Photo by Juan Alcón
The wine harvest ended just in time. This week the Rioja region of Spain has been dense with fog and rain, which would have been a disaster for the harvest. But it finished last week, under brilliant clear skies, hauling in an extraordinarily abundant crop of very high quality grape. But that's not the whole story.
The wine business is a gamble. I know virtually nothing about it, but even an innocent passerby can perceive the tension and anticipation in the last weeks before the harvest. The old guys in the villages look up to the heavens and sniff the air. The grand doyens of the wine world make their prognostications, more oracular than scientific, setting in motion the wheels of international opinion and marketing. Skinny tractors (which fit between the rows of vines) are oiled and polished, beds are set up for the hired hands. Farmers anxiously wonder what the big bodegas will pay per ton of grape. Laboratories fill with white-coated technicians, gauging just the right moment to harvest. Everyone watches the weather and talks about levels of sugar and acidity, color and pH.
This year, the winter was rainy and cold and the summer exceptionally hot and dry. By late summer, the grapes in many fields were lagging, not growing full enough for lack of water. Then in mid-September it rained, a mixed blessing: on the one hand it helped the fruit swell, but on the other it created anxieties that, if the rains were to continue, the grapes would lose their concentration or molder on the vine. I do not doubt that many candles were lighted in many families' niches to the various saints of weather and mercy. The last week of September was perfect, bright days and cool nights, and in the first days of October the harvest season was ushered in under the most auspicious of conditions. But good weather and quality grapes are not enough to guarantee that farms flourish.