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How bad are things out there? Don’t ask

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You need look no further for proof of the transfer of wealth from West to East than the three major wine auction houses, which will have sold a record $200 million in sales by the end of this year, thanks to “Asia’s thirst for fine French vintages.”

It used to be that westerners, and particularly über-rich Americans, gobbled up all those Moutons and Lafites, but no more. Now, it’s the Chinese. That giant sucking sound you hear is a few trillion dollars fleeing across the Pacific on their way to Hong Kong.

I was talking about the dismal state of the wine industry again yesterday with a group of winemakers and some marketing guys with whom I had lunch. (Oliveto, cannelloni, mmmm…) I’m basically an optimist at heart — you have to be — but really, things are just awful out there. Vintners are slashing prices, inventory is building up, producers are trying to sell off anything they can just to pay their bills, and meanwhile, there’s another vintage in the pipeline. Can’t tell Mama Nature to hold off for a year!

Yes, there will be a vintage in California in 2010, but the question everybody’s asking is, what kind will it be, and what size? About this time of the year, “vintage reports” flood my email in-box, sent to me by wineries, regional winery associations and P.R. firms. I glance at them, but my B.S. detector usually screens out much if not most of the claims. You get the real scoop from casual (and off-the-record) conversations with people. This vintage seems to be suffering from several problems. First and foremost, obviously, is the cold weather. It is simply extraordinary and unprecedented and one of these days the meteorologists are going to have to explain it to us. I’ve been harping on this subject for the last six months. Everything is late this year, everywhere, and some things are so late, they’ll never get ripe. Does anybody seriously expect heavy rain to hold off until Nov. 21? Yet that’s how long it’s going to take some of the thick-skinned reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon, to ripen.

The growers tore holes in the canopies over the summer in an attempt to hasten the ripening process, but then we got two heat spikes that fried the exposed grapes. Somebody told me it was 117 in Calistoga. 117! Doesn’t take long to turn an exposed berry into a shriveled raisin at that temperature. That was Mama Nature being cynical. As you get closer to the coast, where they grow thinner-skinned varieties, the problem is mold. The cold weather, coupled with near-incessant fog and last Spring’s heavy rains, never really let the soil dry out. Botrytis and other nasty fungi are going to be a problem. There will be places and pockets and individual vineyards and wineries that do just fine; there’s no such thing as a wipeout vintage; but 2010 could be the closest California’s come in quite a while.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll have two months of dry, pleasant weather. Of course, we first have to get through this weekend, when they’re forecasting the first rains of the season in the North Coast. Nothing heavy, no reason to panic, and if it turns sunny and windy afterward, all it will do is wash the dust off the grapes. Maybe. But right now, people are chewing their fingernails. In a way, the best thing that could happen would be an extremely small crop, and that’s just what I think it will be.

It’s the damned uncertainty. I think people are traumatized by the events of the last two years. It explains the rise of the Tea Party. They’re angry and confused and they blame both parties. I personally don’t think a lurch to the right is going to help this country recover. The problem is essentially all that money heading over to China, and I can’t see a Tea Party Congress being able to do anything about that.

But I’m supposed to keep politics out of my blog, so I’ll just leave it at that. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather in California, root for the little family wineries that are struggling, and (Warning! Obscure Boomer cultural reference to follow) keep watching the skies!

  1. I was just at a trade tasting yesterday afternoon and the room was thick with, “How’s business?” and “So slow but we are hanging in there”. The importer was offering discounts deeper than I can remember in the 10 years we have been doing business with them and the California winery they were also showcasing was offering discounting for the first time in their history as well. Rather grim….but like you I am hopeful, things have got to turn around soon right?

  2. I think I will just close up my sales shop here and move it to China…

  3. Let’s hope so Samantha!

  4. James McCann says:

    I think you’ve been sneaking in politics even more since you said you were going to stop. At least you are leaving your Tea Party = Hitler rants on Facebook.

  5. Gee, I see far less politics here than before. Too bad. I kind of miss those old Tea Party = Hitler rants. I probably have pretty much the same progressive politics as Steve, although the closest I get to political discussions is commenting on Dan Berger’s rants (with respectful snarkiness, of course).

  6. James McCann says:

    This is probably why Steve has been trying (unsuccessfully) to keep politics out of his blog. Nothing good can come of it… I’m just still a little sore about his recent “hit and run” on VA Republicans.

  7. James–

    I am not going to break Steve’s rules by commenting directly on politics, but it is pretty clear that hit-and-run tactics are not limited to Steve and those of his beliefs. It gets practiced at both ends of the spectrum.

    And neither is the equating of someone’s politics with those of Hitler. All you need to do is to think back to the last Presidential campaign. That kind of tactic was pretty one-sided. And it got worse during the debate over health care.

    And while I strongly believe that my job as a wine critic is to evaluate wines, not the politics of those who make them or who drink them, I do think that we all have to remember that this is a personal blog and the person who writes it is not charging for folks to come here and read his thoughts. Even if I did not agree with him, I would not care if his personal views were shared here. Others do, and Steve has heard that and has cut down greatly on those kinds of comments.

  8. Rain happens. Mold happens. Too late for Bordeaux mixture.
    The sad thing, vintage to vintage, is that the bad vintages are expensive to make. Bordeaux 2007, much of Bordeaux 2008 – expensive to make during a global crisis.
    Drinking wine is a huge pleasure; making wine is a risk of liquidation every day. Agriculture lives by the land and the weather. It is hard to remember that when you live in Napa.
    The US wine market (except for Wente, Gallo, Constellation and probably the Wine Group) has never played well outside its boundaries while other countries rack up huge trans-ocean mileage year in and year out.
    But there are a lot of thirsty people between sea and shining sea. The problem is it might as well be China for all wineries have done year-to-year to boost their sales in three-tier mid-America.

  9. One question — what’s a Volatile Acidity Republican? Or is that redundant? ;)

  10. Since you’re group is discussing politics… I’d equate the current popular wine style with political affiliations… The high octane, neglect-the-fruit-on-the-vine, yet purport on their corporate websites how much they love and respect the vines with Republicans and their tea baggin clown buddies … This big style of wine is flashy and good looking on the surface except when you dig a bit deeper, they end up having no structure to speak of, except for the expensive overt flavors and tannins of OAK. Store bought flavors. Lack of interesting things from the big wines… lack of solid arguments from the right… Just lots of hoopla and yelling… Kinda like my experiences with sledgehammer wines on a typical Friday night.

    Big wines are bad for vineyards and the environment… Grapes left on the vine longer and longer stress the vines beyond what they’re usually capable of. High octane wines needs more water than vines with normal harvesting practices. The vine can’t focus the carbs on the root development till the fruit is off the wine, thereby limiting the next Spring “push” and requiring more energy to bring them up to speed. Vines do not appreciate having their fruit left on the vine so some jackass can make a 15% alcohol Pinot Noir or Cab or and white for that matter.

    High alc wines need engineering and manipulation at the crush pad to make them drinkable… Republicans are much of the same. When was the last time you saw a dyed in the red conservative pulling the “all natural” thing? Many are chemically treated with dyes and make-up and having the need for all things fancy… namely, fancy cars, and expensive jewelry and the such to make them selves look and feel better… The list of chemicals available to winemakers nowadays is daunting…

    Republicans are brilliant at twisting the truth as are wineries playing the 14.1% low alc card when most of us know it’s more like 14.8% and that’s after seeing the spinning cone and 15% hydration back at the crushpad. Wineries screwing their growers out of necessary water and acid for more PROFIT (less weight, less $ per ton they pay) are acting like Republicians. Bigger is better right?

    Sherman, A high VA Republician is one with a high volatile disposition… One that can’t last long before it browns and becomes bitter and undrinkable and eventually becomes vinegar. Something one can handle in small amounts but can easily overpower and dinner plate of evening conversation. When was the last time you heard about a liberal going in a shooting up a place? Republicians care about maximizing shareholder profit as are Republican wineries.

    If you ask me, Republicans (and jet fuel-style wines) are just bad for our tiny precious planet.

    Here ends the silly Friday afternoon rant. Have a great weekend everyone. Off to work.

  11. I think the last time I heard about a liberal shooting up a place was about two weeks ago. Something about the Discovery Channel. Three (?) dead.

  12. First anyone who has to cut a hole in their canopy has bigger problems than this vintage. Modern viticulture and prudent vineyard practices make this unnecessay. Sounds like a vigor problem to me and someone who needs to go back to school.

    Second, before you write off the vintage there are some very bright points. First this is a great year for whites and sparkling wine. I have a friend who will pick his S.B. on Monday, two days later than last year, his grapes are showing great sugar acid ratios and excellent quality. Pinot and Merlot and Cabernet Franc producers are also optimistic and excited about the harvest. Look for wonderful Carneros Pinot and Chardonnay this year. Maybe we’ll have some acid in Viognier and other often flabby white wines.

    Finally, anyone in appellations above the fog or inland have seen vines stopping growing well before veraision, even ripening, and plenty of time left for full ripening. Shallow or gravely, well drained soils, and hillsides will likely prosper in 2010. If I were growing Cabernet on deep rich soils, had vigorous growth that didn’t stop, and vines that were under a blanket of fog this year I might be concerned. But that doesn’t speak for the vintage or for many growing areas of California.

    The norm in the 60′s and 70′s was harvest didn’t begin until well after labor day. Wineries would not even open until after the the holiday. It’s funny and I don’t know what caused it, but around 1980 we began to have incredibly early vintages. And it has continued. If our vineyards were in the hands of Napa Valley old timers they would probably be quite happy with where things stand at this point in time.

    And a second, finally, Randy speaks the truth. He gets my vote.

  13. Morton, I’ve spoken with Sonoma County Sauv Blanc producers who tell us they’re still not ready to pick. I agree that sparkling wines should be fine, but then, they always are since they’re picked so early and low sugar. I agree also that there will be some good pinot noir but I think there are problems depending on location from SBC up to Anderson. Carneros could well be a sweet spot. I always thought the earlier vintages these days were due to new rootstocks and clones, not to mention VSP.

  14. James McCann says:

    Charlie:

    Thank you for your thoughful comments. To avoid speaking about politics, let’s turn the conversation to the more general issue… what is the responsiblity of a blogger who is also a professional wine journalist?

    1. How does the internet differentiate between quotes from a professional publication and a quote from a personal blog?

    2. Does the average reader understand the difference?

    3. Can a journalist retain an appearance of objectivity when they bare their political views for the world to see? (Especially with the wine industry being in the midst of an important and historic legislative fight, in the Congress and in many state legislatures.)

    4. Does the blogger who is also a professional journalist have any responsibility for accuracy and/or corrections if applicable?

  15. Mr. McCann:

    I love those questions even if I find parts of them a little on the loaded side. More on that later.

    1. The Internet, or anywhere else for that matter, always can differentiate between media, between context and between statements based on how the maker chooses to qualify them. In the case of Mr. Heimoff, he has established a clear distinction between the two. He has stated it. He has repeated it. He means it. We understand it.

    2. One of the problems with this question is that it presupposes more than it says. Even though you have asked a general question, this whole discussion revolves around that which Mr. Heimoff chooses to say here versus what he says in his day job. I suspect that he would not ever comment on politics in his Wine Enthusiast columns. And I suspect that he would be called out, called on the carpet and called a lot of names if he did.

    I am going to interject my situation here by way of contrast. Although I do not generally engage in political commentary in my publication or in my blog, I also present myself to the world very differently. Tom Merle’s earlier assessment of my place in both print and blog spoke to the differences between Mr. Heimoff’s place here and my place in my blog.

    In short, Mr. Heimoff proclaims that there exists a gulf between his day job and his blog. My day job and my blog are one and the same. One is simply an extension of the other.

    Does the average reader know the difference, you ask. My answer is yes. The people who read Mr. Heimoff here understand that this is a non-paid, non-related position.

    3. I guess the question I would ask of you is “objectivity” in what endeavor? Nothing that Mr.Heimoff writes here has the least bearing on how he reviews wine or how he sees trends in the wine industry. More than that, it seems to me to be a far stretch to suggest that anyone’s antipathy toward or embracement of the Tea Party movement one way or the other would or could affect the way they/we review wine.

    I have said that I share much of Mr. Heimoff’s political beliefs. Yet, just because I choose not to comment on those beliefs (note that I did comment on HR 5034–and that is in the political arena) does not mean that my views on wine are more objective than anyone else’s. Objectivity comes from methodology and acceptance that truth is truth in our wine writing. I cannot see the point of this question.

    4. We all have a responsibility to tell it as we see it. And we have an equal responsiblity to see “it” objectively when it comes to our professional opinions. Mr. Heimoff’s political and social belief system is personal, not professional. So is mine and so is yours–unless you make your living not in wine but in politics.

    I appreciate the kind words with which you started your entry above. But, as I hope you have now gathered, I have a hard time seeing the connections which your questions imply.

  16. Regarding Hong Kong, the entire picture changed a number of years ago when they practically eliminated the ridiculously-high tariffs on wine imports that were previously in effect.

    As for the 2010 vintage, I’d say we’re sitting in the cat bird seat here in Lodi. Except for a bit of sunburn on Chardonnay, everything we’re bringing in tastes fantastic with nice labs.

    I am concerned about varieties that come in later, like Cab and Mourvedre, but this change in seasons is the period when even the best weather forecasters seem to be challenged for good answers. ENSO forecasts point to more or less average weather for the rest of the growing season. Certainly nothing like that awful October 13th dump we had last year due to El Nino.

  17. Remember for a lot of people were calling for the 07 vintage in Oregon for pinot noir was to be written off as a total loss? I’ve been tasting through a number of 07 pinots noir from various parts of Oregon the last few weeks and the vast majority of them have been sleek and elegant wines with (now) a great balance of acidity to fruit. Bottle age seems to have toned down the acidity and brought balance to the Force.

    I’m suggesting that we wait until the grapes are harvested, the wine is made, it’s properly aged by its maker and (where appropriate) give it some time in bottle to fully “come of age.”

    Then we’ll have a better perspective on how the 2010 vintage will stack up — unless y’all are just having fun getting all worked up about things beyond your control, that is. ;)

  18. Sherman, you are not suggesting that wineries avoid telling us how much better the vintage turned out than they thought it would be and writers avoid pontificating on the verisimilitude of the vintners, are you?

  19. Just a few random thoughts –

    1) I got Sauvignon Blanc at 20brix in the Russian River. Not picking that anytime real soon.

    2) I don’t really see the problems down in Santa Barbara and Santa Lucia Highlands. The fruit is certainly running fairly late — but we had no sunburn, have little botrytis pressure (yes, there is some in SLH – has been some in most years), and am basically very happy with the fruit down south.

    3) We lost most of our RRV Zin, most of our Dry Creek Grenache, and some of our North Coast Syrah due to sunburn. Fairly ugly there. Pinot Noir was about a 10% loss due to sunburn — but there may have been other, less obvious damage (or then again, maybe not — hence the less obvious part).

    4) At the moment, September 19, we’ve brought in one Pinot Noir vineyard and that’s it — nothing else on the books or planned yet for harvesting. That does make it late (but not much later than 2005 and more on track with 1999).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery

  20. Thanks Charlie for pointing out that my political beliefs have nothing to do with my job as a wine critic.

  21. Adam, care to comment on how weather this weekend is affecting the grapes. If your Zin is all gone, by the way, does that imply that a large part of the North Coast Zin harvest is threatend (even before the rain)?

  22. Steve – The early vintages began when 80% of the North Coast was planted on AXR. It could be the expansion of heat treated stock, but I noticed the change on well established vineyards in the early 80′s. But you raise a good point. Great wines were made on St. George and AXR and virus infected vines. Now with less vigorous rootstocks and a lot of French clones that were chosen partly on early maturation we are in great shape on late vintages….unless a person is looking for 28 Brix which seems common place.

    I would like to see how many winemakers can make great tasting wine at 23 – 24 Brix and I may get my wish this year. Winemakers will need to know how it was done without dehydration, reverse osmosis, and “breaking back.” They will have to learn how you can pick grapes with a certain amount of varietal character and enhance it during its time in the cellar. It will separate the men from the boys …and the women from the girls.

  23. Charlie,

    I think that Zin was one of the hardest hit varietals up here — hit from the 2-day heat spike. Basically, Zin was coloring up at the time, has thinner skins, and wasn’t used to the heat. We lost virtually all of our 2 old-vine Zin vineyards, and approximately 50% of a younger vine vineyard. — So, yes, North Coast Zin has had an incredibly difficult time — even before the rain.

    The rain here in Santa Rosa has amounted to less than .2 inches. Not sure how much effect it will have on the fruit. Can’t really say that it will be good for tighter clusters — but there aren’t an awful lot of tight clusters out there this year — so may not be much of a game changer. We will need to wait a few days to see for certain.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery

  24. Adam: waiting is the name of the game!

  25. I guess since I like acid, I am finding this to be a late, but potentially great vintage.

    For Anderson Valley – our Syrah is tracking for a Oct 31 pick – this is actually the average date over the last 5 years. Pinot is in great shape – only concern is Chardonnay.

    Chalone – already picked, flavors are great.

    El Dorado – sugars are way down but flavors are not. We will pick 50% of our vineyards over the next two weeks – an average of 2 weeks behind. Seeds are browning up, we have lignification and the flavors are delightful. I just tasted through 14 samples (from various blocks) and only one red still have significant green flavors and, ironically, it is the most ripe according to the numbers.

    I don’t think people would be nearly as panicked if refractometers didn’t exist.

    As for the Tea Party, I can’t help but think of the English version of history. Tea wasn’t dumped – it was just looted. Guess we are in for another looting.

  26. Quick “feet on the street” report from the West US:

    Seattle – down town restaurants asking me about my higher end wines. Good news.

    Vegas – my wholesaler is behind on payments and I won’t ship him any wine…bad news, but fixable!

    LA – successful growth in value, by the glass sales and some interest from retail, but not in large buys

    SF – recent success with retail wine clubs at under $150 wholesale (pallet drops). On premise is perking up and some good events are lined up with caterers and restaurants I know.

    AZ – I am gaining interest in opening this market from a reputable distributor. Imagine!

    All in all, I have some hangover problems from the worst stretch of economic malaise, which I believe is not over, but slowly being cured. It will take some time and a great deal of effort to grow, but those who can make it through this, will have stronger brands for it.

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