The first unit in my WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) Diploma Level studies is Viticulture and Vinification. I have an extremely dense (also extremely dry) textbook. And while the textbook has details-a-plenty, I’m always on the lookout for extra-curricular opportunities to reinforce the material in that Leviathan.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a sample bottle of Rombauer Vineyard’s 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon. I tasted Rombauer’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon line-up last year, which inspired a little 80s flashback tangent (do you remember who shot JR?). As I read through the literature Rombauer sent me for the 2014 vintage, I stopped at two things: NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) and optical sorting.
Pretty sure those aren’t in my book.
Lots of folks are talking about the 2014 vintage in Napa as a dream. Mother Nature dealt a great hand — warm and dry conditions, allowing grapes to fully ripen and concentrate their flavors. In the hands of an adept winemaker, that bounty translates to terrific vino.
So what do NDVI and optical sorting have to do with this dreamy vintage?
Rombauer Vineyards is using drones equipped with specialized cameras to monitor the health and vigor of their vineyards. There’s some complicated math and science behind all this, but very basically, the cameras have sensors that capture near-infrared light (which is outside the visible spectrum). The images are then analyzed using the NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), which measures greenness, or photosynthesis activity. The photo below is from one of Rombauer’s single vineyards. The different colors indicate the health and vigor of the vines — the areas in blue indicate the highest vigor; the areas in red indicate lower vigor.
Armed with NDVI information, winemakers can tailor their viticultural practices to specific vines.
My mind is a little bit blown.
Now, what about this optical sorting?
All of the fruit for this wine was hand picked (not as fun as it sounds) and optically sorted. What does that mean? An optical sorter is a high-speed machine that uses cameras to sort grapes according to specific parameters (size, shape, color, quality, etc.) It also kicks out all of the MOG (material other than grapes — rogue stems, leaves, bugs, etc.).
Because no one likes stinkbug wine.
Optical sorting is a relatively new technology (within the last handful of years), very high-tech, and very expensive. It eliminates the need for manual sorting (with human eyeballs), which is extremely tedious and boring. Sure, it’s fun for the first 9,000 grapes, but after that it’s just drudgery. Optical sorting may become increasingly popular as labor shortages continue to plague California wineries.
If you’ve never seen an optical order in action before, it’s worth clicking the play button:
So, how does all this NDVI and optical sorting actually taste??
2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/90
A blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Merlot. Sourced from vineyards in Stags Leap, Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder, St. Helena, Calistoga and Rutherford. Aged for 17 months in 70% new French oak.
Tasting Note: Medium purple in color with a slight magenta ombre at the rim. Expressive and inviting nose of black currant, black plum, vanilla, cedar, and sage. Fruit is driving this bus, but the secondary players are developing. Dry and well balanced, with an extroverted approachability. The alcohol is rather high at 14.5%, but it’s well-integrated, read as: not burning my esophagus. Ripe (but not overripe, and that’s important) flavors of black cherry, black plum, tobacco, violets, kirsch, eucalyptus, and cocoa. There’s no place like Napa. Suggested retail = $55.
Pairing: Seared bison steaks with garlic butter. Talk about dreamy.