This strange harvest took some even stranger turns in the past ten days, and not all of them have to do with grapes.
Leading up to the ever-later harvest, the prize batch of grapes was always the backyard field blend at Paul and Barbara Micaleff's place in the hills overlooking Dry Creek Valley near Healdsburg. (See September 5 post,) The spot is gorgeous, the vineyard a 20-year-old labor of love, the owners delightful people, and the prospect of an old-time field blend -- Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignane from one stretch of dirt -- was mouth-watering from the start.
Paul called periodically through September with Brix readings, and every one was an awful lot like the last; the chilly weather meant the grapes were taking their sweet time -- bad choice of words -- accumulating sugar. The Micaleffs were always planning a short vacation in Maui in early November, celebrating the wedding of one young member of their large and complicated family, and we worried about having to pick with no one around. But then, the grapes were so under-sugared, we eventually figured they'd be back before harvest.
On Saturday October 9th, Paul called me from Maui; the wedding and the reception afterwards had been terrific, and they would be enjoying a couple more days, and by the way, he had fresh sugar level readings done by a neighbor that morning. Creeping up, but still not ready -- at least a week off, maybe two.
Later that day, swimming in the Pacific, Paul started coughing up blood, and was rushed to a hospital, sinking fast. He had been fighting cancer for quite some time, knowing the cancer was winning, still taking drugs and treatments to stave it off, and determined to get the most out of life for as long as he could. The last straw was probably a heart attack. By Sunday, we heard through friends of friends that he had died.
And heard at the same time that Barbara was making sure her neighbor Margaret kept taking Brix readings on those grapes, because Paul certainly wouldn't want them to go to waste. Margaret called me twice, with the numbers still frozen down round 22 or 23 Brix, when we needed 24 or 25. I checked around for advice, considered splitting the harvest into two sessions, and finally decided to pick on Saturday the 16th. The numbers were still low, but then, Zinfandel numbers are always deceptive; the clusters are full of raisins that don't yield their sugars easily to testing, but when they do come out during fermentation, it's a heap of sugar.
Seven of us went up early Saturday morning -- Terry and Ray Paetzold, who had introduced Paul and me to each other as home winemakers in the first place; my pal Eileen; Pete, the other home winemaker taking some of the grapes, and his friends Fred and Susie, just getting into the wine business themselves. The day was perfect for picking: cool and slightly foggy in the early morning, sunny but still cool through midday as we worked.
The fruit was pretty well beaten up -- sunburn from heat spikes, shriveled raisins, bird damage, and one whole long row of Zinfandel spotted with mildew on the leaves and berries. The little side patch of dry-farmed Petite Sirah was especially blasted, completely vulnerable to the wacky weather. We left a lot of that precious fruit on the ground.
We all concentrated on our work, clipping off the culsters carefully (only one picker pruned himself), consulting with each other to make sure we had the same standards for good fruit and bad fruit, keeping the different grape varieties straight. We didn't talk much about the emotional cloud hanging over our labors; we didn't have to.
We made it back to my driveway with something over a half ton of very tasty grapes, and with some fresh recruits, quickly got everything crushed and divvied up. We toasted Paul in the driveway with a Sonoma field blend from Ridge.
When we all woke up Sunday morning, it was raining. If Paul's crop had still been on the vines, it would have been finished off once and for all -- but we had snatched it just in time.
The wines are fermenting now in my garage and Pete's. Everything we saw and did has been passed on to the family. We're going to make some seriously good Dry Creek field blend Zinfandel out of this star-crossed fruit; it's the least we can do.
It's amazing what a series of accidents can add up to: meeting Paul at a party when he had grapes to sell, the timing of his demise, choosing to bring the fruit in before the rain came down. This is one vintage none of us will ever forget.