Vin Connections Fall Wines (October 2003)


Celebrate Harvest With These Perfect Fall Wines
The leaves are turning, the days grow short and the pumpkins are ripe. Think comfort food and rich wines that celebrate the last of Indian Summer and warm you from the inside out.

Late summer in Wine Country. The birds are drawn to the sweetening fruit, as the carefully planted and tended grapes ripen in preparation for the annual event known as “crush.”

A few weeks ago my wife and I were lucky enough to spend several days in the Napa Valley, home to nearly 300 Wineries, in the middle of the harvest frenzy. The annual pilgrimage results in traffic jams and No Vacancy signs in the valley’s myriad inns, B&Bs and hotels, as wine lovers (yours truly included) savor the activity, aroma and excitement of crush.

In Napa, the most obvious signs for visitors are the roadside placards luring patrons into the tasting rooms dotting the countryside, as they invite you to enjoy special harvest-related tasting events and tours. Tractors on the road and trucks laden with fresh-picked grapes on the Silverado Trail vie with rental cars, limos and tour buses down the narrow lanes that cross the valley floor.

While great fun for tourists, these events mask the utter seriousness of the harvest. For pickers, the wages they take home are set by the quantity of grapes brought in. For winemakers, the quality of the grapes, influenced in large part by when they are picked and how quickly they are crushed, can make or break the vintage. And for winery owners, the quality of the harvest often spells profits – or losses – for the year to come.

It’s easy to forget that wine making, at its heart, is farming. And farming is hard work, fraught with the uncertainties of Mother Nature. So as we’re enjoying our favorite wine, or trying a new one, raise a glass to those who work so hard each year – and succeed – at blending agriculture, art and science.


  • This Month’s Reader Question:
    “I know fall is the big harvest season…but how do the winemakers know when it’s time to pick the grapes?”
  • This Month’s Wine Pick:
  • This Month’s Quote:
    Ernest Hemingway, from “A Moveable Feast”


Q. “I know fall is the big harvest season…but how do the winemakers know when it’s time to pick the grapes?”
— Mike Kumar, Dallas, Texas

A. In every vineyard, the decision to start harvesting is as much art as science – and it’s a big one, because there’s no going back once you’ve started.

In short, the grapes are picked when they’re ripe. That’s when the structural elements of the fruit (the sugar, acid and tannins) are in perfect balance for the type of wine they’ll become. If the grapes are picked too early the wine won’t have enough alcohol or sugar, and it will be too acidic. Too late, and you end up with too much alcohol and low levels of tannins and acid, which are needed to give a wine its structure. And depending on the weather, the balancing point can change in days, or even hours.

Each vineyard block and each Varietal must be tasted, tested, planned, and picked at different times, all dictated by that “exact moment” when each grape reaches optimal ripeness.

Growers figure out the “right time” several different ways. They look at their records to help determine how long each vineyard has taken in the past. They also spend lots of time and energy determining the correct sugar levels, or “Brix”, a scale which is primarily a measurement of sugar in the grapes juice. (One degree Brix equals one gram of sugar per 100 grams of grape juice.)

Depending on the type of grape, most wines are harvested between 21 and 25 degrees Brix, though the ideal level of sugar is different for different wines. Grapes used in sparkling wine need to be lower in sugar, and are typically picked earlier in the harvest season. Grapes destined for “Late Harvest” wines are much sweeter (typically dessert wines), and are picked much later in the season, sometimes even after mold or frost have set in.

But sugar levels aren’t the only measurement of ripeness. It’s possible for grapes to hit sugar targets early, while falling short on flavor and aroma. And of course, Mother Nature rules all as cool weather can delay harvest and hot weather can speed it up. Ultimately, the decision to start harvesting is the single most important decision a winemaker must make each year.

That’s why the summer is spent preparing and planning the harvest in the greatest detail. Because once it starts, there’s no time to do anything but pick grapes, and get them crushed.

As complicated and impressive as this is, achieving balance in the vineyard is just the first step in an exceedingly long journey. After the grapes are harvested, they still need to be fermented, aged, blended and bottled.

Most wines from this year’s harvest won’t reach consumers for at least one to two years. But when it does come, I’ll be ready!



2000 Merlot, Canoe Ridge, Columbia Valley
IE: A$25, Grade A
1999 Merlot, Sumac Ridge, Black Sage Vineyard
Okanagan Valley, Canada
IE: A$11, Grade A
2000 Merlot, Richard Hamilton Lot 148, McLaren Vale
South Australia
IE: A$17, Grade A
2000 Merlot, Murphy-Goode Alexander Valley, Sonoma County
IE: A-, B+$10, Grade B+
2000 Merlot, Robert Skalli, Vin De Pays D’oc
Languedoc, France
IE: B+$10, Grade B+


2001 Gewьrztraminer, Sineann, Celilo Vineyard
Columbia Valley WA, USA
IE: A+$18, Grade A+
2001 Gewьrztraminer, Pierre Sparr, Rйserve
Alsace, France
IE: A+, B+$15, Grade A
2001 Gewьrztraminer, Navarro, Dry, Anderson Valley
Mendocino County CA, USA
IE: A-$15, Grade A-
2001 Gewьrztraminer, Saint Chapelle, Dry
IE: B+$6, Grade B+
2001 Gewьrztraminer, Pierre Sparr
Alsace, France
IE: B+$13 Grade B+


2000 Dolcetto, Fratelli Pecchenino, Siri d’Jermu, Dogliani
Piedmont, Italy

IE: A-, A
$29, Grade A
1999 Colpetrone, Rosso di Montefalco
Umbria, Italy
IE: A$14, Grade A
1998 Nociano, Rosso IGT
Umbria, Italy
IE: A-$9, Grade A-
1998 Sangiovese, Castello Vicchiomaggio,
La Prima Reserva Chianti Classico
Tuscany, Italy
IE: A-,B$25, Grade A
1999 Sangiovese, Capezzana Conte Contini Bonacossi
Tuscany, Italy
IE: A-$20, Grade A-


NV Muscat, Benjamin, Museum Release
Victoria, Australia
IE: A+
$16, Grade A+
1999 Late Harvest White Riesling, Greenwood Ridge
Mendocino County CA, USA
IE: A+$24, Grade A+
2001 Ice Wine, Selaks
Marlborough, New Zealand
IE: A-$15, Grade A-
1996 Port, Josй Maria da Fonseca, Late Bottled Vintage
Douro, Portugal
IE: A-, A$21, Grade A
2001 Pouilly-Fumй, Rйgis Minet, Vieilles Vignes
Loire, France
IE: A-$17, Grade A-

Wine Quote

Ernest Hemingway, from “A Moveable Feast”

“…we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast


Understanding our System

Grade: [A-]
Our grades represent a composite score developed using our proprietary system to blend wine quality and scoring information.

Vintage: 1999
This describes both the year of the actual grape harvest as well as the year the wine was made.

Price: $12
The prices quoted in the WPL are the “suggested retail prices” quoted by the wineries and the distributors. Though these are close to what you’d pay at the winery, you’ll often find discounts of 20% and more off these prices at retail.

Individual Evaluations: IE: A, A-, B+
This represents the number of individual reviews and ratings on which the composite grade is based, primarily representing individual reviews in top wine periodicals converted to our scale, and ratings by our tasting panel.

Wine PocketList Exclusive Categories: WPL: BBC, W, S, B
These are four exclusive WPL categories, and many wines rated by the PocketList will fall into one of these special designations.

[W] Widely Available:
These wines typically have bottling of 20,000 cases or more, making them widely available in most regions of the U.S.

[BBC] Top Buy-by-the-Case:
Based on multiple, outstanding reviews and a solid history, these are wines you can purchase by the case to grow your cellar with confidence today, and into the future!

[B] Bargain Wines:
Top-rated wines for $10 or less. Most of these can go head to head with a typical $30 bottle sporting a fancy label . . . and beat it hands down.

[S] Splurge Wines:
For most of us, spending more than $20 on a bottle of wine isn’t something we do lightly. These are wines that, while more expensive, are well worth the price.

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