Tag: mcgrail vineyards

Wine Production

A New Season: Harvest 2020

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 all. We asked McGrail Winemaker Mark Clarin to share his thoughts on our 2020 vintage to give our friends and patrons 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

Harvest at McGrail Vineyards
Harvest at McGrail Vineyards

A new season means new tunes.

Jump into the new season with our sounds of harvest…

Harvest at McGrail Vineyards
Harvest at McGrail Vineyards

Wine Production

Qs and As with Our Winemaker, Mark Clarin

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.

Photo by Ron Essex.

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.

Vineyard Related

FEBRUARY 2020: Vineyard Dormancy, Maintenance, & Weather

Sunshine and our recently pruned estate vines.

By Laina Carter and Mark Clarin of McGrail Vineyards

February was an incredibly busy month in the vineyards, but unseasonably so, as our vines are currently dormant and February tends to be a pretty uneventful month for our vineyards. There are countless facets to grape growing and external factors affecting grapevines that no year and no season are ever the same.


Dormancy & Pruning

Grapevines, like most perennials, undergo a dormancy stage, which is essentially a hibernation period for these plants. The vines have stored all of their nutrients in their roots, leaving the once vivacious, fruitful shoots dry and void of leaves and fruit. Dormancy allows grapevines to tolerate winter weather and gives them time to prepare for budbreak in the spring. Like hibernating animals, the vines are waiting for warmer temperatures before once again using the energy they have stored up to become active and begin growing again.

The most critical vineyard practice that occurs during dormancy is pruning. For us, pruning usually happens around February, when the vines are completely bare and nearing the end of their dormancy. This year, we began pruning our estate vines at the end of January and continued with our Lucky 8 Vineyard through the beginning of February.

Our recently pruned estate vines.

Each year, we prune last year’s growth back to the cordon. Our vineyards are currently pruned to two bud spur positions. These positions are kept approximately a fist apart along the cordon in order to keep the new shoot growth separated for later when the fruit sets.

A vineyard worker pruning our estate vines.

Pruning is important because it gives us the ability to determine the number and position of shoots on the vine, and will therefore determine cluster count and quality of wine. The reason we prune back is to control consistency in production and to make sure we can still walk down the rows and properly manage the vineyard. There are many tasks throughout the growing season that require hand manipulation. Since grapevines are vines, they seem to have a mind of their own and want to grow in wild directions. Our trellis allows us to control the vines so that we can manage yields and quality.


Vineyard Re-Development

Our winemaker Mark planting new vines at our Lucky 8 property in 2018.

Our estate vineyard was originally planted in 1999 and is now at the end of its ideal productive life. We have sixteen and a half acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and it has, and still continues, to serve us well. At some point, the need to replant is fast-approaching, so we are taking out a section of approximately three acres this year to be replanted again in 2022. Since we have our new Lucky 8 vineyard coming into full production, it affords us the opportunity to re-develop our estate vineyard.

The area at the front of our property where we have removed nearly three acres of vines.
A pile of vines that have been pulled from the area at the front of our property where we have removed nearly three acres of vines.

It takes about three years for new plantings to come into full production. It’s about a five-year process when you have to remove a vineyard, because you want to leave the ground fallow for a year. If we have to remove all 16.7 acres at once, we would lose production for five years. By doing it in small quantities, we will still be able to produce our cherished Patriot, James Vincent, A Jó Élet “the Good Life,” and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon through the re-development phase. This February we began our vineyard re-development by removing about three acres of Cabernet vines at the front of our estate property. It will take up to ten years for us to replant the whole vineyard and up to twenty years to get back into full production.


Vineyard Drought

Our recently pruned vines at Lucky 8.

We are currently at the beginning of March, 2020 and we haven’t seen significant rainfall since early January, which is quite a bit different from what the last few winters we’ve experienced. December was fairly wet and we were on course to having a “normal” winter when the new year decided to change all that. We tried a little irrigating this past week to trick the vines into thinking it’s still winter. The windy weather has really dried things out and the hills are turning brown, which is very unusual for this time of year. We’re hoping this month brings rain again and more importantly, a decent snow-pack in the Sierra mountains, but time will tell. Until then, we will continue to irrigate as needed.


Unseasonably Warm Temperatures

On February 26th in 2018, there was snow on Mt. Diablo and snow on Mt. Hamilton, which is wildly different from the weather we experienced on the same day this year, with sunshine and a high of 76˚F.

The view from our estate property of snow on Mount Diablo on February 26th, 2018.
A bud in our estate vineyard in April of 2019.

Although we have had some warm late winters in years past, these temperatures can be of concern for grape growers. Air temperatures of 50°F are the threshold of below which grapevines refuse to grow. This means that enough days with a mean air temperature of 50°F or above could cause budbreak in the vineyards. Since an earlier budbreak during a warm late winter hasn’t really happened for us before, we aren’t too worried; however, an early budbreak could result in damage to the vines if spring frost occurs. We are keeping our fingers crossed that our vines don’t come out of dormancy this week! 


Grape growing is definitely not for the faint of heart. 

Vineyard Related

The Importance of Pruning and Vineyard Replacement

By Mark Clarin of McGrail Vineyards

Newly pruned Cabernet Sauvignon vines and trimmings in McGrail’s estate vineyard

The Importance of Pruning

A simple illustration of a vine with two bud spurs

It’s that time of year again in the vineyard, when we prune last year’s growth back to the cordon. Our vineyards are currently pruned to two bud spur positions. These positions are kept approximately a fist apart along the cordon in order to keep the new shoot growth separated for later when the fruit sets.

The reason we prune back is to control consistency in production and to make sure we can still walk down the rows and properly manage the vineyard. There are many tasks throughout the growing season that require hand manipulation. Since grapevines are vines, they seem to have a mind of their own and want to grow in wild directions. Our trellis allows us to control the vines so that we can manage yields and quality.

Newly pruned Cabernet Sauvignon vines on McGrail’s estate
A vineyard worker pruning Cabernet Sauvignon vines on McGrail’s estate

Vineyard Replacement

Our estate vineyard was originally planted in 1999 and is now at the end of its ideal productive life. We have sixteen and a half acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and it has, and still continues, to serve us well. At some point, the need to replant is fast-approaching, so we are taking out a section of approximately three acres this year to be replanted again in 2022. Since we have our new Lucky 8 vineyard coming into full production, it affords us the opportunity to re-develop our estate vineyard. 

McGrail’s estate vineyard in fall of 2019
McGrail’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

It takes about three years for new plantings to come into full production. It’s about a five-year process when you have to remove a vineyard, because you want to leave the ground fallow for a year. If we have to remove all 16.7 acres at once, we would lose production for five years. By doing it in small quantities, we will still be able to produce our cherished Patriot, James Vincent, A Jó Élet “the Good Life,” and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon through the re-development phase. It will take up to ten years for us to replant the whole vineyard and up to 20 years to get back into full production. Grape growing is definitely not for the faint of heart. 

Winemaker Mark Clarin planting new vines at McGrail’s Lucky 8 Vineyard on Tesla Road in Livermore