around the table (enhanced by silly song lyrics and grapevine ‘crowns’ to be sure).

SSustenance. Sustenance is about more than just fueling your body with what it needs to survive, it’s about being a part of a larger whole that feeds our soul . . . as is harvest. Sharing the bounty with those we love is just as much sustenance as the fruits of harvest itself.

TTrust. I sometimes find it hard watching the vines go dormant, the garden laid bare–both literally and metaphorically. I get impatient for the next season of growth to arrive. But I need to trust–that the buds will come again, that the fruit will follow, and even that there is purpose to this season of starkness.


PS — Seeing as it is Halloween, I thought today would be a good time to mention that we’ll be getting a new look here at Swirling Notions soon. But before we launch the new design, if you have any thoughts—what you wish you’d see here, something you don’t think belongs—I’d love to hear. Thanks!


I was driving through Alexander Valley noodling this month’s challenge for P5290476Wine Blogging Wednesday—to write about an indigenous grape variety. At first, my thoughts went far afield to the unusual varietals I’ve discovered in foreign lands—Kekfrankos in Hungary, for example, or Assyrtiko in Greece. But as I watched the emerald carpet of vines whiz past me and thought more about the meaning of the word indigenousto belong naturally to a place—I was hit with the urge to celebrate a a grape closer to home. One that, like me, may not originally have come from Sonoma County, yet nonetheless belongs here more than anywhere else in the world.

But what? I wondered . . .

Then I remembered Keith Horn, Clos du Bois’ viticulturalist, smiling like a proud papa as he cradled a plump bunch of berries in his hand. “This is the workhorse of Sonoma County Chardonnay,” he said. “It grows perfectly here on the ranch.” When I pushed him for more detail about what “this” was, he answered, “Clone 4.”

Clone 4 was one of many unique selections taken from a block of Chardonnay in southern Sonoma County, long before viticultural research in its present form existed. The farmer had gotten his bud wood from another vineyard whose owners had sourced their vines from the Wente Brothers in Livermore, via France. Over the years, the grower noticed certain vines would consistently exhibit certain cluster and berry sizes, distinct flavors, growth patterns, leaf size, etc.

Intrigued with these findings, he began working with Harold Olmo at UC Davis. Olmo labeled and observed the vines over several years and then eventually took several samples back to UC Davis. From those Sonoma County cuttings, Clone 4 was selected and propagated.

Why are there clones in my wine?
Glad you asked. Just as there are different varietals of grapes, there are also different subsets—called clones—of those varietals, selected and propagated to thrive in various growing conditions or to impart a particular character to a wine. Chardonnay clones that were developed and propagated in Burgundy, the motherland of Chardonnay, have a complexity and finesse to them. But the vines do best in a climate more akin to Central France than the valleys of Northern California.

The Clone 4 selection, on the other hand, thrives in the foggy mornings, hot afternoons and dry, sunny summers of Sonoma County. It’s known generally for heavy, big-berried clusters (compare the Clone 4 cluster in the foreground of the photo compared to the Burgundian Clone in the background), fine quality fruit and ability to retain acidity in a warm climate. But its qualities still vary greatly depending on the particular terroir of where it’s grown, which gives the winemaker a palette of characteristics to play with. Beyond those variations, there’s even further opportunity for adding nuance with the Burgundian clones.

So . . . does Chardonnay as a varietal come from Sonoma County? No. Does Clone 4 Chardonnay belong here? Yes.


Harvest is Here!

August 14, 2007

I got an e-mail from my friend Jason yesterday asking for advice on preserving tomatoes. Poor thing (envious sarcasm there) is going to Europe forSB-0001 three weeks just as his tomatoes are coming into their own. He’d gotten some great canning advice from Kalyn’s Kitchen, but I admitted to him that I’m a bit intimidated by canning and often take the easy route myself—slow roasting and freezing. When he shot back saying he was already envisioning a roasted tomato and goat cheese bruschetta with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I got all riled up on the subject and set out to write a post on prolonging the pleasures of the tomato when I got another e-mail, this one from Erik telling me that Keith was bringing in the first grapes of the season—Sauvignon Blanc—and inviting me to come toast the harvest with them.

It seems the Sauvignon Blanc beat out the Tomato for this post.

So this morning, I finished scraping the last of the scrambled eggs and frijoles off Noe and trundled her out to the truck. It was foggy when I awoke, but by the time we got up the road to Clos du Bois, there was just a chalk line of it left floating below the bumps of Mount Saint Helena and Geyser Peak. The vineyards themselves even had a sort of greeny-gold, Sauvignon Blanc-esque sheen to them in the morning sunlight.

Noe had shrugged off her jean jacket by the time I had her in the sling (I swear I caught her rolling her eyes) and we joined the Clos du Bois crew and hoisted a glass of OJ (well, I did) to the newest of the new vintage. It’s such a unique feeling being there for the first day of harvest. There’s a buzz, an effervescence. Everyone knows that the next two months or so are going to be brutal as one block after another ripens and has to be brought in. But for this first one, the joy of anticipation seems to outweigh the prospect of exhaustion.  

SB-0015One by one the trucks—heaped with grapes that Keith and his team had picked way early this morning while it was still cool—came through the crush pad and unloaded their fruit into the hopper. I was surprised at how in tact the grapes were, and Jason and I both commented on how much juice their was. Erik said that by nature, Sauvignon Blanc is a juicy grape, and that if it were Chardonnay in the hopper we wouldn’t be seeing nearly as much juice.

At this point in the season, Erik is out in the vineyards daily testing for ripeness. We’ve been spared the heat waves of previous years (man, I hope I didn’t just jinx us all) and Erik says that the more temperate weather has made for a gorgeous, consistent canopy and beautiful fruit. I hope for his sake it also means a staggered harvest . . . you never know when a hot day will hit and several blocks will ripen at once, which means some serious long hours for the crews.

Somewhere around 9:00 the last truck rolled through and the OJ was polished off. As I was driving back home and Noe was sawing logs in her car seat (on the ever-so-long five minute trip), an odd fact occurred to me; the harvest season is literally punctuated by “Sauvignon,” the word . . . it begins with Sauvignon Blanc and ends with the Cabernet Sauvignon.

I promise . . . tomatoes are up next!


Ode to Veraison

Fresh and green, translucent and newNoe-us0032
Turning red . . . and then somewhat blue.
Just yesterday your berries gleamed green
Now ruby gems dangle between your leaves.

In a few short weeks you’ll be plucked from your roost
And left to ferment; your elixir-like juice.
But I know the wait ahead is long
Until I can taste the beauty of what has just begun.

Here. Now.

As your bead-like berries, green and new
Turn to red . . . and then somewhat blue.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

It may seem strange to begin a post with a poem, but veraison time just brings that out in me. “What, Lia,” you say, “IS veraison anyway?”

I’m glad you asked.Noe-us0040

In a nutshell, it’s when the grapes turn from Kelly green to either reddish-blue (for red wine grapes) or a golden hue (for white wine grapes). In French, veraison has an accent aigu over the e, which gives it the same root as the word verite—truth (as long as you have that accent in there . . . without it, ‘ver’ means worm). To me, that says it all. It’s the time when all those millions of little grapes are transforming into what they were meant to be, fulfilling their destiny. 

For those who aren’t as romantic as I am (pfuff!), the excitement around veraison comes from it being such an obvious harbinger of harvest. Vintners can plan on the grapes being ripe enough to pick roughly 45 days after their color changes hue. They’ll start testing sugar levels (brix) and other ripeness indicators almost obsessively during that window to determine the best time to pick. 

When I went out to the vineyards with Oscar yesterday to take these shots, there was already a buzz about the winery—fermentation tanks were being shined and tractors primed. Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but I could almost hear the vines whispering to one another . . . “it’s almost time!”


When I first moved to wine country, I was appalled at the perfectly good fruit lying in between rows at various stages of the growing season (but then again, I have emotional issues with thinning). Then someone explained the concept of dropping fruit, whereby some of the fruit is pulled off so that the vine will put its energy towards the remaining clusters, making for more intense characteristics in the bottle. Keith

This intentional manipulation of the vines to produce more robust fruit actually begins around May, just after the fruit is set, when Keith and his team start pulling off short shoots (called shoot thinning). It takes 14 leaves to ripen a cluster. Anything shorter is broken off so that the vine will be able to create the best fruit it can and the canopy will remain manageable (more on that in a later post). 

Once the fruit has become veritable berries that have just reached veraison (when the grapes turn red), Keith will take another pass through the vineyards and drop actual clusters (called crop thinning). The reasoning behind what stays and what goes varies by varietal, block and even stage of growth. With Petit Verdot and Malbec, Keith only leaves two clusters per shoot (incidentally, Keith also told me that Malbec leaves make great dolmas . . . I’ll definitely be giving that a try). In the vineyard that produces the grapes for Clos du Bois’ Briarcrest Cabernet, Keith leaves just one cluster per shoot. At the other end of the spectrum the young merlot—in its “gangly teenage phase”—gets to keep all of its clusters. “It’s young and it won’t carry a lot of fruit yet,” says Keith. “We don’t want to stress these vines, just to grown them right now so they’ll develop for next year.”

If all this thinning brings tears to your eyes (as you know it does mine), buy a bottle of Terra Sonoma Verjus to splash in your saute or over a salad. It’s made from the unripe clusters that are clipped during thinning into something akin to vinegar. Verjus is an old-world staple, tart and flavorful, that (unlike vinegar) won’t clash with your wine. Which means you can drink your grapes . . . and eat them too. 


Anatomy of a Vine

June 8, 2007

In the ten years I’ve lived here in California—especially in Sonoma—I’ve learned quite a bit about vines. Or so I thought. Going over the notes from my tour of the vineyards with Keith and Erik, I found quite a few question Keithmarks in the margin. I couldn’t find a good one-stop resource online for wine and vine terms, so I’ve taken the liberty of pulling together all the words that stumped me, finding out what they meant, and explaining them here.

The foundation of a vine is its rootstock, literally a piece of nubby, bare vine that has a healthy root system actively nourished by the soil. It’s kind of like a blank canvas, a “vanilla shell,” if you will. Not that the choice of rootstock isn’t important, it is—it was American rootstock, in fact, that saved the French wine industry in the 1800s. A viticulturalist will choose a rootstock to suit particular soil and growing conditions.

Once the rootstock is chosen, the viticulturalist will choose which variety of fruiting vine to graft on to the rootstock (the grafted piece is called a scion).  

Vine Varieties (Varietal, Variety)
This is the general classification of grape that a particular fruiting vine produces—for instance, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Merlot.

Clones, contrary to what the name implies, have nothing to do with genetic manipulation or dubious duplication of livestock. They are simply specific subsets (Clone 4, for instance) of a grape vine varietal (Chardonnay, for example) that each have their own unique characteristics.

Vines (Grapevines)
The grapevine itself is the combination of the rootstock and the grafted vine. During winter, it’s all you see and it looks (plug your ears all you viticulturalists), well, dead. In reality, it’s putting all of its energy into its root GRAPEVINEsystem, regenerating its strength to put out new shoots.

The straight part of the vine (usually incorporating the rootstock) that comes out of the ground and grows vertically, until it either branches off horizontally (into two cordons, one on either side of the trunk) or into a knob (head), depending on how they’re trained and trellised.

When springtime comes, little buds form on the vine that send off shoots (like branches), which eventually become covered with leaves and grape clusters. Later in the season, when the shoots turn brown and brittle, they’re called “canes.” (Incidentally, when canes are pruned, they’re great for smoking meats on the grill around harvest time ;-)).

Shoots become canes when they turn brown and woody at the end of the season. Most are pruned, but some are trained to become permanent parts of the vine.Budbreak_3

When a vine is trained on a trellis, two canes (normally) are attached to a wire running to either side of the trunk. These canes become a permanent extension of the trunk and form buds and shoots of their own the following year.

Grape clusters are exactly what they sound like, a bunch of grapes. In general, they look like the grapes you buy at the store, only each wine grape variety has a slightly different look. All start out green. Red wine grape varieties ripen to red, and white wine grape varieties stay green or take on a golden hue.

The shoots, leaves and fruit are collectively called a canopy.

The growing of grapes.

The person who is in charge of growing the grapes (in our case, Keith Horn).

If in the future, as you read through any of my musing from the vineyard, you every have any questions of your own, please let me know. One of the beauties of the blog is that we can just keep adding to this list!



One of the really cool things about doing this blog in conjunction with Clos du Bois (I originally wanted to call this the Clos du Blog, but I got vetoed—which is good, I can’t imagine it being anything but swirling notions now) is having full access to all the people who shepherd the wines along, literally from vine to glass. Erik-and-keith

Yesterday, I got to tag along with Erik and his team of winemakers on a vineyard tour led by Clos du Bois’ viticulturalist  (the guy in charge of growing the grapes themselves), Keith Horn (Erik’s on the left, Keith on the right). For the winemakers, it was a sneak preview of the raw material they’ll have to work with come harvest, sort of the wine equivalent of a farmer taking chefs around and saying, “check out these peas, they’re going to be fantastic this year,” or “the carrots are tasting especially sweet this season.”

The morning started out foggy and the vigorous new leaves on the vines looked almost neon green against the gray sky. We bundled up, climbed into a cavalcade of trucks and drove down dirt roads from block to block (vineyards are often divided into different sections, or blocks, that are planted with different types of grapes). It’s just plain exciting to be out in a vineyard, really at any time of year, because the vines are so alive and dynamic during each of the seasons. But right now, in late May, the first little nubbins of fruit are setting into what will become actual clusters of grapes and everything is just brimming with POTENTIAL

ErikAt each stop, for each block, Keith would decipher for us what the vines were telling him (grapes are in the man’s blood and I’m telling you, you can almost hear the conversation going on between him and the vines). The winemakers listened and asked questions about yield and quality while I, like an over-eager second grader, asked about anything that made me go, “hmmm.” (“Why does that trellis look that way when the other one’s straight?” “Why does this row have grass and that one is plowed?” “Could I use these leaves to make dolmas?”). I can vouch for the fact that these guys are a patient bunch.

The upshot of yesterday is that I learned a ton — what “shatter” means (for some reason, I love that term as it applies to grapes), about different “clones” (in the good way, not the scary, sci-fi way) and, of course, the merits of tempranillo (Keith, if you’re reading, that was for you). But it’s waaaay too much to cover in one blog entry, so I’m going to chunk it down into digestible bites and write about a little at a time. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks.

One note that applies to any wine-related subject — mi experts son su experts. That was a bungled take on ‘mi casa es su casa’, but the point is, I’m sharing my access to Keith and Erik’s expertise with you. If you have a question, ask. If you have another subject you’d like to learn about, tell me. And I’ll get the answer for you. 

How cool is that?