The Second Harvest

Hard to believe that we’re starting our second harvest. Last year’s yields were low due to the drought but this year we made some adjustments and it looks like all of our crew’s hard work is paying off. We harvested our Chardonnay during the wee hours between Sunday and Monday. And the yields shattered our forecast. Our crew picked about 12 tons in a single night. All were excited to kick off another great harvest season.

I braved the dark and foggy country roads and showed up to start shooting at 5 am when the crew had already been long at work picking for about 4 hours.  At 6:30 we took a coffee and donut break, then back out for picking.  By 10 a.m. vineyard manager and I dropped our first load off at Sandhi and Domaine De La Cote. 24 half ton bins later, we finished the job around 12:30 p.m. A marathon to be sure but all were happy with the results.

A perfect Chardonnay cluster.
A perfect Chardonnay cluster.

Last week we also harvested our little 1 acre Viognier vineyard (for Zinke winery) at the house.  The kids (and Auggie) were on hand to supervise this one. We’re getting them shaped up for the hard labor.  Their little hands can reach the tough clusters. I’m thinking in a year or two they’ll be ready to be full fledged pickers. That is if they can stop eating the grapes long enough to put them in the bin.  Happy harvest, happy life.

The Stomp

When harvest was all said and done late last year, we had a few tons of grapes left over that hadn’t been allocated to other winemakers.  What do you do with world class Syrah grapes?  Stomp the bejeezus out of ’em and make thee some wine! So that’s what we decided to do.  We partnered with a winemaker and decided to make a few barrels of wine.  Our wine project won’t be ready for quite some time because the juice needs to sit in barrel for a couple of years while it does its thing, but at least we were able to be a part of the process.

By the time we made it over to the winery the grapes had already begun their fermentation process.  They were cold and a bit slushy.  But the kids were troopers as we lowered them into the cold bins and held them while their tiny feet stomped away.  Did I feel like “I Love Lucy” in her infamous Italian adventure? No, but it was pretty exhilarating nonetheless.  And when somebody asks you if you want to stomp grapes, always say “YES, PLEASE!”

The family that stomps together...
The family that stomps together…

The Big Day

Harvest begins in the vineyard.  As we finish up our first year of ranch ownership, we also complete our first full season cultivating our vines from pruning to picking. Our harvest began late last night in our chardonnay block and will continue throughout the next couple of months.  Warm weather contributed to an especially early harvest this year.

We began at 1 a.m. with a round of coffee, head lamps, and shears tucked in our spiffy new leather holsters. Picking at night ensures we deliver our grapes to the winemakers first thing in the morning before the blistering sun warms and cooks the grapes.  Our crew of 13 motored through nearly 4 acres of chardonnay to fill 10 half-ton bins.  The yield on our chardonnay vines was low this year, less money for us as we charge by the ton, but they’re sure to produce mighty fine wine.  The grapes picked last night were delivered by our ranch manager and me to Sandhi Wines.

Harvest-5Though I’ll admit I’m hurting a little after last night’s marathon, and I likely won’t be on hand to personally pick each block we harvest this season, I have to say it was an awesome experience.  Our seasoned crew, made up entirely of one extended family who has been working this ranch for over two decades, worked with all the grace of a synchronized swimming team.  They were lively, efficient, and all too humble while I poked around and shoved my camera in their faces.  After harvest we dined on a few dozen tamales homemade by the family’s matriarch, who shared with me that she has 7 children (three of whom work on our ranch) and 23 grandchildren.  Quite a legacy.  I was honored to work among them and look forward to many more seasons getting to know the Cervantes crew.

Click on an image to begin the slideshow.

 

The Name

It’s official: our ranch has a new name! Now that the trademarks are in place (always the attorney…), I can share it with you!

Head on over to our new website:

http://thompsonvineyard.com/

My husband deserves all the credit for singlehandedly designing and coding our new site.  Isn’t it amazing?!?

While the name of the vineyard will remain “Thompson” because of the incredible reputation it has for producing world class Rhone varietals, the ranch on which the vineyard sits will now and forever be known as………… Ok, so I’m not going to tell you.  You have to read about it on the blog. Click HERE!

FYI: you can also find an article I wrote on my philosophy about wine HERE.  Enjoy.

Ranch 1

The Bud Break

Forgive the obviousness, but this week I’m realizing you can’t start a new life without leaving most of your old one behind. We just closed the sale of our home in San Marino on a beautiful street in a neighborhood we loved. And it struck me that we’re giving up quite a bit to become ranchers. Our home, with its beloved courtyard sanctuary, internal atrium, and a big yard for the kids, now belongs to somebody else. (It’s the home we lived in when my daughter was born).  We’re also giving up my children’s slot in the best school district in the state, the luxury of living in close proximity to our friends and families (as well as modern conveniences like Target and my addiction, Amazon Prime Fresh), and in two months we’re going to be kicked out of the rental we’ve been staying in while selling our other home.  Goodbye SoCal.

A photo posted by TamaraEsq (@tamaraesq) on


Since marrying El Patron nearly seven years ago, we’ve been on a whirlwind ride and haven’t had a chance to catch our collective breath. In year 1 we moved to Pasadena and I became pregnant with our son. Griffin was born in year 2 and while on maternity leave I completed a culinary program. By year 3, I was pregnant again with our daughter. That was also the year my husband decided to put the company he founded and owned for 15 years up for sale. In year 4 we moved again and Elliott was born. I also quit my job as an attorney in a top firm and gave up a career I worked toward my entire life. In year 5, my husband sold his business and I opened a boutique mediation practice. In year 6 we bought the ranch and moved to a temporary rental. We spent most of this year learning what it means to be grape farmers and preparing for our big move to the Santa Ynez Valley. Just this week we purchased a home (complete with a vintage chuck wagon and a baby viognier vineyard) a few miles from our ranch that will house our family while we spend the next two years building the ranch house. We’ll be moving to the Santa Ynez Valley in about 6 weeks… and the transitions just keep on a-comin’.
Chuck Wagon

And while my 30’s have been a bit frantic, even by my up-for-any-adventure standards, the next transition will be our biggest yet, as we move our family out of Los Angeles where we both grew up and begin our new lives in wine country. One unanticipated consequence of five moves in seven years is that we haven’t remained in a home long enough to lay down roots. My eldest is approaching five years old and I have never hung a single framed picture of our family, ever. That will change when we make the big move. I’ve got a wall picked out ready to get nailed.

Since the vineyard seems to be a convenient metaphor for everything going on in my life these days, it’s fitting that this week we saw bud break. Bud break is the start of the growing season when the vines awake from their long winter nap. Pruning left our plants devoid of leaves and shoots. This week’s heat wave kicked them into action and the buds have poked through where the vineyard workers carefully placed their cuts. Some of our vines already have baby clusters forming. Shoots will follow quickly.

(Click on a photo to enlarge)


The vineyard gets its fresh start, as do we. With all of the transition in our lives, I’ve found that my rides through the vineyard ground me and remind me where I’m going. While I can’t escape feeling melancholy at the thought of leaving our old life behind, our land calls to me and I find myself eagerly compelled to answer.

The Pruning

Pruning (1 of 13)In the vineyard, January marks the start of the next year’s vintage. While the vines lay dormant for the winter, most of the cane growth from the prior year is trimmed back. This laborious process, called “pruning,” determines how many clusters a vine will grow for the next harvest.  Pruning requires a trained hand and is a skilled art.

For us, this month’s pruning marks our first influence over the vineyard. The vineyard workers spent the last couple of weeks stripping the vines of the old canes to allow for the new ones to grow and reach their full potential. Such a lovely metaphor for life, no? So much promise awaits.Pruning (4 of 13)

We took the kids with us on our last visit to check the progress of the pruning. And though pruning is exciting enough, we had another reason for our visit: quad shopping. Any good rancher needs trusty transportation.

Our latest acquisition, the Polaris Sportsman, is purely functional of course. I was able to get this baby up to 35 mph before my eyes teared up and bugs in my mouth became a real concern (top speed is 60!).  The kids squealed in delight as we drove through the vines.  They wanted to check the progress of the pruning too.  Pruning (6 of 13)This is their legacy after all.

After we finished our “work” for the day the kids rode bikes around the ranch (along with our vineyard manager’s son and daughter) and fished in the pond. The bass started biting just as the sun was setting.

A perfect day.

The new toy
The new toy

(Click on an image below to begin the slide show)

Childhood
Childhood

 

The First Harvest

Harvest is coming to an end. Crazy hot temperatures and the drought have pushed harvest up by a few weeks but by most accounts this year’s harvest should produce a wonderful vintage. First Harvest 1At our most recent visit to the ranch, most of the vines lay bare. Other than a few remaining rows of petite sirah that still await plundering (see how fat and juicy those clusters look!), the remainder of the vineyard seems a bit somber. Brown leaves suggest the vines are entering a period of rest until budding again next season.First Harvest 2

Before harvest our vineyard manager gives daily updates on the brix (sugars) to the winemakers, who in turn carefully monitor the grapes and sometimes visit the vineyard to determine the exact right time to pick. Then the picking crews arrive at sunset and work through the night, when temperatures have cooled the grapes and slow the ripening. By morning large white bins are filled to the top with grape clusters, ready for delivery to the winemakers that same day.First Harvest 3 (These bins were on their way to a winery in San Francisco).

Grapes are delivered personally in our cool 1972 International Loadstar, dubbed “The Bruiser.” (We even have our own gas station on the ranch…) First Harvest 4 Once the grapes leave the vineyard the farmer’s work is complete and the winemaker takes over to turn the clusters of grapes into claret ambrosia. Upon arrival at the wineries grapes are sorted, crushed, fermented, and barreled. Then the barrels sit for months as the wine ages and gains structure until it is ready for bottling. It takes a whole lot of labor to produce what will culminate into one of the best sounds ever: the pop of the cork. That pop, followed by the pour, the swirl, the sniff, and the blessed first sip make all the labor on the farm worth it.

The 2015 vintage will be our first vintage from start to finish. We likely won’t be able to taste wine made from those grapes for a few years (2018?) but the anticipation of cracking open that first bottle will bring a whole new meaning to the term “fruit of our labor.”

The Vineyard

They tell me the drought means that harvest is coming early this year. The vineyard manager will likely gather the troops and start harvesting our pinot gris next week, with the remaining varietals following over the next several weeks. I’m about as green as they come right now (pun intended?!?), but since this is our maiden harvest I intend to be right in the action.

Vineyard 2I read once that in a single year’s growing season, human hands will touch each vine at least 16 times. Between pruning, trellising, canopy management, crop thinning, spraying to prevent mildew, netting, and harvesting, each vine will be carefully tended to at least 16 times. Sixteen. Each and every vine. That just amazes me. When you consider that we alone have 40+ acres of vines, countless rows, thousands of plants, producing over 100 tons of grapes, yielding about 6,000 cases and 72,000 bottles! PHEW!! Vineyard 1

I have a new found appreciation for farm workers. Here is our vineyard’s chief caregiver, Tino. Tino and his family have been tending to these very same vines for over 20 years. He raised his children on our ranch and his son will take over when Tino decides to retire. It’s Tino’s job to see that each and every plant produces amazing fruit. Quite an accomplishment for a man who doesn’t drink wine.

That little blip below is me: drinking my morning coffee as the sun has just finished burning off the morning fog. What you see in this picture is only half of our vineyard. The other half is behind the horses, though they look like props. (The horses are hanging out for a while but they’re not ours despite my efforts to get them thrown in with the sale). Now try to fathom working in these rows and tending to all of this (x2) 16 times just this year. Amazing.  Hail to the Tino~
More to come as we approach harvest.Vineyard 5