IT'S HARVEST TIME IN CALIFORNIA'S VINEYARDS, and one of the most important decisions that vintners will make involves hang time. In wine parlance, hang time refers not to how long a punted football hangs in the air, but to the length of time between flowering and harvest-in other words, how long the grapes hang on the vine. The decision of precisely when to pick is crucial, because although winemakers can make some adjustments in the winery, if the flavors aren't in the grapes, the wine isn't going to taste very good.
It used to be that wine grapes were harvested strictly according to sugar levels-which is often still the case with large-scale farming operations. But almost all of today's artisan winemakers will tell you that they now pick based on flavor or physiological ripeness. But what, precisely, does that mean? Ripe grapes are ripe grapes, right?
Well, not exactly. Ripeness has become a moving target in recent years. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, back when grapes were picked primarily based on sugar numbers, most table wine contained 12.5 percent to 13 percent alcohol. These days, wines under 13 percent are in short supply, wines over 15 percent are no longer an anomaly and there are increasing numbers of non-fortified table wines that check in over 16 percent. That means the grapes are being allowed to get riper, because higher sugar content translates into higher alcohol content.
Even winemakers can't always agree on a definition of ripeness. Physiological ripeness generally is understood to encompass such factors as seed color (brown, not green), skin color, the texture of the grape pulp and, of course, flavor. Some winemakers don't mind if the fruit is a little shriveled; others try to avoid any wrinkling. Some check for factors like acidity and pH; others rely less on the grapes' chemistry.
Winemaker Mike Dashe of Oakland's Dashe Cellars says that long hang time can be a good thing, but he is "not willing to have higher-alcohol wines in order to have more hang time. If things are ripening and sugars are going to go way high, I can't afford to [wait]," he says. Dashe's wines, primarily Zinfandels, tend to hover in the mid-to-high 14 percent alcohol range.
Jeff Cohn, an associate winemaker for Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda who makes his own wine under the JC Cellars label in Oakland (where he shares a facility with Dashe), has a slightly different view. Although Cohn says, "I don't want to pick overripe," he adds, "I want to pick it when it's best-and if that means 26 brix, it means 26 brix." (Brix is a measure of sugar content; grapes picked at 26 brix will result in a wine that's about 15 percent alcohol.) Many of Cohn's wines for Rosenblum and JC Cellars hit 15 or even 16 percent alcohol.
Extended hang time has become a sore point with growers, most of who sell their grapes based on weight. If a grape is allowed to hang long enough, it starts to shrivel. Sugars rise and flavors concentrate, but moisture is lost, so the grape weighs less-which means the grower gets paid less. To make matters worse, it's not unusual for a winemaker to add water to the grapes in the winery to rehydrate the fruit, a practice known as "watering back." Within limits, the practice is legal; California law says winemakers may add "no water in excess of the minimum amount necessary to facility normal fermentation."
Extended hang time carries other risks for growers, too. A major one is rain, especially when the harvest extends into late October or even into November. Rain can cause rot and render the grapes unsuitable for high-quality wine.
Magazine deadlines being what they are, as I write this, I have no idea what sort of conditions will affect the 2006 harvest. Will there be heat spikes, as in 2004? Or a slow, uniform period of ripening, as in 2005? But no matter the conditions, in vineyards all over California, growers and winemakers will almost certainly be conferring-and perhaps arguing-about when to pick. _