Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: How hand sorting saved 2011 in Rutherford

Winemakers in the Rutherford area of Napa Valley have a golden opportunity to add the first fresh and meaningful term to wine labels in decades, but they’re blowing it.

At least, I have yet to see “Hand Sorted” on a bottle of wine from Rutherford, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Wine-label terminology is notorious for sounding significant without necessarily meaning anything. Such common wine-label terms as “Barrel Fermented,” “Select Harvest” and “Old Vine” sing with suggestions of tradition and precision, but they mean nothing beyond the imaginations, marketing acumen and well-meant intentions of vintners.

“Hand Sorted” would fit right in with that legacy, though winemakers at Rutherford could make a case for its significance and relevance.

Several of them unintentionally did earlier this summer at “A Day in the Dust,” the Rutherford Dust Society’s annual premiere of the latest vintage of cabernet sauvignons from the group’s grape growers and winemakers. (A sub-appellation of Napa Valley, Rutherford is an approximate 6-square-mile district planted to 3,518 acres of grapes and host to about 50 wineries along a 3-mile stretch of Highway 29 in the middle of the valley.)

A tasting largely for the benefit of wine writers, the gathering, convened this year on the grounds of Francis Ford Coppola’s reimagined Inglenook Estate, ordinarily includes around 20 wines from the vintage just being rolled out to consumers.

This year’s roundup, however, involved only 13 wines, which right away tells you that something must have been amiss with the harvest of 2011.

And there were issues, the likes of which the valley’s farmers and winemakers hope they don’t see again. Winter was wet, which was good, but so was spring, which wasn’t so good. Bloom was delayed, and when it got under way in such inclement conditions the result often was “shatter,” the failure of flowers on vines to develop into berries. Thus, fewer grapes than usual developed during the growing season, lessening tonnage at harvest, explaining why fewer wines were available for “A Day in the Dust.”

The fruit that materialized had to weather a cooler-than-typical summer, stretching out the ripening of grapes well into fall, when rain swept across the valley in early October. Those showers complicated harvest and further jeopardized the quantity and quality of the clusters. Sure enough, bunches were contaminated with mold, including the rot called botrytis, fine for dessert wines but not for table wines.

The atypical weather and the shaky shape of grapes led to speculation that the resulting wines would be thin, shallow and otherwise short to measure up to the standards expected of Napa Valley, cabernet sauvignon in particular.

That could have been the case had winemaking been left to nature alone, but the intelligence and technology that growers and winemakers apply to crops these days show why vintage predictions and vintage charts so often are misleading.

Take “hand sorting.” It isn’t new. It’s simply shorthand for the vineyard and cellars workers who closely watch bins and conveyor belts of grapes so they can remove alien matter and raisined, moldy or otherwise undesirable fruit before it gets into fermenters. For years, hand sorting has been used to remove leaves, stems, spiders and the like from freshly picked fruit. Vintners call this stuff “MOG” – material other than grapes.

The method can be rather high-tech nowadays, with digital optical scanners programmed to spot and blow aside foreign matter and even grapes less than prime, but at “A Day in the Dust” growers and winemakers indicated that old-fashioned hand sorting in vineyard or cellar accounted for how they salvaged fine wine from such a challenging vintage as 2011.

“Quite a few of us were doing sorting,” said Tom Rinaldi, winemaker for Hewitt Vineyard. “It made the difference between life and death.”

Kirk Venge, winemaker for Hunnicutt Wines, concurred. “Sorting was very important,” he said, “This was one of our most challenging vintages. Nature threw us a curve but we hit it out of the park.”

In some cases, the hand sorting began even before grapes were picked. Michael Scholz, winemaker for St. Supery Estate Vineyards and Winery, recalled sending a couple of laborers down each row of vines just ahead of the rest of the harvest crew. Their job was to shake each vine, causing grapes infested with botrytis to tumble to the ground. “With a small amount of effort, berries heavy with botrytis will fall off,” Scholz said.

The real test of whether they were successful with hand sorting and other steps they took to assure the reliability of the vintage – such as blending in other varieties and even some juice from the richer, cleaner harvest of 2012 – was in the tasting of the 13 wines.

As a group, they were leaner, shorter, less alcoholic and more restrained in tannin than what I am used to seeing from the Rutherford appellation. They had less of the eucalyptus notes for which I’m a sucker, and more suggestions of milk chocolate and cocoa. I liked their accessibility and acidity. I came away with five that I especially enjoyed; none says “Hand Sorted” on the label, winemakers apparently concluding that the wine in the bottle will say enough of that: