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More on the 2010 vintage

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Assessing vintages is the hardest part of my wine writer’s job. It’s something we have to do because the public expects us to. This old practice comes to us, I suspect, via France, where in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne the harvest varied radically from year to year, so that buyers sorely needed expert guidance.

It used to be said, “Every year is a vintage year in California.” Then, sometime in the 1980s as I recall, there was the reverse sentiment expressed. No, the pundits said, every year is not a vintage year in California. And so we had the critics pouncing on certain years (1989) while praising others (1985). There then set in a sort of counter-reaction to the counter-reaction, with vintners especially expressing frustration that an entire statewide vintage would be painted with a single numerical brush. Thus the politics of vintage assessment, as they confront a lonely wine writer who must, yet again, venture onto rough shoals.

Concerning 2010, I have been alarmed for the last eight months, ever since our miserably cold and wet winter lasted right through spring, and then, when summer came, while the wetness went away, the cold did not. In expressing my alarm, I spoke not only for myself — for I was grouchy that day after day from June through August was chilly enough for a sweater — but also on behalf of almost every winemaker I knew from Santa Barbara to Mendocino and inland. Nothing was ripening. Everything was green. And with the coming of September, the autumn rains were just a matter of time.

But then September did come, and a very pleasant one it was. Now here we are in mid-October, and the weather has been exquisite. If it feels good to a man the grapevines like it too. Since midnight, though, we have been, here in the Bay Area, under an official Red Flag Warning, one of only a handful this entire season. The temperature today will soar to the mid-90s in Napa city, and undoubtedly will break 100 degrees in the hotter parts upvalley. Ditto for Santa Rosa. What does it all mean? Has the warmth of fall un-done the damage caused by the cold of summer? Is this sudden burst of heat good or bad for the grapes that remain on the vines?

Once again I asked my winemaker friends on Facebook, true and loyal retainers all. Here’s a sampling of what they said — and you can see that the fact there is contradictory evidence doesn’t make the wine writer’s job any easier! (I am going to omit names this time. Spelling and punctuation mistakes are as originally written.)

From a vintner familiar with Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles: “I am told…that the vines are shutting down. I was told that much of the Pinot in Russian River will not make it this year with vines shutting down and still hanging at 15 brix.”

From Paso Robles: “the heat means that Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne all were ready at more or less the same time…I’m sure some people got caught without enough harvest crew, but if you got it off in good time, the quality looks excellent. Roussanne and Counoise (and most of the Mourvedre) still hanging, but with the excellent forecast for the next two weeks, things look good.”

From Los Olivos, in the Santa Ynez Valley: “the warm weather helps a lot, everything is ripening nicely as of this morning. Some of the Syrah is at 24 brix the cabernet is at 22.5, no sign of rot in our vineyard”

From a winemaker in Santa Barbara County: “there is the potential for some truly phenomenal wines to come out of this year…numbers and chemistry are all over the place.  I believe taste and intuition are the keys. No major rot or botrytis so far… keeping our fingers crossed.”

From Santa Ynez Valley: “The valley has dried out nice and we are looking at a nice warm week.”

From the Mendocino Coast: “Pinot Noir looks great! Average crop load of about two tons per acre.”

From inland Mendocino and Lake counties: “looking good….have brought in Grenache, Syrah and Roussane….mold was not and issue….a few raisins here and there but above average quality”

From Anderson Valley: “have picked pinot and chardonnay.  Hand sorted everything – limited rot. Still have another Chardonnay vineyard, might not make it”

From El Dorado: “nearly done for us.  Everything came in with great flavors, high acid and low sugar.”

From Russian River Valley: “pinot was a little scary going in the tank, heavy sorting of raisins really helping, once the tanks are dry I’m actually quite impressed!”

From North Coast sparkling wines: “The sparkling harvest continues, we have Chardonnay coming in on Wednesday, from Marin, in addition we still have a little bit of Napa Carneros Chardonnay out as well as Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. it’s been a long sparking harvest, the young wines are tasting fantastic and we are extremely excited about the 2010 vintage so far!!!!!”

From the Santa Lucia Highlands: “Pinot Noir in perfect condition and optimal ripeness. The heat spiked the sugars but the fruit wasn’t ripe enough at the time to be damaged. The color, pH, acids and tannins look in perfect balance. It’s a big year.”

From Sonoma Valley: “I’m concerned that the heat – especially the warm nights – and dry offshore flow forecast for the next couple of days is going to really push our Rhone varieties. It would be difficult logistics if they all come in at once, but I’ll figure it out.”

[Steve again] Like I said, conflicting testimony. Doesn’t make vintage assessments any easier. The ultimate vintage assessment is the score I give to the individual bottle of wine.

And see my exclusive…

…on “Vertical,” Rex Pickett‘s followup novel to “Sideways,” on today’s Wine Enthusiast online.

  1. In 1998, grapes were being picked in November, right up to Thanksgiving in some cases. That situation led some writers to declare the vintage dead on arrival. It turned out, however, that reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.

    In 1999, we had another very cold year right up to harvest, but we then got a lot of heat, not unlike what is happening now, and the grapes started flooding in. One industry source described it as the October miracle.

    2010 has its own unique issues, and not the least of them is that the doom and gloom is (a) confined to the North Coast and (b) confined mostly to the late-ripening varieties. Reports of Pinot at 15 Brix that won’t make it are undoubted true, but they are not the rule. Much of the Pinot is already in. Wineries are picking Cabernet in both Sonoma and Napa today, but as in other cool years, there will be vineyards that make it and vineyards that do not.

    People should think back to 1998. The WS wrote off the vintage. The wines, however, were less extracted than 97 or 99 and the best of them are among the most elegant of the late 90s years. We should see the same thing this year. It will be a mixed bag, but we are getting some kind of cross between 98 and 99, and we are in the midst of our own October miracle.

    Bottom line on all of this, Steve, is what you said in your summary paragraph. You can’t judge a vintage by the vintner’s verbiage.

  2. With the 2010 season almost done, this is the present situation in terms of Winkler’s Heat Units: OAKVILLE, Norm. – 3,019, 2010 – 2,698; SANTA ROSA, Norm. – 2,963, 2010 – 2,189; CARNEROS, Norm. – 2,452, 2010 – 2,415; SANTA MARIA, Norm. – 2,253, 2010 – 1,940; BORDEAUX, Norm. – 2,519, 2010 – 3,078 (Another great vintage. Very dry season – 241mm (!!); with temperatures similar to 2009); DIJON, Norm. – 2,049, 2010 – 2,329.

  3. Seems there’s been a lot of focus on Napa, and now I’m starting to get the word in from Sonoma and other areas. Bottom line: this year’s harvest will be one of those “character-building” experiences! :)

  4. It may come from being a French wine buyer but I love the subtle and sometimes not so much, differences in vintages. The reliving a a year through what’s in the glass. Just another thing that keeps me fascinated, motivated and aching to learn…

  5. We’re all thrilled with what we’re seeing in fermenters in Lodi. During October, we’ve been picking at the same time as Napa Valley, which is quite a treat. High acids with great flavor at lower sugars. Now it’s up to all our Lodi winemakers to think outside the box and work with this gift we’ve been given to deliver great 2010 wines.

  6. STeve, from Paso’s Cerro Prieto Vineyard & Cellars we have had the same fears as you, ie, a Bordeaux year…cool, low sugars, less flavors. This is how our vineyard fared.
    Pinot came off at 24.5 and spot on with pH 3.57 and TA .65.
    Sauv blanc came off at 23.5 , pH and TAs spot on. Wonderful flavors both wines
    Cab came off Bordeaux style, 24.5, but again, pH and TAs perfect.
    Syrah came off at 26.2, pH and TA in good shape.
    Merlot came off last(lowest elevation of our Bordeaux grapes), but is 24.5, ph 3.61, TA .71, so just dandy. One lower bloc of Cab comes off this week at 24.5, pH and TA w/n/l and dark cherry, blackberry, blueberry and some strawberry flavors. One concession: we had to drop half an acre of this Cab due to nearness of trees to the west, which ate up the sunlight around 4 pm, and left vines with green seeds. No problem, we just dropped all fruit by 7:30 this a.m.

    Across the board, we are looking for a terrific yr. Some friends on West side of Paso with heavier (more than 2.5T/acre), have had serious ripening problems, and several on East side have had good ripening, but not the flavors they are used to.

    This is definitely a yr of living dangerously, but the Wine Godess decided we would be treated better this yr, and most folks have enjoyed good harvests, quality not 2006 caliber, but close. For us, I see exceptional quality from cold valley vineyard to mountain Bordeaux vineyard, the one exception the half acre of Cab we donated to the coyotes, raccoons, and turkeys.

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