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After big rain, wine country dodges a bullet

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This week’s forecast of warm temperatures, dry, sunny weather and above all gusty breezes is made to order for Northern California winegrowers who got a scary soaking on Saturday morning.

Precipitation records fell all over the place. Oakland Airport got nearly an inch of rain, smashing the old record. Mount St. Helena, at the head of Napa Valley, got an inch. As usual, the first rainfall of the season caught drivers unaware: there were accidents everywhere. This was the region’s first real storm since last January, and it came earlier than heavy rain usually comes.

What impact did the rain have on the grapes? As usual, I asked my Facebook friends. Here’s what they said.

While the drops were still falling, the mood was gloomy. “As a farmer/winemaker, [I am] not happy,” said a Spring Mountain vintner. “Scared to death for Petite Sirah,” replied a Sonoman, concerned about the potential for rot in that varietal’s tightly-clustered bunches. A Sonoma Coast winemaker wrote, “Glad I don’t grow Petite. Most Sonoma Coast Pinot is in the barn. All the Bordeaux always have to ride a storm before they get picked, them’s the rules, right?” Right. From down south in Paso (by which the storm had largely petered out), came this reply: “It’s not good for grapes when this happens.”

As morning rain gave way to parting clouds and even warm sun by Saturday afternoon, vintners got more perspective, and were able to put the drenching into context. “Rinse the dust over the canopy to give the vines a boost!” wrote a Sonoma vintner. A Rutherford winemaker predicted, “What we will do is leaf the cluster zone to favor air flow and dry it as fast as possible,” referring to the classic method of allowing mold-producing moisture to evaporate. A Pinot grower with vineyards in Sebastopol and the Anderson Valley must have seen the long-range forecast when he wrote, “It’s been quite windy this afternoon, and is supposed to continue to be very windy for the next couple days…that should help the situation a lot.”

What is that long-range forecast? Here’s from yesterday’s Napa Valley Register.  Nice to see all those yellow suns lined up. Warm, sunny weather for at least the next nine days.

So the rain was unusual, and caused some pulse-thumping moments, but should end up being largely meaningless. The only one of my Facebook friends I’ll quote by name here is Mitch Cosentino, at PureCru Wines, whose long reply aptly sums up the situation. “This is my 34th harvest. I was more concerned about my tomatoes in my garden. We had 0.8 in Napa city area. After the rain, it was pretty windy before sundown (which was good). There should be no effect at all on Cab Sauv or Cab Franc. In fact it could help show down and spread out the harvest a bit because everything was getting a bit jammed up. Pinots should be fine. People in Burgundy would laugh at anyone with any concern with one day of rain. If there is any really ripe Sauv Blanc still out there that could have some issues. Ripe Zinfandels could have problems but not likely with it being only one day and breezy mid 70s predicted for the next few days. We have had a beautiful growing season one day is just a day off. Everyone relax, it is going to be a great vintage.”

  1. Born and raised here (Calistoga), I’ve been running harvest since my father passed in ’78. We usually get rain 3 out of every 5 harvests. One year, in August. If its under an inch, its no big deal. Over an inch, then there’s trouble, no matter how good the
    following weather is. Especially since the majority of our
    crop is Petite, Zin and Charbono. The Zin’s over half done;
    we were already scheduled to pick the bulk of our Petite (and
    half our Grenache) Monday through Thursday. The Charbono is
    barely touched (its only September, after all). Lost 75% of
    it in 2011. That was the worst rot year in my tenure.

    Speaking of 2011, that was the only time I’ve seen rot in
    Cabernet since we started growing it in 1964. Considering
    there were a couple of years where we didn’t finish picking
    until November (even with significant rainfall), it makes
    2011 a stand out. Every year is different; some years are just more different than others.

  2. Jim, I’ve picked up on rot in 2011 Cabs, also Pinots and several other varieties.

  3. W. Steffens says:

    Greetings Steve,

    Really enjoy reading your blogs, especially this one. Certainly I have not been in the valley forever, but have been making wine now for about 12 years, 8 of which have been at my families property on Spring Mountain. Rain is definitely something we are used to up here.

    I believe it is important to consider many factors regarding rain during harvest.

    * How much rain fell?
    * What was the weather pattern before and after the rain?
    * What if any actions were taken in the vineyard before and after?

    I know I share a similar feeling as many fellow vintners that although 2011 was definitely a challenge, everyone received a great deal of rain and not the best time, the 2011 wines we made are fantastic.

    If any readers were able to attend Premiere Napa Valley or Auction Napa Valley this year, and got to thoroughly taste a good selection of 2011s, you must admit there were some exceptional wines.

    The rain received this past weekend, while of course makes one nervous until it passes, was a mere “free” irrigation. One thing that I noticed yesterday when walking through the vineyard is that the Cab clusters are pretty loose this year, which certainly helps when rain comes through. Less than 24 hours after the rain, I did not see a single drop of water or moisture in the canopy or clusters.

    The long range 10-day forecast looks perfect. We are truly lucky to be making wine in an area with weather such as the Napa Valley.

    Happy Harvest to all!

  4. W. Steffens, thanks for commenting, and for reading my blog.

  5. Carl Helrich says:

    As a winemaker and grape grower on the East coast, it never fails to amaze me how one inch of rain can bring about such an outcry of fear. I’d be ecstatic if that’s all I saw in the month leading up to harvest. To each their own.

    Cheers!

  6. This is my 23rd harvest here. Emotionally, no one wants rain at this time. Even a little mold or rot can form and be picked going undetected into the wine with its resultant vegetative favors.

    Practically, the following warm weather combined with wind should help prevent such mildew and save what is already a great year’s harvest.

    Following on the challenging 2011 harvest and the 2012 harvest which was abundant in both quality and quantity we look like having a great year in 2013 with sugars and acids in good balance and nice yields.

    Perhaps this was The Perfect Storm?

  7. BillW, 2013 sure does look good so far.

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