2017: Harvesting Malbec

Foon Estate Vineyard 2017 Miscellaneous-179


We have anxiously anticipated this day since last year. We had a poor harvest because of a newly described plant virus that caused a disorder called red leaf blotch. This resulted in sudden profound atrophy of entire mature clusters of grapes leaving pale, empty husks of what is usually a plump dark grape. The clusters should look voluptuous, fulsome, Roubinesque. They are almost black when ripe and, in fact, Malbec was referred to as “the black wine of Cahors” by one infatuated monarch. The recommendations coming from the agricultural extension and University viticultural experts included ripping out and destroying all affected vines since viral infections are systemic and no cure has been described. Very little is known of this virus, but the proposed response reminded me of the extreme measures usually employed in cancer surgery with the emotional overlay we have seen associated with other new epidemics. My inclination was to view this more as akin to other viral syndromes that have been relegated to the status of chronic, suppressible diseases. In some cases, notably hepatitis C, they are now absolutely curable. This knowledge argued for a more measured approach. I decided to “farm through” the problem after talking with other growers. It represented a gamble, but held out the hope of an agricultural accommodation that might allow me to avoid the extermination of a mature bloc of plants.

I limed the Malbec bloc heavily and changed my nutritional program, applying foliar micronutrients and worm castings as well. I added zinc to my usual spray program and applied homeopathic doses with each spray. The fruit set was prolific and the fruit continued to mature normally with minimal bunch atrophy and gradual development of large, succulent bunches with heavy wings wrapped around the fruiting wires. I waited for the expected moment when the bunches began to shrivel and atrophy. It didn’t come. As I walked through the vineyard during the summer it appeared that there would be a lot of fruit to harvest. I had no idea. We green harvested, dropping about a third of the fruit to allow for complete ripening. Then we waited.

Now we are preparing to harvest the fruit we thought we might never see again. We have a small crew. Marjorie won’t be picking today because of a prior engagement with our grandchildren whom she will be taking to a ballet performance of The Jungle Book in Eugene. We have eight pickers and, fortunately, our photo crew, the Wallers. Lupe, Jesse and I are part of every crew. John and Tom are friends of Jesse’s. They are all classmates and recent graduates of the viticulture program and the Southern Oregon Wine Institute (SOWI) at Umpqua Community College. They love everything about the viticultural experience and are great to work with and to be around. Tito and Emily are also friends of Jesse’s and help us pick every year. In addition, Tito keeps the atmosphere light with a virtually Homeric ode to his heroes of popular culture. He is genuinely encyclopedic about all things having to do with popular culture with a wide ranging curiosity and his uninterrupted commentary on everything from music and musicians to cable TV series is the soundtrack playing throughout harvest at Foon every year. He adds a lot to the experience.

Picking commences and Tito gets warmed up and is soon cruising brightly through a recitation consisting of pronunciamentos about his current favorite music and programming. Halfway through the 1.25 acre bloc, just after lunch, there is silence except for the sound of heavy, luscious clusters of Malbec being dropped into the picking buckets. There is now quiet acknowledgement of the reality of this year’s Malbec recovery. Even the parts of the bloc that have always produced small, scant clusters are now laden with beautiful fruit. The western third of the bloc, always fecund and prolific is unimaginably heavy with mammoth clusters. We realize we will be racing the daylight and will probably not be able to pick everything today as planned. At the end of the day there are several plants we cannot pick. It is too dark to risk cutting off fingers for a few more grapes. Final production of Malbec is 5.8 tons from this small bloc of which little was expected. This is as compared to the 6 tons of Tempranillo harvested from that 2.5 acre bloc. We are tired and sore. Attention now turns to processing these grapes for cold soak.