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The Elements

Pelos Sandberg Vineyard

The Elements of 2015
2015 was a great, easy growing season that encompassed record-breaking heat leading up to our earliest harvest yet. Harvest dates ranged from September 11th for the chardonnay and September 14th as a start date for the pommard pinot noir with a wrap up of Pelos Sandberg pick dates by September 23rd. Did I say it was hot? Oh, and extremely dry. We went to sleep in Oregon and woke up in California. Wines should be very generous with fruit and richness, similar to ’14 and possibly ’16.
The Elements of 2014
Fast and furious might best describe this growing season. Plenty of warm sunshine started and finished the vintage. Drought conditions along with good “dry farming” techniques kept vines balanced and slowed canopy growth. Even though growing conditions were optimal, the season still had its share of hard work and challenges. The most significant one was just keeping up. This was not entirely due to rapid growth, but also a dwindling labor force. The human element is always a factor when it comes to growing quality grapes. Fortunately, we have a crew of experienced and dedicated people that we can count on for the most precise vine tending. In the future, the lack of additional seasonal workers will more than likely force us, and all agricultural businesses, to invest in more mechanized equipment. Adapting will bring change, both good and bad.

As anticipated, ripe, clean and abundant fruit was hand picked September 22nd through the 28th, our earliest harvest to date. It would be easy to lump this year in with other warm vintages such as 2006, 2009 and 2012, but ’14 was special and unique, just like all seasons are when you grow grapes. The slight variations always leave a mark and we can’t wait to see how that translates via the wine.

The Elements of 2013
Winter rainfall in the Willamette Valley typically measures 4-7” per month, so when we only get an inch or two, what do we do? Get lots of stuff done in the vineyard of course! That’s right; make hay while the sun’s shining so to speak. So we hoed, we pruned and then repaired trellising without our raingear. Hmm… cleared some brush, mended the fence and cutup the downed oak for firewood. And enjoyed it all! It was so nice that it felt like a gift, but being a believer in “payback,” I worried just a little. I thought we needed some rain, but wondered if there would soon be a deluge to make up for this unseasonably dry weather?

Well, I was wrong with my gloomy forecast for spring. No deluge of biblical proportions just continued mild weather with an early bud-break in the vineyard on April 9th. In May, the sun’s warmth sent the shoots upward and by the 12th of June the scent of flowering grape vines was wafting throughout the vineyard. Now with the vines well ahead of schedule and with the potential for drought conditions, we went into “defense mode” to counter any late season challenges. Since PSV is 100% dry farmed, the first action was to quickly reduce all competing vegetation in the vine rows and every other tractor row to help preserve ground moisture. The dry conditions and meticulous canopy management kept disease pressure to a minimum, naturally. Next was to adjust the crop level.

As we settled into summer, we could see that the potential crop yield was looking considerably light, so we had to be careful not to over thin it. Our estimates for harvest were some of the earliest dates we’ve seen and too little crop would only make it sooner. Hoping to slow down ripening, we set our target yield higher at 2.5 tons per acre. Fruit thinning was completed as the vines slowed by the latter half of August. A welcomed ¼” of rain kept the stressed areas chugging forward, but I wished for more.

Early September brought an extra ½” and then another. The vines perked up from the added water. The clusters plumped and sugars rolled back. The rain wasn’t so bad; actually you could say good, but enough was enough! By mid-month, new grape sampling was indicating that picking could start around the 24th. The flavors were harmoniously aligned with the sugar and acid. All was looking glorious, but there was yet another round of precipitation dropping down from Alaska that we needed to get through. It was hard to watch rain falling on “near perfection,” but not as hard as reading the changing forecast for the 28th and the 29th. The latest new forecast added a “weather advisory” for heavy rain due to the remnants of a tropical typhoon that was riding into the northwest on a sagging jet stream. Yup, payback time.

Donning our raingear and mud boots, we went back on defense and quickly evaluated what would be ready to pick in the narrow window between both systems. Our ripest Dijon and Pommard blocks were picked on the 27th and 28th of September. The remainder (mostly Wadenswil clone) needed to hold out for more development, but was in good shape and ready on October 4th.

Over 6” of rain fell in September. (That’s 5 times the average rain for the month.) It had us on edge emotionally and created some real challenges. One was navigating hills with a tractor on muddy ground. Another was the extra sorting and removal of all grape clusters that had succumbed to botrytis mold. With much effort we prevailed!

Looking back, I think of the ‘13 season as exciting. (Easy to say now as I’m putting the wine to barrel.) Our perfect summer in the vineyard may have just collided with the perfect storm to create balance and so much more.

The Elements of 2012

Stress free viticulture…yup that pretty much sums up 2012 in the vineyard. The season started with normal flowering and fruit set dates. Warm sunny days kept the vines healthy throughout the summer months. The need for leaf pulling was minimal and the vines naturally cropped themselves around two tons of fruit per acre. The only fruit thinning was for wings and third clusters.

A very nice Indian summer kept the fruit protected with warmth, dryness and the sun to ripen. If there was any concern at all, it was the lack of rain causing a little stress on the vineyard in September, but showers in the last days of the season rehydrated the clusters and helped roll back the sugars.

Harvest was an easy two day pick on October 9th and the 10th. The fruit was evenly ripe and dull black in color. Sugar and flavors were plentiful and surprisingly very fresh tasting. Hmm…truly the only thing the 2012 growing season was lacking in was drama.

The Elements of 2011
Following in the previous year′s “La Niña footsteps,” the 2011 vintage was yet another classic example of cool climate viticulture. La Niña is the phenomenon when water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean are cooler than normal. In La Niña years, the Pacific Northwest typically receives wetter and cooler conditions, hence the very challenging, yet rewarding, vintage 2011.

At PSV, the vines awoke on May 4th from a long wet dormancy. This starting point for each growing season known as “budbreak,” usually happens around early to mid April. Shoot, leaf, tendril and inflorescence (immature cluster) development was slow going through June. The damp and cool conditions causing the slow growth also dictated the need for judicious and well timed fungicide sprays.

The summer solstice may have passed, but the springtime stall lasted well into July and was causing a few worries. Fortunately, and with great anticipation, fruit set occurred under cloudy and cool conditions around the 19th. (Three weeks later than the norm!) Better late than never, summery conditions arrived late in the month and gave us some hope that the young swelling berries might ripen before major rains fell!

August and September were much busier than usual in the vineyard. Extra leaf pulling around the crop let sunlight in, to keep the fruit warm and help with ripening. Also, fruit thinning was a big job. The first thinning pass was to reduce yield by half and then four more passes were done to remove clusters lagging in maturity.

This vintage will long be remembered as the coolest and latest on record, which no doubt will leave an indelible mark on the wines. In addition, one other huge element impacting vintage 2011 was the composition of the cluster. The average cluster weighed-in at 150 grams. (That’s double last year’s weight and about 30% more than an average season.) However, the berries were small and crowded, very similar to 2008. Not a bad comparison, since small berries have a high ratio of skin and are what give wine good color and structure.

By late October, the deeply colored blue-black berries were loaded with flavor, sugar was at a minimum and the acid was still crisp. The benefit of letting the fruit hang for more potential sugar was outweighed by the increasing disease pressure being brought on by showers. Storms were on the horizon and birds surely were too. With one more check of the forecast and one last taste of fruit, we called the first pick date on Oct. 21st and finished up on the 25th. Truly no regrets, the fruit was at its peak in flavor development and should yield some very noteworthy wines.

The Elements of 2010
A false start to the season led to an early bud break on April 5th and the newly awakened shoots struggled to push new leaves for three weeks thereafter. May also was on the cool side and June was the wettest ever on record in the Willamette Valley. Once the rain mercifully stopped and temperatures warmed up, the stunted vines grew vigorously from the nutrient charged wet soils. Subsequently, a lot of effort went into managing the canopy. Also, less cultivating of competing vegetation helped take up excess soil moisture and an extra hedging helped keep the canopy in balance.

Bloom held off until the end of June, when the weather dried out a bit and fruit set was observed July 15th. Despite lagging behind two weeks, the fruit set well giving us very small clusters as it did in 2008, but looser. Due to the slow developing crop, we felt it necessary to thin early and drop more fruit than typical for a target of just 1.5 tons per acre.

The weather conditions remained dry and sunny as they usually do for the rest of the summer. Heat units remained low, however, and it was obvious we’d have a very late harvest. To help speed up ripening, we completely removed the leaves from the fruiting zone after veraison. This greatly helped the fruit absorb the sun’s heat and aided in ripening as well as improving air flow, which kept the fruit in good condition.

One late season challenge that came from above wasn’t the weather at all. Like a scene from Hitchcock’s famous movie, “The Birds,” our vineyard was “horrifically” attacked, not by crows out for blood, but by migrating starlings and robins looking for some carbs. The cool season had reduced farm crop levels and even wild berries across the entire northwest region. Consequently, there was much less fruit for migrating birds to feed on and they arrived in the valley sooner than expected feeding heavily on our pinot and others. Literally a ton of our fruit flew away, but it would have been a much bigger loss had we not fought so hard to keep the avian grape thieves moving.

The final days of our grape growing season came to an end in late October. The birds were persisting, light rain was adding to our anxiety, and the weatherman was promising buckets of rain on the horizon. A season of delays and sacrifice managed to gently and slowly ripen the pinot noir of PSV giving us concentrated fresh fruit flavors and a bright backbone of acidity. Well worth the wait! Our latest harvest yet, we picked October 17th, 18th and the 21st. The average yield was just 1.25 tons to the acre!

The Elements of 2009
After an unusually cold and snowy winter, the Pelos Sandberg Vineyard was ready for some warmth and sunshine. And it got plenty of both in 2009. Bud break occurred on April 20th to a pretty mild spring, very reminiscent of 2008, but by summer temperatures flared up a bit.

Flowering occurred in mid June and set perfectly in warm dry weather, producing berry packed clusters. We were careful to not pull too many leaves for fear of over exposing the grapes to the sun. As usual, we thinned the crop down, aiming for 2 – 2.5 tons per acre, which meant dropping over half of the clusters. Our final average was 2.1 TPA.

Our grapes in late September were bursting with flavor, and will show it in our wine, with ripe fruit flavors and lower acid levels. The most notable vineyard element of the vintage was the quality and consistency of each cluster. Perfect medium sized clusters, loaded with tiny berries lined the fruiting wire. No doubt, Mother Nature played a role in this blessing, but also the vines are maturing and reacting less to her swings.

The first harvest date was September 27th for our Dijon 777, 667 and Pommard and the final harvest for the year was on October 10th for our Wadenswil clone and 777 from Ana’s block.

The Elements of 2008
A cool spring led to a late bud break which was like a domino effect all season long. Bud break, which is typically the first or second week of April, was May 1st. Cool weather continued through May. Subsequently, shoot growth was stunted and cluster development was delayed. The second marker, fruit set, was also behind by a couple weeks. At this rate, we projected harvest to be late in October, which is risky business. Remember last year?

The decision was made soon after fruit set to thin severely. We dropped two of every three clusters, leaving just one very small cluster per shoot. Also, leaf pulling, shoot positioning and hedging were meticulously carried out and timed just right to promote ripening. The human element was an important factor this year.

September was a worrisome time for a lot of winemakers here in the Willamette Valley. Late in the month, clouds moved in, occasional showers fell and many vineyards just weren’t ripening fast enough. But the season wasn’t over yet! October turned out to be beautiful, with sunny skies and enough heat to finish the job.

And (with a little help) what a nice job Mother Nature did! Flavors and sugars crept up slowly in the small berries. Moderate temperatures preserved the acid, if not our patience. Jet black skins, brown crunchy seeds and woody stems completed the perfect cluster. We picked our grapes on October 16th this year, the latest pick date for iOTA so far. The yield averaged just 1.3 tons to the acre. Three words sum up the vintage: Late Great 2008.

The Elements of 2007
Just when we were beginning to think maybe Oregon was just an extension of sunny California, the cool and rainy weather returned to the Willamette Valley in the winter of ’07. That’s fine by us, since we did come here to grow Pinot in a marginal climate. It is our cool, but not frozen tundra, climate that allows our vines to go dormant without the risk of frost damage. And the winter rains are another essential element that we are blessed with. A good winter soaking ensures we can dry farm (no irrigating) and capture the true mark of the vintage. This winter and spring delivered just what we needed.

The summer started off as usual. The clusters flowered safely under average temperatures and dry skies. The canopy was healthy and green, with easy growing conditions for the vines. Also, it was easy on us in the vineyard as we put our mark on the year by dropping over half of the crop, positioning the shoots vertically, leaf pulling and hedging. All pretty normal stuff for us to get done before the hot August sun began to beat down. But no hot days came. No heat waves or even blistering hot afternoons. Just slow, cool ripening weather. We worried a little, but knew that it’s the slow ripening and hang time that develops the most complex and concentrated flavors. We just needed enough time in the season before the inevitable happened…rain that doesn’t stop ’til spring! This is what cool climate viticulture is all about.

Rain always teases us in September as if to warn us of what’s to come in October. This year was no different, but the warning was like a couple of good slaps. The grapes were days from perfection. Without rain that is. With heavy rain, they could roll back weeks, or never recover. We decided to hedge our bets and pull our most ripe fruit out of Yiayia’s on September 28th, just before rain fell. Seven days later, after some drying, we picked the remaining blocks. Good thing we did, since it rained for the next 15 days straight, totaling more than 3″!

This year, some wines in the Willamette Valley will fall short of flavor, with early picking. Some will be a bit diluted from soaking rains and others will define how pinot noir is best grown in a marginal climate. We believe the 2007 iOTA Pinot Noir will reflect a long, cool growing season with its developed flavors, low alcohol and elegant balance. Mum’s the word on the rain!

The Elements of 2006
The winter of 2006 brought record rainfall in the Willamette Valley with heavy rain continuing into the spring. Unknowingly, this would be critical in maintaining the vines through a long, hot and dry summer. By June, things had dried up and Mother Nature gave us a generous fruit set. About 30% of the green clusters were selectively removed, leaving us with a projected yield of 2-2.5 tons to the acre.

The vineyard thrived in the summer’s heat, growing strong shoots with a dark green canopy. The Van Duzer coastal winds cooled things down at night, preserving the acidity in the grapes. As usual, leaves in the fruit zone were pulled to expose the clusters to the morning sun, but this year, it was also imperative to keep the west side leaves as a protective shade against the hot afternoon sun.

By September, the vineyard was showing signs of stress from weeks of 90+ degree weather and many days over 100 degrees. The lack of rain was slowing the ripening process. Finally, in mid-September, the perfect shot in the arm the plants needed, over 1″ of rain fell in a few days, then back to sunshine.

The season was over, though it didn’t seem like it. Every morning we waited to defend the crop from starlings and robins. They never came. The clusters were dark. Ripe flavors seeped from the berries as they rolled across the tongue, and the seeds were pleasantly nutty in taste as they were crushed between the back teeth. It was time. We donned our sombreros and sunscreen instead of the usual raingear. It seemed odd to be picking and sorting pinot in the warm sunny weather, but that was 2006. Harvest came on September 29th for Ana, October 2nd for Pappou and October 5th for Abino Hill.

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