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The Harvest Is Over. Long Live The Vintage.

By Stephen Eliot

I live on the edge of San Francisco Bay some 25 minutes from Carneros, and it is pretty clear this morning that the 2012 vintage has just about run its course. It is raining. It is raining hard. It is the first serious rain of the season around here, and the folks on the morning news promise that it will be wet for the next several days.

I am sure that there are still grapes hanging here and there, but the weekend was busy in anticipation of inclement weather, and the Fox sports commentators on yesterday’s National League Baseball Championship Series broadcast announced that the 2012 vintage was officially over…so it must be true. Now comes the wait.

The pastime of vintage prediction is as old, I suspect, as winemaking itself. This year, it started back in April, before bud break as I recall, and euphoric claims of a perfect harvest have been daily fare starting a full month before the arrival of Fall. I confess to being excited and hopeful since slogging our ways through several thousand wines from a difficult vintage can be an unhappy task, but, just as there are very good wines to be had from even the most challenging year, that does not mean that everything from 2012 will be a triumph.

Nature has done what nature can, and now it is up to the winemakers. It is often said, even by some winemakers themselves, that wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cellar. I have always found such naturalist sentiment just a bit disingenuous. Yes, great ingredients are necessary for great wine, and it all starts in the vineyard, but wine really does not make itself despite the pronouncements of back-to-nature, born-again bucolics. However much a minimalist he or she may be, winemakers are, I believe, every bit as important as the grapes themselves, and they have the abilities to guide a good wine away from danger and make sure greatness, where greatness exists, is fully expressed. They can also screw up a good thing.

There have been a few journalistic voices of late that seem to incessantly diminish the role of winemakers; to, in fact, damn them for their unconscionable hubris if in any way choosing to do other than sit and stare at the foaming, fermenting juice and allow the wine to make itself. I am not about to defend industrial winemaking as an art, but I begin to break out in a rash these days whenever I hear the term “minimalist winemaking”. It may be the way of congressional politics, but I have never understood how doing nothing was something to be exalted and praised. Knowing when and what to do or not do are at the heart of the winemaker’s art, and are not skill and creative imagination the very engines of art?

So, with the grapes safely in, the winemaker steps up to the plate, and I just wanted to offer a few words of appreciation as their real work begins. I hope their jobs are easy and that the decisions they make come without hand-wringing angst. I hope that the wines of 2012 turn out as good as everyone seems to think that they will. I wish them all a “minimalist” few months ahead, but I understand that doing nothing to “get in the way of the grapes” may, in fact, be doing a lot of no good.

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Stephen Eliot's article
by David Trotta Barnes
Posted on:10/23/2012 11:05:40 AM

Someone finally put in print the truth about winemaking, and the importance of good grapes AND a good winemaker!  I am NOT the winemaker at Sturino Trotta - just the owner and check writer.  And I can tell you that even though we start with the highest quality fruit from outstanding vineyards, we still ALSO need a great winemaker to make great wines.  Nice job Stephen on pointing this out.  Great article!

David Trotta Barnes

well said
by John Kelly
Posted on:10/24/2012 2:13:56 PM

"minimalist winemaking" is only an oxymoron when taken to absurd extremes demanded by ideological purists. I've been saying for some time that it takes experience, skill, guts and luck to do less. Knowing what not to do and when not to do it is active, not passive at all.

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