VERDE VALLEY - By any standard, the Verde Valley's vineyards are youngsters. Even the oldest can barely boast having seen the last century.
So it is no wonder that those who planted and continue to tend those vines are still learning what works and what doesn't. The experiments, they will tell you, are ongoing and will continue into the foreseeable future.
That is why, in many ways, the harvest of 2011 exemplifies their continuing efforts to "get it right."
The difficulties of "getting it right" are different for each vineyard owner. What's working in Cottonwood or Camp Verde may or may not be working on lower Oak Creek.
And when it comes to weather, the only thing they all have in common is that they have learned to expect the unexpected.
"This year I'd say things were a little strange," says Eric Glomski, owner of the Page Springs Vineyard Cellars. "We are going to be about 80 percent done with picking this week. And normally this is about when we start. It is extremely early this year."
The cause says Glomski is an unusually warm August, in which evening temperatures have not cooled as much as usual.
"We were supposed to have a new crush pad up and going a month ago, but we've had problems. I've been telling everyone that the reason the grapes are coming in so early is because we aren't ready to deal with them. It's Murphy's law," says Glomski.
Like several other owners Glomski began the year taking a hit from unusually cold weather, when single digit temperatures froze several hundred vines throughout the valley. He is making changes to see it doesn't happen again.
"Our yield is low this year because of a severe winter and frost this spring. We have planted 16 acres of vines in the hills above, to avoid the frost down on the valley floor. We expect they will surpass our older vines in the next year," says
Around the corner from Glomski's, Javalina Leap Vineyard owner Rod Snapp is also picking early. But regardless of the timing and the temperatures, the crop, he says, is good this year.
"It's fabulous. The most fruit we've ever gotten and the best fruit we've ever had," says Snapp. "We actually had to thin some of our vines, because they were so young and the clusters so large.
They were threatening to break the plants."
Snapp says he expects about three tons from his relatively young, 3.5-acre vineyard.
"We're happy. Every drop counts," he says.
Alcantara Vineyard, the valley's largest, is expecting a record year and higher yields per acre than what they have seen in the past.
"Most of our vines are now 5 years old, which means they are fully mature. Our crop of merlot is yielding over three tons an acre and the clusters are enormous," says owner Bob Predmore. "We are expecting to finish with 22 to 23 tons this year."
The bountiful harvest is allowing Alcantara winemaker Joe Bechard to do some experimenting of his own, over and above what's taking place in the vineyard.
"All this fruit has given us enough juice to try some different fermentation regimens. For instance we have three bins of whole clusters. It will translate to a richer more full-bodied wine. We will have a real variety this year," Bechard says.
Barbara Predmore says such experimentation is one of the great advantages of having a boutique winery.
"Because everything we do is basically by hand, we can try some stuff the larger wineries aren't set up for," she says. "We feel that's one of the more important reasons why the valley's wines are gaining a reputation for quality."