THIS TIME OF YEAR vineyards from Burgundy to our West Coast are lush with fruit that is taking on color and beginning the long process of ripening. The sugar content of the grapes will rise steadily until harvest, which promises to be early this year. Hot days, and lack of rain, should produce the concentrated flavors that all winemakers value.
Travelers through wine country, from Maryland and Virginia to California, see brimming vineyards like green corduroy laid down over rolling hills. The various shades remind one of an overexposed photograph, with a haziness in the valleys, and an overall sense of order and absolute decorum. In fact the vineyard operators are terrified that pests -- rot, insects, animals, and people -- will evade the measures taken to keep them out of the vineyards and somehow wreck their prospects. In the meantime they are preparing machinery and the winery for harvest, marking time through the high summer before the intense activity of fall, when their entire yearly income, and their reputations, will be on the line.
August brings maturity to the grapes and an end to the development of sugar. Harvesting of the early-maturing varieties like chardonnay and pinot noir will begin first and continue into September, with riesling, chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc joining the march to the winery.
By October cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and even the late-harvest grapes will have been gathered. Then all effort and concentration moves indoors, and the work of the entire year comes to bear. The winemaker's skill, dedication and objectives, in combination with the raw product -- vats of soupy, unappetizing "must" -- will produce fine wine, mediocre wine, and occasionally awful wine, although that category is rarely recognized by the winemaker himself.
By November, winemakers and viticulturists have time to relax, to entertain visitors and maybe take a trip themselves. Some irrigation is done in California in dry years. The vines are dormant by December, and then pruning begins, to control the size of the crop and, incidentally, the quality of the fruit for the following harvest. The canes that produced that year's grapes are cut off.
Pruning continues into the new year. With spring come weeds that have to be turned over. The new canes are trained up onto the trellises, and some fertilizing is done. The vineyardist anxiously awaits "bud break" -- the official sign of the new season -- and more anxiously waits to see if frost will spare them. Suckers, the new shoots, are cut off the vines.
The collections of buds begin to resemble tiny grape clusters, and they can be counted to estimate what the total harvest will be. These bunches usually grow up to be the real thing, with help from nature. If the weather is bad -- cold, windy or overcast during the crucial two-week period -- the flowers may not "set" and be pollinated.
Once the grapes form, the viticulturist earnestly takes up his weapons against pests and weeds..
A bottle of wine is a cyclical object. We tend to think of it as the only thing that matters, when in fact it is a small and somewhat removed part of a larger process. Wine begins and ends in those vineyards stretched out along the edges of secondary roads: beautiful, precarious, as old as any industry.