Sauvignon Blanc with foliar leafhopper damage
Sauvignon Blanc with foliar leafhopper damage

Hi. My name is Maile. I’m a farmaholic.

I started farming in 1991. I was 23.

I have been trying to kick the habit ever since.

Every year about mid-July, I start getting nervous.

Are the bin trailers ready? –have we checked the tires? How many tractors do we have – that are functioning? Do any of our forklifts start? Have we rented a back-up? What’s the grower-rep’s phone number? Why isn’t it in my phone anymore?

These are the questions that precede the month-long harvest of pears, my full-time preoccupation for 20 years. It’s a tough habit to break.

With the destruction of global trade barriers, the pear business crashed and we (because my husband got roped into the business when I became a mom) bulldozed half our orchards and replanted.

Now we’re in the wine-grape business.

And we just can’t seem to get out.

We, well, my husband mostly, climbed the learning curve of grape production, learning to prune, identify fungal infections like Eutypa, insect pests like leafhoppers, bugs like mealy bugs, nematodes or root worms as well as signs of nutrient deficiencies, which in our case meant calcium and potassium. We learned how diseases like Phylloxera spread up from Napa where it had decimated acreages of historic vineyard.

Determined to get out of farming, my husband applied for a job in Washington D.C., and we moved to the East Coast.

That was four years ago.

I am still managing a vineyard in northern California.

And so, I find myself sweating about harvest, still.

Night time harvest with "Cuba."
Night time harvest with “Cuba” behind the wheel.

Sauvignon Blanc harvest occurs in September or October.

Last year the grapes were somehow at the sugar:acid levels the wineries wanted by the end of August.

But that is pretty unusual.

By July, 2014 appeared early too. Maybe the first two weeks of September–?

I have a new winemaker in my contact list, a geeky guy named Dave.

I had met Dave at a swank home on the outskirts of lovely St. Helena, in the sweet west side of Napa Valley, among oaks and graceful grapevines.  The home was architecturally significant, the host, British, but known for an excellent palate. There were three kinds of oysters.

That night we tasted Dave’s products, several sauvignon blancs that put the oysters to bed.

Dave’s boss was contracted for 40 tons, but he made it clear he wanted 60. That would be about a third of our crop. The rest is contracted to other wineries.

 

When I was a teenager, my father, a professor and not a farmer at all, took me from my native Montana down to Grampa’s farm in California to work harvest in the pears. This was my first experience with agriculture. My job was to drive a tractor pulling a trailer that was loaded with pears – about five tons of pears – into a packing shed a few miles down the road.

There, ten times a day, my trailer would be unloaded with a forklift and reloaded with empty bins, heavy wooden boxes measuring about four feet by four feet about three feet deep. Each one would hold a half-ton of pears. The bins, empty, according to the weight receipts, hefted 267 pounds each.

Upon returning to the orchard I would drive down a row of trees, pulling the bins off the trailer by hand, rolling them, clunkily, corner to corner, then dropping each below a tree, in the shade. The bins had to be positioned so that a forklift could access them. The bins also had to be placed so that pickers could fill them up then move to the next one.

In other words, I had to look at each tree and try to guess how much fruit it held. In the morning, the pickers would yell at me to move a new bin in if it filled too fast. With bins in the way and each row practically impenetrable, this was heavy work. If the picker had to carry his 50-pound bag of pears from the ladder back to a bin more than a tree or two away, he would shout for the forklift to come move it. Things slowed down a lot when this happened.

So I quickly learned how to accurately guess where to place each bin. I could look at  a tree and tell with surprising precision, how much fruit it held.

 

But grapes are entirely different.

I am consistently surprised by how quickly the gondolas fill with fruit – or more often – how slowly.

And so, I was shocked when Dave-the-Geek informed me in late July, that he and his assistant had counted clusters in my vineyard, weighed, measured and run some magic math to determine that harvest would be August 22 and that my crop estimate was overstated by about 24 percent.

I was furious. There was no way he could make such a prediction accurately three weeks ahead of time. The earliest possible date would be a week later, I vowed.

And what was he doing tromping through my vineyard without permission?

Did he wash his feet first?
Sure enough, mealy bug showed up, where, according to Juan, my in-the-trenches contracted viticulturalist, reported, Dave and his crew had first entered.

I told Dave we had never harvested the vineyard before Aug. 29.

It did indeed appear really early so I booked my flight for Aug. 27, planning to stay for 10 days.

 

But by the time I got there, harvest was over.

On August 20 the sugar readings indicated we could pick in two days. I emailed Dave, who was not surprised, but quite diplomatic.

When the reps of other wineries also returned affirmatives to their own brix readings, they said “let’s pick ASAP.”

Sauvignon Blanc in the gondola.
Sauvignon Blanc in the gondola.

I sent Dave an email conceding geek superiority.

But I did not tell him that he was not right for the reasons he claimed.

The well was drawing sand and our irrigation capacity had dropped to 20 percent of normal. We had to water less frequently and in smaller amounts. As a result, I conjectured, the grapes ripened quickly and weighed less.

It was not quite devastating.

Our crop was down about 24 percent. That’s a rough figure.

So yeah, he was right.

But I am still running this vineyard, even though I live 3,000 miles away.