As grapes begin heading for maturity, three components undergo rapid change – sugar, acidity, and flavor.
The sound was so faint as my mind struggled against the will to get up, I thought there was a woodpecker outside my door. It was rhythmic, but not synchronous. Not a woodpecker, more like a very small velvet hammer. Am I dreaming? I opened my eyes to total darkness. It’s not morning after all.
Knock, knock, knock.
It’s the door! I grab my phone. 8:15. My heart leaps and I jump up, wondering how it could be dark at 8:15 a.m., and that’s when I remembered closing blackout curtains last night.
Knock, knock, knock.
I opened the door a crack. There was Syrah with a tray of coffee.
“We decided to let you sleep in a bit, but thought you might be wanting this,” she motioned for me to let her in so she could set down the tray.
Grateful, but still in my pajamas, I smiled and countered her offer. “Tell you what, I’ll take that off your hands right here. Tell your dad I’ll be down in 20 minutes.”
She grinned like a Cheshire cat. “Will do.”
I grabbed the coffee tray and closed the door with my back. I can’t believe I slept in. Any positive impression I’ve made has been lost for sure. The aroma from the French press made the six-inch journey to my nose and I inhaled deeply. I set the tray on the dresser, poured myself a cup of steaming black coffee and opened the curtains to behold a very uncharacteristic grey and cloudy day. I’m going to need this whole thing.
Jack and Don were seated at a table under the awning, Don was reading some charts and Jack was reading a newspaper as Juanita cleared the remnants of breakfast. Great, I thought. I’m late and breakfast is over.
“Good morning,” I offered, sheepishly, conscious of the difference in my appearance compared with yesterday. I threw my hair into a ponytail when I clamored to get dressed this morning, grateful I’d showered last night. I didn’t bother with mascara; judging from the wet climate, I didn’t want to risk racoon eyes.
“Nice to know the rooms are comfortable,” Don giggled as he stood up. “Take a seat. Juanita will have your breakfast out any minute.” Ah, there is compassion in the world. My gaze went to Jack as I sat down, who continued looking at his paper.
“This is ridiculous!” Jack shouted.
I recoiled immediately, about to open my mouth to apologize for being late when he made it clear we were not talking about me.
“Sorry to raise my voice, Nora. You will want to see this article in the Napa Valley Register. They are predicting the worst vintage in five years.” He tossed the paper on the table and fell back in his chair, head in hands
“Did they quote Noble Wines?” I asked.
Without looking up he said, “No.”
“Then they don’t have the full story,” Don cut in. He’d read my thoughts completely.
“He’s right. If the industry is expecting the worst and you have the best vintage in a decade, sounds like everyone is in for a surprise,” I concurred with Don’s optimism. “Let’s sit on it for a week and get more on the doomsday report. I’d imagine the other wineries beat the cold front like you did, right? This could be sheer speculation.”
“Forward the Light Brigade,” Don piped up with unusual gusto.
What? That’s exactly what my dad used to say. “Onward, rode the 600,” I piped instinctively.
“Impressive! You read the same books. That means we continue with the plan. If we perish, we perish trying,” Jack was at least smiling now. “When you’re finished with breakfast, we’ll head into the vineyard.”
The surprise on my face must have been palpable. I had my boots on, for sure, but the rain had started to fall in a steady mist already.
“Just kidding. We’ll head over to the barn,” Jack beamed. Now I can see where Syrah gets that Cheshire grin.
After breakfast we shared a stadium umbrella and walked briskly the 500 yards to the barn. It was dry inside, but not what I’d call warm. The décor was sparse but tasteful, with old harvesting equipment hanging from the upper walls and rows of vats full of grapes. We walked over to one of the vats and Don reached in and grabbed one of the tiny red grapes.
He held the grape at eye level for inspection. “Do you have any idea how I can tell a grape is mature?” He continued not really expecting an answer from me. “As a grape heads for maturity, I’m looking for change in three attributes– sugar, acidity and flavor.” He bit into the grape and handed another to me. Jack grabbed a handful and tossed them into his mouth.
“The ratio is important. You need the sugar, but you don’t want to lose the acidity. These are sweet enough that Jack just ate a handful. Usually a grape that grows in a wet climate has inadequate sugar, but since we had a dry, hot summer, the heat worked in our favor and that water dissipated, forming a really complex, flavorful fruit,” Jack explained.
Don further enlightened me. “If we’d had a cooler summer, the grapes would have remained plump, which might sound like a good idea, but a plump grape has more water and inadequate sugar levels.”
“So, every factor of the climate impacts the health of the grape,” I interjected to feel smart. They both gave me a thumbs up. I guess the fruit doesn’t fall far….
Don started in first. “We know the grapes are ready to pick when they change in composition. Once they began to tighten up into this nice firm fruit, we knew it was time. If we had left them on the vine for this storm, we’d have lost the complexity of the fruit.”
Feeling brave and armed with just enough knowledge to be dangerous, I ventured to ask, “When the grapes are picked too early, they lack their distinctive character, but can’t you just leave the skins in the juice longer to enhance the firmness and complexity?”
“The real magic is not in the juice. The skin and the layers just below the skin contain the most aromatic and flavor constituents of the grape,” Jack answered. “Leave the skins in too long and the wood tannins make the wine bitter. Our aim is to get ahead of the problem and start the winemaking process with grapes in the best possible condition, hence our early harvest this year. That’s the difference between a good and a great wine.”
Don was staring intently at another vat. He picked up a grape and walked over, “See the wild yeasts here?” He pointed to the layer of white crystals on the grape. This is another sign the grape is mature.” I lingered a moment on the word “mature”… ruminating about Bryson’s behavior the other day. He’s a great example of a grape that’s been picked too early. He was promoted to CEO when his father died. It seemed the right thing to do to honor his father’s succession plan, but I wonder if it was the right thing for Bryson, or the company.
Don was oblivious to my reverie. “Do you know what else is important about the skins? This is something you will want to know. The skin is where you find resveratrol, the antioxidant that some say helps your heart.” So, the very thing that can make the wine bitter also makes it better. That explains the crushing in my life right now, but I need to know that my theory is grounded.
“Isn’t the research saying that all alcohol has health benefits?” Finally, we found a subject I had a bit of knowledge on. I’m a health junky.
“In moderation, yes.” Don volleyed back. “Small amounts of red wine are linked to more health benefits than other forms of alcohol.”
“Honestly, I don’t think health is our angle when it comes to PR,” Jack boldly shut down the tracks on that train of thought. “There’s more news on the negative effects of alcohol these days, especially with the string of teen suicides in Napa, Colorado, and the Northeast.”
“Teens aren’t drinking wine,” I started in…
“But they are masking depression and anxiety in many ways without any guidance on how to manage addiction,” Jack added with his eyes focused away. Something told me he had some experience that made him rather animated on the subject.
“We’d like to take a more positive approach, the glass-half-full approach if you don’t mind the pun. Our focus is on the craft of winemaking,” Don shifted gears. “That’s why we thought it was more beneficial for you to come out and see that first hand. The wine market is going crazy. Those millennials are buying up cases of wine to drink at home, but they’re enamored with wines under $10.
“We’d like to educate them on the craft of winemaking like they’ve fallen in love with craft beers. We want you to position us as vintners who don’t outsource any part of the winemaking process. Careless winemaking can result in bad wine. We’re not willing to risk our label to anyone outside of the family,” Don preached.
“And by family, we mean everyone we trust,” Jack put a hand on my shoulder with that statement to signify that I was a trusted member of the team. I’m not sure how I earned that, but ready to run with it. “Lunch is ready,” he added and walked into the barrel room.
Have you ever done something really brainless, like sleep in the day of an important meeting? How did that affect the way you started the day?
Did you experience any negative self talk? Or did you experience assumptions like Nora did with Jack at the breakfast table?
How do you switch you brain to a healthy track when that happens?
Jack and Don discuss that the best way to make wine is to get ahead of the problem and start the winemaking process with grapes in the best possible condition. What do you think that means for leaders? If the vintner only chooses the healthiest grapes, what does that mean for you when you choose a team?