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Nature’s Playbook

This chapter is all about moisture

For the people who live on the ground, in the real world, being stuck between House Republicans and these heavy rains is rather like being jammed between a bunch of rock-heads and a really soggy place. The result, of course, is a lot of hurt. Makes it tough to write/think about wine.

The House Refumblican rock-heads have nearly gutted the food stamp program, making life tougher for poor people who depend on food stamps to feed themselves and their children. Now they threaten to make real what (until now) terrorists could only dream: to shut down the entire U.S. government. You might think that’s chutzpah on a grand scale; to me, that attitude seems more like what the Germans call schadenfreude, defined as taking pleasure in other people’s misery. And what can be done about that? As one House rep noted, there are elections and they do have consequences.

As for the rains, not much can be done. Those who suffer most are clearly the homeless and shelterless. The Refumblican response seems to be: Let them get wet and maybe they’ll move somewhere else. Also struggling are the grape-growers and the winemakers.

Summer 2013 was nearly perfect for grapes: long stretches of warm days, cool nights, all the vinous changes coming right on schedule. Alan Mitchell, of Territorial Vineyards in Eugene, called the season “a great summer.” Fruit was ripening beautifully, sugars rising, colors deepening. September opened on a promising vintage. Most years, harvest begins in earnest sometime in early October. Meanwhile, growers hope for dry days with maybe just a dollop of rain to plump up the berries. 

Then the skies cracked open. Rains fell as though from buckets. Lucky and savvy growers managed to harvest some fruit early. Craig Broadley of Broadley Vineyards in Monroe, was among the fortunate: “We’ve got some good juice, good colors and good flavors.” As for the vineyards not yet picked, they’re still hoping: “It’s not over yet,” Broadley says. But here come the birds again, this time, Craig notes, “waxwings.” 

Mitchell, who checked his bird book, says “Yeah, cedar waxwings, like they dipped their tails in yellow paint.” Matt LaVelle, of LaVelle Vineyards in Elmira, worries about robins and starlings, hoping that air cannons might “help for a few days” while picking is “stalled out with the rain.”

One of the fascinating aspects of the study of wine is that it is always a study, never finished, in part because each new vintage yields new wines, and even the most sophisticated student is presented with thousands of new tests of the palate. Especially in places like Oregon, each region will produce wines that define their terroir, the complex flavors and textures produced, not only by the distinctive soils, but also slopes, drainage and particularly the climate, most subject to change with alterations in weather — moisture (or lack thereof), temperature variations, winds, the variety in Nature’s playbook.

Add the talents and skills of the winemakers, those artists/craftspeople/scientists who take what Nature has given and make the best possible wines. Ray Walsh, of Capitello Wines in Eugene (also a winemaker at Territorial and consultant at Meriwether), is one of our most respected and talented winemakers. His take on this year’s vintage: “Winemakers will have to be on their toes” and “we’ll definitely have to sort fruit.” But he — and many others — will definitely make some fine wines. Expect to study hard.

Meanwhile, vintners are bottling last year’s pinot noirs, wines from a “gorgeous” vintage. And we, humble consumers, can look forward to another chapter in the adventures of wine — unless, of course, Republicans throw another tantrum and decide to blow up the world. Well, into every life, some rain must fall; sometimes it’s a deluge. Hope you have shelter.