Assessing the Situation
Hear the word “assessment” and usually some not-so-pleasant scenarios pop into mind: how much is our property tax going to be this year, how will traffic be impacted if a strip mall is added to a residential zone (a personal one for me right now), how is the readership on one’s blog…um… Even grapes are not immune to assessment and right now, Derek is the proverbial head of the Nevada county assessors office. What looks like aimless walking or biking around the vineyard is really him going through the blocks performing “berry assessment” on fruit that is rapidly approaching harvest. Once the fruit has hit 22-23 Brix, we stop running Brix samples and make all pick decisions based on berry assessment, in which Derek assesses the pulp, skin, and seeds through touch and taste. Right now, he is assessing our early-ripening varietals- Viognier, Muscat Canneli, Sangiovese, and a few blocks of Syrah.
So, why make your picking decisions this way? It certainly is more time consuming. Larger wineries make their pick decisions based on Brix and acidity levels, relying on set standards from year to year, and realistically, when you are picking 50 to 200 tons of grapes from a radius that can exceed 100 miles for up to 2 months, it would be a logistical and staffing nightmare to do it this way. Berry assessment is just another way of standing out from the crowd. The variations and nuances of each growing seasons can be expressed in the wine this way, creating vintages that are slightly unique from year to year. Whereas larger wineries almost have an obligation to provide the consumer a consistent product from year to year, we are able to let the individuality of each vintage come through in our wines. Just another way that makes Naggiar not just another winery.
As to the actual assessment part, Derek uses all 6 senses- yes there are really 6! Sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste and the ability to see dead people- I’m just kidding- let’s call that 6th sense here, intuition. It starts off visually- the color of the berries, how easily they come off the pedicel and as Derek puts is “extraction through expectoration”- basically the color the juice is when he spits it out after chewing up the skins. When he first pops the berry into his mouth, he assesses how soft it is, how easily the pulp detaches from the skin and seeds, how juicy the berry is, its inherent sweetness, tartness, vegetal aspect and above all, fruit expression. Quite a few qualities for a first impression! As he is macerating (chewing) the skins, he is evaluating tannin intensity and astringency as well as the fruity flavors and aromas. Lastly, he crushes the seeds with his teeth, assessing the seed tannin intensity and astringency and listens for “the crack”- was it a sharp crack, dull, or make no noise at all? All of these things deal with grape maturity and development. We want optimum development but don’t want to pick too early or wait too long. If we pick too early, we get a rustic, edgy/hard and vegetal wine with poor color development. If we wait too long, we get a wine with cooked or dried fruit (prunes and raisins) flavors, flabby, highly alcoholic with poor color development.
I covered sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing…ah yes, intuition. Mostly, that intuition comes from years of berry assessment and having each year catalogued. While he does keep an old-fashioned journal- you know, one made with paper that you write in with a pencil, where the intuition comes in is that Derek, for the most part, logs these assessments day after day, year after year right there in his brain- that very one that can’t remember the last place he left his keys. From the assessment he did on the 2008 Syrah from block 11B to the block 16 top Viognier of 2006- all are rattling around in his noggin. He even remembers the first grapes he tasted when he first started working in the wine industry over 20 harvests ago, yet he doesn’t seem to remember much about our wedding day. Hmm, I see where I stand in all of this…
Now, for the whole point of assessing the situation of the berry assessment, it looks like we’re on track to start harvesting next week!