News

My Take on the Drought

The number one question asked to me this winter is: “How is the drought affecting the wine industry?” My short answer: “It’s not looking good, but the party’s not over yet.”

2014 is lowest rain year on record.First, rainfall varies widely in California from region to region. Nevertheless, the current drought seems to be affecting all regions uniformly. Let’s take a look at the numbers followed by their potential impact on agriculture.

Multiple sources say California is now in its third straight year of drought, and that 2013 had the lowest rainfall on record since 1849. Current water year totals (July to June) near our grapes sources are not encouraging. Los Gatos: 10% of normal rainfall to date; Santa Cruz: 8% of normal; Paso Robles and Healdsburg: 7% of normal.

Notable droughts since 1960 include one lasting from 1974 to 1977 and another from 1987 to 1992. The silver lining is that we’ve faced water shortages before, but we were able to bounce back.

The Drought’s Effect on Agriculture

The drought is already affecting grazing lands that rely solely on rainfall. Many ranchers have been forced to purchase feed for cattle and horses while some oat-hay producers did not plant fields in the fall of 2013. Similarly, dry-farmed orchards and vineyards could also be unduly stressed.

Even irrigated vines could feel the pinch because soils rely on winter rains to replenish the soil profile at depths of 3 – 12 feet (and above the aquifer) to a level called “field or holding capacity.” Additionally, growers in some areas may be asked to reduce irrigation, thus setting the stage for problems later in the season during heat spikes. Furthermore, there will be some concentration of naturally occurring salts (calcium, magnesium and sodium) that leach below the root zone with normal rainfall. A moderate buildup of these salts adversely affects vine growth while extreme concentrations may defoliate the vines.

Summary

Despite the paltry numbers, all is not doom and gloom — the wine industry will survive this year. The size of the 2014 crop is expected to be below average due to the drought as well as it following two consecutive bumper crops, but small crops often show concentrated flavors. Vines also reached beneficial deep dormancy this winter because overnight temperatures were especially low in November and December.

Finally, some water districts have reserves in aquifers and storage tanks to survive one or two drought years, and experts point out that the water year is not officially over.

“Things can change quickly this time of year … we still have almost six months to go,” said Jan Null, the former lead forecaster at the Bay Area’s National Weather Service office. “There are terms in the water community such as Fabulous February, Miracle March, and Awesome April. All of these have been used when we’ve turned things around after the first half of the water year.”

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Screw Caps: a Stylistic Choice

Pulling cork from wine bottles has been ritualized by enophiles ever since Dom Pèrignon began finishing his Champagne with hand-whittled plugs in the 17th Century. Since then, natural cork went unchallenged until the advent of synthetic corks in the 1990s. Today, those of us who make wine have many closure options, each with pros and cons affecting wine quality and its enjoyment.

Background

Over the last 30 years, we have all witnessed beverage packaging evolve with changes in consumer demand and the innovation of materials. Some of my favorites include beer cans with wider mouths, reclosable caps on juice cartons, and milk in recyclable bricks requiring no refrigeration. The same holds true for wine where new packaging has made it available in bottles, boxes, bags, kegs, bricks and cans.

Wine closures have also evolved. In addition to natural cork, I can now choose agglomerated (granulated cork and resin), glass stoppers, synthetic and screw caps. Still, some purists consider natural cork to be the only choice.

With all of these options, why wouldn’t winemakers at least consider alternative closures? The answer is that many of my colleagues have already moved away from cork (80-90% are using screw caps in Australia and New Zealand) while others are using a combination of natural cork and alternatives. Furthermore, screw caps can even be found on wines retailing for over $100.

Myths About Wine Corks

In recent years, I’ve discovered a handful of common misconceptions about wine closures:

  • Cork supply is scarce/cork trees are an endangered species.
  • Harvesting the bark kills the cork trees.
  • Cork is unreliable because of cork taint.
  • Winemakers only choose alternative closures to cut packaging costs.

Alternative Closures at Cinnabar

After considering the available options, I now use both natural cork and screw caps as a stylistic choice because one closure does not suit all wine types. I prefer natural cork for wines with aging potential such as Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay or Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I started using screw caps on some white wines (e.g. Monterey Chardonnay and Incantation Blanc) because the tight seal helps maintain freshness. I later applied that reasoning to a handful of reds (e.g. Paso Robles Merlot and Mercury Rising) where I found it to be equally beneficial.

Screw caps:

  • Are easy to use
  • Eliminate the need for “tools” or physical strength
  • Can be quickly opened and closed in restaurants selling wine by the glass
  • Offer less bottle variation due to their non-organic nature

With many options available today, I use a combination of natural cork and screw caps because it enhances the enjoyment of Cinnabar wines. Natural cork is still the benchmark for some winemakers, but screw caps have helped temper wine’s elite perception. After centuries of little-to-no change, wine closures are now evolving quickly, and screw caps have played a major role in that evolution.

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2012 Growing Season Summary

The 2012 California growing season was like a winding road that eventually straightened out. The year began with fairly normal weather patterns that transitioned into a mild summer, but late-season rains added plenty of drama. It was also somewhat of a drought year with the Sierra Nevada snow pack down 30–60% of normal (a statewide indication of water reserves).

January and February were fairly dry and unseasonably warm during the day with one short heat wave, however, there were sustained periods of nighttime coldness that hovered around 32°F.

Temperatures were near normal in March and April with days reaching the 50s and 60s and nights dipping to the high 30s, but the earlier near freezes delayed budbreak one to two weeks depending on the grape variety with most buds pushing late March to early April.

Several coastal regions experienced beautiful spring weather in April, May and June with days in the low 70s to high 80s, nights in the high 40s to low 50s, and occasional morning fog. There were a few storms in early April, but none threatened the infant shoots. Temperatures warmed to the low 90s in Paso and 80 degrees in other growing regions.

More rain fell on the vineyards from Monterey to Mendocino in early June. The remainder of June was clear and cool except for one heat spike around the second week followed by another in mid-July with temps well above 100°F, then another from August 1 – 13. The sum effect of these heat waves accelerated the ripening curve and prompted veraison to occur 1–2 weeks early in some locations. There was a significant cool down in mid-August, but conditions warmed up for most of September.

We picked about 25% of our fruit in late September (e.g. Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir) and 65% from October 10 – 18 (including Paso Merlot, Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay and Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir). Rain fell along the North Coast on October 10, but we were able to delay harvesting our Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon until the 16th. We brought in our last bin of fruit on November 7 right before the onset of the full rainy season.

Conclusion

Overall, 2012 was a high-quality vintage with rich fruit flavors. The late-season heat spikes hurt some vineyards, and many locations are still recovering from the 2011 spring frosts, but the dry conditions discouraged the formation of mildew. Finally, the slightly above average-size crop was good for wineries and growers alike, and a welcome reprieve from the smaller crops of vintages 2010 and 2011.

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Gardening for Pleasure

One of life’s great pleasures is passing on a favorite tradition to the next generation. And so it goes with my love of gardening as I hand it down to my sons and their classmates at the Guadalupe Elementary School in San Jose’s Almaden Valley.

This story really begins in the early 20th Century when my grandfather, Rosario Troquato, grew fruit and vegetables and made wine in Calabria, Italy. He later moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania where he gardened and made wine with my father, Angelo Troquato, from California grapes shipped by rail. Fast-forward a few decades to Santa Clara Valley where my father taught me the ropes in our family garden and among the vineyards where he grew grapes for Troquato Vineyards.

Home Garden

Cinnabar Winery's George TroquatoToday, our entire household tills the family garden, and it is especially gratifying to see my two young sons get their hands dirty. We have an assortment of herbs and vegetables (sweet basil, lettuces, tomatoes, squash and pumpkins) and fruit trees including Fuyu persimmons, nectarines, apricots, naval oranges, avocado and a volunteer olive tree.

Naturally, we also grow grapes: one huge Bordeaux vine (probably cabernet sauvignon or petite verdot) that was sprouted from seeds on vertical trellising; two Pechetti clones of zinfandel that produce 20-30 pounds fruit per year; and flame seedless, red globe, and white crimson table grapes on overhead gable trellising that is high enough to walk under.

And what backyard garden would be complete without chickens? Our chicken run is home to three egg-producing hens whose manure is combined with veggie and fruit scraps in a compost rotator to make compost and compost tea for our soils.

School Garden

Students at the Guadalupe Elementary School participate in the Lunch Time Garden Club. Parent volunteers provides supervision, and there is a Tuesday evening gardening session for parents and children. The goal of the program is to maximize the growing seasons so that the garden produces something edible year-round.

The half-acre school garden consists of nine raised beds with open bottoms: 10 inches high, 4 feet wide, and 20 feet long. We mostly grow vegetables (lettuces, beans, beets, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, green beans, squash and pumpkins), but we also have herbs, tomatoes, strawberries, and 13 fruit trees (stone fruits, citrus, fig and apple).

I invest about four-to-six hours per week on both projects, but I welcome spending quality time with family and friends in the great outdoors. I encourage you to try the below lunch menu fashioned from items grown in our gardens and paired with a selection of Cinnabar wines.

Lunch Menu with Garden-grown Vegetables

Onion, cucumber, tomato and squash salad with feta cheese
and balsamic vinaigrette made with fresh herbs (tarragon, oregano, thyme and basil)

Deviled eggs with toasted Acme Sour Dough French bread

(Pair the salad and eggs with Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir,
Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, or Monterey Chardonnay)

Fruit Salad
(Pair with Late Harvest Semillon)

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