The Spectre of September Rain
This years grape harvest in California is running eight to 14 days ahead of schedule, which is an enormous relief to raisin farmers, especially this year. They are even more frightened than usual about the threat of September rain, says Bill Peacock, the Fresno County farm adviser and a grape expert. The cause for concern is all the talk about an El Nino weather condition forming in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, portending a very wet winter for California.
Making raisins is a surprisingly low-tech exercise, which explains why they are so vulnerable to rain in September. The bunches of fruit, after being cut, are left to dry on paper trays on the ground right there in the field between the rows of vines. In sunny, dry weather, the grapes will shrivel into raisins in two or three weeks. But a rain shower while theyre still on the ground can turn an entire years investment in a field of grapes into a stinking, moldy pile of putrifying mush in a matter of hours.
A pair of writers who live on farms in the heart of raisin country outside of Fresno have vividly described in their recent books the economic and psychological devastation that can be sewn by an inch of September rain. The acute anxiety stems from the fact that the longer the grapes are left on the vine, adding weight and sugar, the higher the quality and value of the raisins but also the greater the threat of rain.
In Epitaph for a Peach, his book about his efforts to keep alive an old variety of peach, David Mas Masumoto devotes a chapter -- entitled "September is not to be trusted" -- to his familys misfortunes with untimely rain. "I grieve with a September rain, not from physical pain but from hurt inside," Masumoto writes.
Victor Hanson, a professor of classics and Greek at Fresno State University, who lives on his fifth-generation family farm near Selma, traces September angst among grape growers back several millenia. In The Other Greeks, his book published last year in which he makes the case that entrepreneurial small farmers were the backbone of ancient Greek civilization, Hanson quotes the first century Roman agronomist Columella on the subject. "If he waits for the full ripening of the grapes, he may forfeit the vintage," Columella observed in his encyclopedia of agronomy, De Re Rustica (Country Matters). (Click here to seen an interview with Hanson.)
Deciding when to harvest is a nerve-wracking gamble "pounding in a farmers brain, year in, year out," writes Hanson. "Small wonder it is that the pacing, frowning farmer has a reputation for instability."
Even a forecast of a chance of rain can force farmers to take action.
"I will make decisions based on his call," writes Masumoto, of the TV weatherman. "One tenth of an inch could possible be tolerated, a quarter of an inch of rain requires action (like rolling trays to protect them from the moisture). Thousands of dollars could be spend because of the difference between one tenth and one quarter of an inch of rain."
The rule of thumb for avoiding disaster that Hanson learned from his grandfather was, "Have em all in the sweat box by the equinox." But that goal of having finished raisins out of the field by the third week of September is often unattainable, because of seasonal labor shortages not to mention weather mishaps.
This year, the grape crop started out eight days to two weeks earlier than usual, and has never fallen off that accelerated pace, thanks to ideal weather for grapes, says Peacock. It was a hot summer, consistently in the 90s, but not so blazing hot that the plants were set back by heat stress.
By the start of September a good percentage of the raisin crop was already in the bag, and the harvest was far enough along that every last raisin was on track to be done by October 1, an accomplishment that hasnt been achieved in years. Hopefully, El Nino rains, if in fact they are coming, will wait until after then to visit California.
Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef