Because of the local fires in August, I decided to try to understand the potential for smoke taint in our vineyards. After researching the potential for smoke taint, we followed the recommendations from ETS Laboratories. ETS is the West Coast’s most respected wine lab and since they are based in St. Helena, they have seen a lot of examples over the past few years. Their recommendations are to make micro ferments so they can measure guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, among other smoke flavor compounds. Some of our colleagues in Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are using this technique to decide whether to risk picking the fruit and spending good money after bad. I must say, we were a bit frightened at the thought of leaving our grapes hanging.
We went to the vineyard and harvested grapes from five different areas of our vineyards into five gallon buckets. I had this crazy idea that washing the clusters with water might reduce the smoke compounds on the grapes. In researching this my colleagues conveyed that it doesn’t work but I wanted to see for myself. We used two buckets per pick and washed the clusters into one of the buckets. The other bucket was left au natural.
Then, we yeasted them and fermented them, sampled the wine, and sent the samples to ETS laboratory in St. Helena. The results were interesting, as there was no correlation between the washed grapes versus the unwashed grapes. All of the samples had less than 3 micrograms per liter of guaiacol (smoke flavor) and some were in the 1.3 range. What does this mean? It means we have low risk of smoke flavor in the wines. As we are now in the middle of fermentations, I am feeling strong and hopeful.
December 2020 Vineyard Updates
How has our wine and our vineyard fared since October? Read our December 2020 vineyard updates here.
2020 has been an interesting year. The growing season has been ideal, beginning with decent rainfall in the winter. We had a warm spring with good conditions during bloom and fruit set. The summer was warm until about the end of August, when the temperatures climbed into the triple digits. We also had a fire in the Livermore Valley due to the lightning strikes, which is the first time we have had to deal with the idea of smoke taint in our wines.
In August, we went to the vineyard and harvested grapes from five different areas of our vineyards into 5 gallon buckets. We used two buckets per pick and washed the clusters into one of the buckets. The other bucket was left au natural. We then yeasted them and fermented them, sampled the wine, and sent the samples to ETS laboratory in St. Helena. The results were interesting, as there was no correlation between the washed grapes versus the unwashed grapes. All of the samples had less than 3 micrograms per liter of guaiacol (smoke flavor) and some were in the 1.3 range. What does this mean? It means we have low risk of smoke flavor in the wines.
We picked 14.5 tons of Sauvignon Blanc on a smoky day, August 22nd. The fire was burning up toward Cedar Mountain. On the 9th of September, we picked 16.7 tons of Chardonnay during an ash cloud event. Then, on the 15th we picked Merlot and Malbec for Rosé. It was a clear day for a change. In all cases, I cold-settled the juice and racked it off before fermenting. As I am recapping, I am tasting the wines with pleasure. So far so good.
We picked our Grenache Blanc on the 17th and our Cabernet Franc on the 19th of September. It was really fun to get out there with some of our tasting room staff and actually pick the fruit and bring it to the winery for processing. Then reality hit us on the 24th and 26th when we harvested the Clone 15 one day and the Clone 8 (both Cabernet Sauvignon from our estate) the other day. Both days were more than 50 bins. Long days in the warm weather. We grabbed the Clone 15 and Clone 30 from the Lucky 8 Vineyard, which turned out to be another 50 plus bin day. So far, the Cabernets have great color and intense flavors. Time will tell us whether the smoke has affected our vintage but I’m feeling pretty good so far. We should be finished harvesting everything by the 20th of October.
Yields have been spot on, with the exception of the Clone 15 at Lucky 8 Vineyard. I miscalculated that block, as it came in heavier than expected. The quality is great. I will have to pay closer attention next year. The young vineyard at Lucky 8 is really coming along now that we are through 4th leaf. Our Chardonnay was about 5 tons per acre and Sauvignon Blanc was almost 7. Our red grapes are closer to 3.5 tons, with the exception of the Clone 15 at Lucky 8, which was just over 4 tons per acre. I am very pleased with the progress in our vineyards and look forward to enjoying some of our wines on the patio soon.
A new harvest season means new tunes.
Jump into the new season with our sounds of harvest alongside our October harvest updates…
Please let us know your thoughts on these October harvest updates! Did you learn anything? If so, what did you learn? What are you most looking forward to trying from the 2020 vintage? We look forward to hearing from you.
By Mark Clarin and Laina Carter of McGrail Vineyards
Autumn is just around the corner, but in the vineyard a new season has already begun! Harvest has started here at McGrail Vineyards and we want to share this new chapter with you. We asked Winemaker Mark Clarin to share his thoughts on our 2020 vintage to give our friends an idea of what can be expected of our newest vintage!
The vintage has been almost picture perfect this year. We had adequate rainfall, along with an early budbreak. The weather through bloom was dry and mild. No mess, no stress, as they say. Summer has been moderately warm, up until the end of August, and then bam–heatwave, thunder and lightning, fire, smoke and more heat! This is definitely going to be an interesting harvest season. There is no telling how the apocalypse will affect the wines. After 41 crushes, I keep telling anyone who will listen that every vintage is different, though some are more memorable than others.
We kicked off our vintage on August 22nd this year, as we harvested Sauvignon Blanc from our Lucky 8 Vineyard. It was a smoke-filled day and everyone wore masks during the processing. The masks were doing double duty as we are trying to protect from COVID-19, as well as the smoke.
We followed up with Chardonnay on the 8th of September. The trend is an early harvest so far and I anticipate it to continue. We are getting ready to pick Malbec and Merlot for Rose and we will be about 25% through picking this year.
Yields so far have been good and the fruit quality is excellent! The juice tastes great and I hope the finished ferments will be just as good. In general, we are picking about a week or so earlier than last year. If all goes well, I’ll be on vacation mid-October.
-Mark Clarin, Winemaker
A new season means new tunes.
Jump into the new season with our sounds of harvest…
By Mark Clarin, Heather McGrail, and Laina Carter of McGrail Vineyards
If you’ve ever been to a McGrail Vineyards Release Party or Barrel Tasting Weekend at McGrail, you’ve likely spoken to or seen Mark Clarin. You’ve probably even seen him jamming downtown, at other wineries, or local breweries, in one of the various bands he belongs to. Mark, standing at approximately 6′ 4″, is known for rocking a horseshoe mustache, tie-dye tees, cargo shorts, flip flops, and a ponytail. He is nearly impossible to miss. His unmistakable style isn’t even the thing that makes him stand out the most; his wine is pretty extraordinary, too.
We asked Mark to answer some questions about himself, as well as about what he’s got going on in the vineyard now and what happens in the vineyard at McGrail in the early springtime. Allow us to introduce you to our winemaker, Mark Clarin, through some quick Qs and As. We hope you find his answers both humorous and valuable, as we did, and we hope it gives you a better understanding of why we love our talented, but goofy winemaker so much.
Question: Can you tell us just a little bit about yourself? Are you married? Do you have kids?
Answer: I am married with children–a boy and a girl. The girl has a girl, so I am a grandpa called Poppy.
Q: What is your background in the wine industry and how did you get into wine?
A: Winemaking found me! I got a job at a local winery when I was 20 years old. Prior to that, I was in construction. I grew up in Livermore and sort of fell into the business. I have always been drawn to hard work and art. I’m a musician as well, which has an interesting correlation to winemaking. In music, you have to learn when not to play. With winemaking, you have to be patient and learn when not to panic. Wine is a living thing and is constantly changing. Knowing what to do when is the key, which is similar to music.
Q: When did you first start at McGrail?
A: I started consulting in 2006, before crush.
Q: What is your favorite McGrail memory?
A: While giving a tour a few years ago, I had a customer ask me what I do all year, because I only have to work, like, two weeks per year. It was insulting, yet funny. I work at least four weeks a year. Sheesh.
Q: What do you love most about working at McGrail Vineyards?
A: There are so many things to like. Number one is the team. When we first started producing wine, we made a plan to focus on making great wine. Our primary focus has been Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the king of wine in my mind. We have added a few varieties over the years, but our original goal remains the same–to make great wine.
The property is amazing with spectacular views which I get to visit every day. The estate vineyard is world class and we added the Lucky 8 vineyard in 2015. This affords us the unique opportunity to control our farming, in order to make the best wines possible. This circles back to the original plan.
I cannot forget our club members. We have the best club members, many of whom have been with us from the beginning. Without them I have no reason to make wine.
Q: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned at McGrail so far?
A: How to install a giant flagpole on release Saturday with a bunch of high school kids.
Q: What is your favorite thing about working with Cabernet Sauvignon?
A: It is the king of wine. It grows exceptionally well here in the Livermore Valley. It is a small berry with thick skin and loose clusters that afford good air flow to minimize disease. Cabernet can take a little rain in the fall, as long as it doesn’t rain for more than a couple of days and we get wind to help dry things out. Other tighter cluster varieties don’t have that luxury. Cabernet is very consistent year to year for us. This is important, as we try to make sure the wines stay consistently great. I do like to drink it, too.
Q: What is going on in the vineyard during bud break and what does it signify to you as a winemaker?
A: During bud break, the dormant vines show the first green growth of the year. The buds unfurl small leaves that continue to grow (up to 1” per day!), as shoots, tendrils, and tiny pre-clusters develop. Bud break signifies a new vintage on the horizon and another opportunity to make some amazing wine. It is always an exciting and optimistic time to be in the vineyard, as it confirms the circle of life.
Q: Why is Lucky 8 usually the first vineyard to show bud break each year?
A: In 2016 we planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Since that time, our Chardonnay pushes buds first, followed by the Sauvignon Blanc. This is common throughout the valley. Our hillside Cabernet Sauvignon is usually the first of that variety to break bud. The Lucky 8 vineyard is a bit cooler than our estate vineyard, but Chardonnay is an early ripener, and therefore, an early bud breaker.
Q: What does a typical day in early spring look like for you?
A: Springtime is time for blending, which requires a fair amount of sampling and tasting. Topping off barrels is a continuous task throughout the year. It is also time to review the barrel order to take advantage of any early order opportunities. Keeping an eye on the vineyard as the buds begin to push and we begin a new year. I am fortunate that I am in the vineyard every day, if only for a brief moment. Usually, we have some sort of reason to get together and taste with our club members. We also bottle quite a bit of our production in the spring.
Q: What is your favorite winemaking memory?
A: Barrel fermenting Cabernet Sauvignon in a cave. Very labor intensive, but fun.
Q: If you could make wine anywhere else in the world, where would it be, and why?
A: Douro Valley, Portugal. The vineyards are grown on steep slopes made up of shale. Everything has to be done by hand in the vineyard. The people are very nice and the weather is similar to California. The soil comes through in the wine with lots of minerality. I have not been to the Rhone, which I could probably get used to quickly.
Q: What would you like people to know about you?
A: I am generally happy. I am very tolerant, but once you lose my respect you will never get it back.
Q: Would you care to share an embarrassing story about yourself?
A: While visiting another winery, a staff member named Joy handed me a glass of what I assumed was their Rose and asked my opinion. I responded with something like, “well, it doesn’t suck”. It turned out to be my Rose because she tricked me.
Q: What is your favorite movie and why?
A: The Wizard of Oz. I love the songwriting. Very clever.
Q: Is there anything people would be surprised to learn about you?
A: I sometimes talk in my sleep and I hear that I snore, but I haven’t caught myself yet.
Q: What is your favorite wine & food pairing?
A: Beef tenderloin and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Get a taste of Mark’s winemaking abilities yourself! Purchase McGrail wine here.