2003: A Diary

by Jim Law

As painful as it may be, I feel the need to revisit vintage 2003. I learn the most from my visits to winegrowers in other regions when we taste and discuss the lesser vintages. Now it’s our turn. I’ve experienced disappointing vintages in the past. There was 1987, my first harvest here at Linden with a September featuring 10 straight days of rain. There was 1994 with significant crop reduction due to 13 degree F temperatures. 1998 featured a 10-minute hailstorm that took 75% of our crop. But 2003 was death by 1,000 cuts.

Being the eternal optimist I can say that the best thing about 2003 is that we didn’t make very much wine. Our production was 40% of normal. Fortunately we had a wonderful buffer, namely the 2001 and 2002 vintages. Our cellars were full of an abundance of very good wine. Knowing this was instrumental in giving me the courage to make several difficult decisions during the 2003 season that have resulted in some surprisingly good wines, and lots of empty barrels. What follows is a recount of the decisions of vintage 2003 at Linden.

The vintage can best be described as cool, cloudy and wet. Spring, summer and fall. This resulted in struggles with fruit set, disease, and ripening. Undeniably the most challenging vintage I have ever experienced.

The Vineyard:

April was the best month of the season with average temperatures, rain and sun. We actually had few problems with climbing cut worms and phomopsis due to rapid bud break and early shoot development. The month of May was gloomy with sunshine being a rare occurrence. Leaves were a yellow green that I have never seen before. They were crying for light. Shoots were succulent and seemingly waterlogged. This condition contributed to a devastating loss of shoots due to windstorms in the chardonnay. Even before the season unfolded I decided to prune the chardonnay hard in order to have less shoots and therefore less crop. This resulted in bigger and more succulent shoots. A freak windstorm hit us before the fragile chardonnay shoots were long enough to be tied to the first foliage wire. This led to anywhere from 50 to 100% primary shoot loss per vine.

Meanwhile, in other varieties, very early mite outbreaks (at 1″ shoot growth) had compromised basal leaves by sucking the sap out of them. These leaves are critical during bloom, as I was to discover. For the first time I saw clusters failing even before bloom. By bloom, it was evident that in many blocks the vines simply did not have the energy to successfully set fruit. Leaves remained an eerie yellow due to lack of sun.

As the season progressed, my eternal optimism would not allow me to be aggressive enough with leaf pulling. I was sure that starting ‘tomorrow’ the summer would revert to the typical hot haziness that can result in sunburn on exposed south and west facing clusters. It never happened. Although we managed to keep rot to a minimum (given the season), I keep wondering if flavor concentration and physiological maturity would have been improved by more aggressive leaf pulling.

I must admit that I became a true ‘nozzle head’ in 2003. In some blocks I sprayed up to 20 times and spending over $500 per acre. It worked. We had a healthy canopy through November. I became an internet/weather radar junkie looking for windows of opportunity to spray. I depended on the strobies (Sovran and Flint) more than I normally like to, and became a believer in phosphorous acid to control downy mildew. I did literally get burned by spraying copper on cool dewy mornings. One of my blocks suffered significant leaf burning.

My vineyard is on a mountainside and is normally well drained, but in 2003 it was necessary to drive my tractor/sprayer into the vines in very wet conditions. This resulted in slippage, rutting and compaction that I will have to deal with for many years. It also contributed to my recent decision to purchase a crawler tractor, as I will soon be developing even steeper slopes.

As late summer approached it became painfully evident that the late ripening red grapes would not sufficiently ripen their 3 to 4 tons per acre crop. We ruthlessly thinned the crop load down to 1.5 to 2.5 tons per acre. This was particularly hurtful because it was only these late varieties that had set a good crop in June. Most of the earlier ripening whites had only managed to set a scant one half to two tons per acre and could have ripened more.

Hedging strategies also changed. Normally in a wet year I am fairly aggressive with the hedging, trying to reduce canopy density to promote better drying. As it became evident that we were going to push the envelope on ripening, I decided to be more conservative. I felt that we would need those younger leaves, as they would be the most productive in October during ripening.

The weather during the beginning of harvest did not improve. In fact it got worse. September gave us more cool, wet conditions with Hurricane Isabel’s 5 inches of rain and 60 mph winds adding insult to injury. I decided to walk away from the Seyval vineyard and not even try to salvage grapes that tasted like overly diluted lime Kool-Aid. Finding work for my crew became a challenge as we kept delaying harvest waiting for something to ripen. We finally started with Sauvignon Blanc, selectively picking the riper, more westerly exposed clusters.

Harvest conditions improved slightly in October and even more so in November. We have an excellent fence that keeps out deer, but raccoons and bear did not share our patience as we waited for the grapes to ripen.

The Winery:

Making wine appropriate for the vintage.

My most valuable assets for 2003 were 2 sorting tables and an army of staff and volunteers with numb fingers. Crush days were agonizingly slow affairs. Some days required ten people to process 3 tons of grapes. I was often reminded of the quote “to make great wine you can’t worry about making money”.

White wines:

The job of the winemaker is to determine the strengths of each vintage. For the white grapes in 2003 the strengths were their aromas and mineral acidity. Both would be compromised if it wasn’t for strict selection at the sorting table. Pressing strategies changed. Typically I make the press cut when the juice’s acidity drops and bitterness becomes more apparent. In 2003 I found that the ‘press juice’ had wonderful aroma and lower phenolics than usual. The lower acidity was often desirable.

Normally I prefer to ferment somewhat dirty juice (high solids), believing this to give a wine with more complexity, body and personality. In 2003 I cold settled the juice for two days as I felt that a cleaner juice would result in a prettier, aromatic wine. Fermentation temperatures were also colder, again to preserve aromatics and delicate minerality.

Even though the sugars were low, I did not see the need to chaptalize the whites as I felt a low alcohol was appropriate to the vintage and wine style. Finally, an early bottling captures the freshness of the vintage.

Red wines:

We harvested most of our red grapes in November, which rewarded us with 5 days of warm, sunny weather. Until that point I was resigned to make rose. Two things happened in those 5 days. In late October the skins remained thick and yielded little color when squeezed between my fingers. Skin tannins were green. The 5 days of November Indian summer ripened the skins and tannins and also dropped the acids to a level condusive to producing a balanced red wine.

Again with the reds sorting was critical. We did a quick sort of leaves and pink clusters at a sorting table before destemming, but the sorting table after destemming was where the most sorting occurred. Pink berries were easier to identify. Skin tannins were ripe, but stems were green and bitter. All stem fragments (jacks) were meticulously removed.

Seeds remained fairly green so I decided to do little or no crushing as I felt whole berries would reduce the impact of bitter seed tannins during fermentation. I decided not to bleed the fermentor for rose as I often do in less than ideal vintages. I felt that the resulting red wine would be awkwardly out of balance with the tannins overwhelming the mid-palate.

For the first time in twenty years, I chaptalized most of my lots of reds. Alcohols less than 12% would make ‘doughnut wines’ (a hole in the middle). I shortened the period of prefermentation cold soak by simply warming the cellar. All our red fermentations are now uninocculated and I wanted fermentation to proceed quickly. Pressing was early with the wines still actively fermenting. I wanted to avoid excessive tannins, especially those coming from the green seeds. The wines went quickly into barrels after a brief settling of gross lees. I wanted to finish fermentation in wood in order to better integrate tannins and add a bit of weight. However I decided not to use any of my newly purchased barrels as I felt new oak would be too much for this vintage.

For elevage I decided to age on the light lees with weekly stirrings in order to gain some ‘fat’. During the winter I allowed the cellar to chill down to the 30’s F. in order to drop out as much acid as possible.

The most valuable lesson I have learned from past ‘lesser’ vintages is that the agony and disappointment of managing a vineyard in a cool, wet year is only surpassed by the humiliation of selling wine I was not proud of. In 2003 this was constantly on my mind. It gave me the confidence and incentive to make those difficult decisions as the season unfolded. All the extra labor, spraying under stressful conditions, dropping green clusters on the ground, and ruthless sorting in the vineyard and winery would make my job of selling the wine much easier. This is an advantage that an experienced winegrower/proprietor has. These are not great wines, but they are quite good. They are fresh and aromatic with good verve and minerality. They will drink well young, and I will be proud to pour them.