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Huge unexpected early rain storm could compromise 2009 Cabernet vintage

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Up until three days ago the conventional wisdom across California was “2009, fantastic vintage.” The season was cool and dry. A few heat spikes here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. Some vintners, like Scott McLeod, at Rubicon, even told me, in early September, he was experiencing the Holy Grail: “Things taste better at lower brix.”

A freaky rainstorm caught everybody by surprise on Sept. 12-13, but it was quickly replaced by a big, fat high pressure ridge that brought warm weather and sunshine back. Mild breezes, too, which for most quality vineyards eliminated any danger of mold or mildew caused by the storm’s residual moisture in the vines.

A major heat wave developed a week later and lasted the better part of a week. That made growers uncomfortable, but the better ones were able to manage it through proper trellising and irrigation regimes. Fortunately, at the end of the month a huge cool-down occurred, just what the vines needed to recover. As October arrived, the cool pattern continued — there was even record cold by Oct. 9. But it remained dry. By then, most of the Pinot Noir had been picked, so the 2009 vintage for that variety could indeed be spectacular. But Cabernet, as well as Syrah, might not fare as well.

Indeed, on Oct. 9, which was a Friday, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers announced, in the most hopeful terms, that “the 2009 harvest is in full swing and the grapes being harvested are of superior quality. Growers are predicting an incredible vintage and are hoping for a continuation of the mild weather pattern, minus the heat wave that was experienced in recent weeks.” It’s true, their press released admitted, that “We’re keeping a close eye on the rain forecast for Tuesday (Oct. 13).” But, it added, “on the positive, Cab is very tough & could handle some rain.”

Well, here it is Wednesday Oct. 14, and as it turns out, the storm wasn’t “some rain,” it was a real gullywasher, the powerful remnant of a Japanese typhoon carried into California by the jet stream. Never, it’s being said, has California experienced a storm this big, this early in the rainy season. According to the T.V. weatherman, rain totals as of this morning in wine country ranged between 6 and 9 inches, in less than 24 hours. That is spectacular.

My guess is that most of the Pinot has been picked, although there could be far Sonoma Coast Pinot and even Chardonnay that hasn’t been. The big problem is Cabernet and coastal Syrah. If the vines are on a steep slope, it’s probably okay. The flatlands, though, could suffer from mold and rot. Those vintners who rushed to pick over this past weekend in advance of the storm may well have done so out of fear, before the grapes were ripe. And those who decided to brave the storm in hopes it would be manageable may be finding out, in coming days, that it wasn’t. The rain will lower brix, requiring even longer hang time to make up the deficit, which pushes harvest further out into October and even November. The end result could be a classic case of “Who picked before the rains and who didn’t?” What looked like a fabulous Cabernet (and Syrah) vintage could be the most challenging in years.

  1. Steve, wouldn’t one option for the early pickers be to extract less from the grapes? I’d expect that would limit the hard tannins and potentially green flavors to some extent. I think vignerons in Bordeaux and the Loire take this approach when the vintage dictates it. I suppose this is not the Napa style, to express vintage instead of power. But maybe it could lead to some interesting, elegant wines. Or also wines with tougher tannins and higher acid that will require some age to come into their own.

  2. Greg, interesting you should say that. I’ve heard some chatter this morning about maybe this being a more elegant, French-style Cabernet harvest. We’ll just have to see.

  3. Steve,

    That cooldown turned to frost in some places. That would arrest grape development if the leaves were damaged.

    see here: http://bit.ly/ImHAr

    Most growers are not concerned about the late ripeners (and some pointed out that autumn rains are pare for the course in the Rhone). Coastal Syrah has about a week to go so my sense is that people are not all that alarmed. With a bump in heat most are not worried (except those that might have seen some frost damage). Most people are also suggesting that besides the coming heat, the winds which are part of this storm should help dry the clusters out. (But all that is moot if 1. grapes are hung out to become rasins and 2. that is how many in the wine buying and writing realm like them anyway)

  4. Arthur: I don’t really like raisiny wines, myself.

  5. The indirect points there, Steve, were that: 1. most grapes are hung out way too long (some stop short of raisins but all that “ripening” past 23 or 24 Brix is just dessication and loss of acids) and 2. if there is a perceived need for “extended hang time”, then it originates in one of two places: a. an irrational fear of vegetal characteristics – which often are just a nanometer short of the point of ideal ripeness, (ie true varietal character and complexity, etc) or b. the inconvenient truth that the particular variety has no business growing in a particular location (GASP!).

  6. Steve, it will probably depend on where in the valley the grapes are. Just from talking to growers and other wineries, I get the sense that most of the Cabernet in the St. Helena area was already picked (we finished ours a week ago). That is, except for a few winemakers who like to go for super-long hang time.

    On the other hand, I know that there is still some hanging further South.

    Bob Dye
    Charnu Winery

  7. Some growers I’ve talked to have suggested that it’s not the amount of rain but the duration of wet weather that is key. This storm turned out to be large but pretty quick, with lots of sunny weather in the forecast. So perhaps that will mitigate its impact, especially with Cabernet, a tough variety.

    On the matter of amount, however, I should add that it’s terribly incorrect to say “rain totals as of this morning in wine country ranged between 6 and 9 inches, in less than 24 hours.” in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a *single* location in Napa/Sonoma that had six inches. The 24-hour total at the extreme south end of Napa Valley (Napa County Airport) was 3.65 inches; Yountville’s total was 3.64 inches; the Dry Creek Fire Station in the hills below Mount Veeder had 4.29; Atlas Peak 4.72; and Angwin 4.60. In Sonoma County, the highest 24-hour total I could find was at the Venado station, way up in the coastal range, and even at that historically extremely wet location the total was 5.16. More typical in Sonoma were totals like that at the Santa Rosa airport, 3.54 inches.

  8. Happy Winemaker says:

    This rain may force balance at the crushpad this year. Oh darn, we in this industry may actually have to make more flavorful, delicate wines! I’m custom crushing for a new client who was completely upset he and his partner had to pick last saturday (prerain) his cab which by the time the must hit the bins, it was 24.2 birx with moderate shrivel. Once the overly ripe raisens sugar up, he’ll have at least 25.5 brix. 25.5 X .60 = 15.3% future alc!!! What the hell is he complaining about? What kind of bizarro world do we live in when someone is at the point of dulusion because he didn’t get his desired level of shrivel. I wanted to tell him to quit his bitchin and be happy that Mom Nature decided to check in and help these poor souls make a more balanced wine. (although 24.4 brix at crush is still way to porty for me).

    Waaaah to those who were hoping for Parker level sugars.

  9. Steve…obviously the harvest could be ruinous for some, but right now I think it might be a reprieve from all the “other” issues that Californian winery owners and winemakers are facing. Facing a more immediate crisis may cause them to take a step back, and once this weather crisis is dealt with, they may return to those “other” issues with a fresh outlook and that is really needed. Sunday I was in Forestville watching someone walking on Syrah grapes he had purchased from up north…there was a simple joy in his effort. For the sake of many more I hope they get to enjoy those moments, this year, and for many more.

  10. Steve,

    We picked everything that we thought was ready before the rain (the last of our Pinot, all of our Zin, some of our Syrah). We have left certain sections of Syrah and Nebbiolo to hang thru the storm – sections we tasted but simply weren’t ready and the potential reward seemed greater than the risk. Rainfall at the various locations seemed to be in the 1-3 inch range. — I do think we were fortunate that the wind wasn’t as bad at our vineyards so leaves seem to be hanging on. We will go check on Friday and see what we see….

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery

  11. We picked our Anderson Valley Syrah on Monday before the rains. The site is steep and can survive 3 or 4 inches of rain without a problem. That said, the fruit was ripe – perhaps we should have even picked a few days earlier.

    The big question will be rot – does Friday warm up or stay cool, do we get wind? I also got a photo of vines that had a fair amount of their leaves blown off – might be the end of ripening if the canopy is in bad shape.

  12. While there is no question that rain-soaked harvests are not optimal (see 1972 and 1989), there is still time for many vineyards to recover if the whether cooperates. Today has remained cool and overcast so there is precious little drying out going on in the North Coast.

    But, just as in 1979, many wineries overcame that rainy harvest by simply allowing the weather to put things back on track. 1979 was not a great year across the board, but there were many very fine wines made, just as there were in 1989 and even in 1972. Still we have rarely had great Cab years in Napa in wet vintages.

  13. I am more concerned about the growth of Botrytis than I am about raisining; with the amount of moisture both in the air and ground the latter is less likely.
    We are on steep hillside with 5 tons to harvest, hence are keeping our fingers crossed for some dry cool weather. Happy harvesting

  14. We picked Cab before the rain and will be picking some after. It will indeed be interesting to note the differences. I suspect the largest variance will still be attributed to vine age rather than weather conditions. If Steve can post a follow up in spring ’10, we will have a good idea what these lots are up to.

  15. Charlie once again you’re right. If the weather cooperates all might still be well.

  16. Pete, as I wrote, I was quoting our local Channel 2 weatherman, who said that rainfall totals in the North Coast hills were up to 6 inches and in the Santa Cruz Mountains up to 9 inches. And that was last night — before we had additional rain.

  17. Steve

    A cabbie once told me: “never trust priests, lawyers and weathermen”.
    Being duly admonished, I noted that weather.com reported about 2.5 inches for Santa Cruz – about what was predicted.

  18. Jerry Seps (Storybook Mountain) just came, by as he often does when he is headed into the City. Dropped off a bottle we needed to retaste and stopped for a chat. He confirms that he had about 3.5 inches of rain and is not especially worried about the Bordeaux varieties still hanging unless the weather worsens. He said that Zin was a different story because the tight bunches can promote rot, but he also indicated that he had over 80% of the expected crop in the barn regardless.

    One thing that I found fascinating, and I wonder if the winery folks who have chimed in would agree, was Jerry’s response to my question about cover crops. He felt that the cover crop in his vineyard would mop up a lot of the excess moisture and would see less of it getting into the grapes than would have been the case a couple of decades ago.

  19. Charlie, if I’m hearing correctly, the chief concern seems to be botrytis or other forms of mold. I don’t see how cover crops would affect that.

  20. Arthur, there are weather stations all over the place. To the best of my knowledge, the official stations for cities like Santa Cruz and Oakland are usually downtown someplace, near where officials can access it. But the NWS and sometimes local broadcast networks have stations in more remote areas, like the higher elevations of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where rainfall amounts can be double or triple what they are in the city. And the higher elevations also are where the vineyards are!

  21. Well, I have been taking that into consideration, especially when I look at Paso which registers the same rainfall for all areas (which is suspect). Then, there are comments from people such as Pete, above, which raise questions of accuracy of measurements/reporting.
    A simple weather station costs $85 at Walmart (wind, humidity, pressure, temp and rainfall), so I’ll be putting one of those in my vineyard this weekend.

  22. Arthur, I know that a lot of the TV weathermen depend on local people with their own weather stations emailing or phoning in reports. My guess is that the 6 to 9 inches thing might have come from locals. And as you point out, maybe some of these gauges are inaccurate. Bottom line is that a lot of rain fell in a very short period of time. Even as I write this, I got a private email from a winemaker who tells me he’s “in pain” because the vast majority of his fruit is still on the vine and he’s “praying and checking the national weather service site every fifteen minutes.”

  23. Steve:

    As I write this our beautiful Livermore Valley wind is blowing the papers off my desk (and drying out the estate vineyards). On Monday, sugar readings in our cab blocks hovered around 23.5, with sun the majority of the next seven days, we should weather this storm quite nicely. I am expecting the very high quality we saw before the rain continue.

  24. We got about 3.5″ of rain at our vineyard. Had not picked grape one of the Syrah (we have a very cool site for Rhones, and this is a cool year) not to mention the later-ripening stuff. I’m anxious for the Grenache but we’re dealing with it – the others are going to be fine. I’m more concerned about today’s humidity and moderate temperature than I am with the rain itself. Praying for a couple of dry and windy days starting tomorrow.

    Incidentally, according to my records we had significant rain mid-October in 2007 and 2004.

  25. re cover crops – yes they affect the development of Botrytis and other molds by modifying the temperature and humidity under the vines compared to bare ground. Cover crops can increase frost, too, for that matter.

  26. Upon inspection, we believe the grenache is toast! It was too young to really count on, anyhow. Just no rose this year.

  27. I hope everyone makes out from this the best they can. It would be an absolute shame to have so many beautiful, hard-earned crops overturned by botrytis this close to the finish line.

  28. Arthur (and anyone else interested), the most comprehensive daily 24-hour rainfall data I recommend going with the California-Nevada River Forecast Center out of Sacramento. They’ve got the state covered — cities, hamlets, rural fire stations, dams, reservoirs, lookouts, ranger stations, you name it, every valley, hill and mountaintop in the state is measured so they know what’s going on in the watersheds.

    http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mtr/versprod.php?pil=HYD&sid=RSA

    There are many other sources for similar data sliced into different time intervals etc. Feel free to email me at napapjd [@] yahoo.com and I’d be happy to exchange links or whatever insights/info might be helpful.

    Cheers,
    Pete

  29. Thanks Pete
    I check that along with weather.com.
    I do have to admit that the discrepancy between the two sources is confusing.

  30. Cover crops should not be growing this time of year, and therefore shouldn’t be mopping up excess water (and competing with the grapevine).

  31. Our Italian varietals of dolcetto and nebbiolo from the Sierra foothills were picked on Sept. 26th and Oct. 3, respectively. Seems to be best ever balanced with great acids and no sunburn from the very cool year.
    Our Napa cab from SouthEast Napa is always a struggle to ripen and the storm hit at 23.2. We will be looking closely today for mold and then firing up the leaf blowers.
    Our feeling is if the canopy is healthy and survived the winds, the cabs will survive just fine, the bigger concern is the humidity which has followed. Even yesterday in the Sierra vineyards the humidity was 74% at 78 degrees.

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