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The vagaries of vintages



I’m calling this post the vagaries of vintages because you never know what the weather is going to be during the growing season.

Farmers have known this forever, of course, ever since our farmer ancestors began harvesting crops, which is one of the things that made us human and led to civilization. European grapegrowers have known it, too, for thousands of years, but here in California, we’re still learning that not every vintage is the same, as was long thought. Granted, our annual variations are far less extreme than they are in, say, Burgundy, but they’re extreme enough, in their own way, and with what appears to be the effects of climate change, they’re becoming ever more bizarre.

For example, this past winter of 2014-2015 was exceptionally warm and dry. During January and February we had temperatures in the 70s, even the 80s. As a result, budbreak was early in wine country, and it looked like it would be another record early harvest.

Then came May. Wham, a persistent trough parked itself over the eastern Pacific, and for the last three weeks, we’ve had fog, drizzle, rain, below average temperatures and a generally gloomy blah to the atmosphere all along the California coast. Everyone’s talking about it. The grapevines are feeling it.

What this dreary weather does, of course, is to slow down the ripening process, which is good in a way, because you don’t want the grapes ripening too quickly, but is bad, because the longer those grapes hang on the vine, the higher the possibility that Autumn rains will strike before the fruit is gathered. We haven’t had a bad rain harvest for a long time—1998 comes to mind—but it’s always a worry.

What this May reminds me of is 2011. That was the year that summer never came to California, and it was, of course, an unsuccessful vintage, in some cases disastrous, although I wouldn’t want to paint the entire vintage with an overly-broad brush. It was a year that botrytis hit many coastal grapes, and I don’t think vintners would like a repeat.

It’s only May 26, of course, way to early to predict anything, which gets us back to the vagaries of vintages. The seven-day forecast calls for some modest warming up, but nothing radical, and I see that near the end of the coming week, temperatures are set to fall back. That means virtually no sunshine along the coast, only occasional afternoon sunshine here along the Bay, and cool temperatures in wine country. But even winemakers who have followed vintages for many decades have no idea what’s to come. Regarding California’s historic drought, May rainfall has certainly helped, although it’s been under-reported in the media, and apparently a strong El Nino, which brings bigtime rainfall to California, is in the works for this coming winter, although we’ve heard those predictions before, and they failed to come true. If you’re a grapegrower, all you can do, really, is to cross your fingers and hope for the best. Which is funny, because, for all our modern sophistication, farmers today are basically in the same place they were thousands of years ago.

P.S. I want to apologize to my readers who tried to comment during the past week and found that the capcha! code wasn’t working coherently. Thank you to those who contacted me through Facebook or email; if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have known there was a problem. We think we’ve corrected it now. I hate it when weird computer stuff happens that’s beyond my control, but that’s how it is when we assign our fates to these machines—or to the weather, as do our farmer friends.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “Drought Relief, At Last? New Signs Point to Strengthening El Niño”


  2. Simple Winemaker says:

    El Nino has no effect on Northern California. This has been shown buy Jay Lund at UC Davis and others. El Nino effects more of the southwest and even then it has shown that it does not always have the positive impact people expect nor is it a consistent effect when predicted to have one. But El Nino does not help us or hinder us up North.

  3. Dear Simple Winemaker, my experience with El Nino is that it does indeed disproportionally impact Southern California. But it also tends to dump a ton of rain on Northern California as well.

  4. “but here in California, we’re still learning that not every vintage is the same”

    2011 was arguably a difficult year to make wine in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley. The early rain in October of that year was just one more thing winemakers and farmers dealt with all season long. Cabernet can hang, luckily, but is not immune to rot. However, getting “ripe” was another issue entirely. Ripe these days could be up to 30 brix for some winemakers, garnering the Grape Jelly Award on the crushpad. There was no way in 2011 Cabernet was getting to 30 brix, much less 24 brix.

    As the 2011 vintage was coming on-line, I caught lots of talk from everyone from the front-of-house to sommelier to wholesaler that “2011 aren’t really that good”. Sales people were pushing the vintage hard with lots of deals and talking up the 2012 vintage as “perfect”.

    Well, if one has gotten used to the riper style in Cabernet, 2011 was probably not your favorite vintage. The vintage generally didn’t drink well out of the gate from DCV or AV, leaner, more herbaceous in many cases. For a supermarket buyer or an exclusive drinker of California wines in the last twenty years, the 2011 may have made you pick up a craft beer or bourbon.

    But for those of us that have had an older Bordeaux , Dunn, or Ridge Cab along our wine journey, one begins to appreciate the potential longevity of the 2011 vintage. 2011 in California is one of those “moments” that make you think about “the vagaries of vintage”.

    Personally, I love comparing the 2011 to 2012 in side-by-side tastings to show specifically what Mother Nature can do to a wine from the same vineyard, year over year with the same puchdown protocol, same yeast, same oak regime, same retail price.

    Eyes open up. Lines in the sand are drawn. People begin to think a little more critically about the vagaries. They stop looking at the wine as a homogenized, industrial product or like bananas at the grocery store. The over 50 crowd remembers the Chiffon commercial about messing with Mother Nature. 2011, when put in context, was a learning experience for those who like to drink wine. Those that truly appreciate wine, not just scores or press releases, wanted to hear about the 2011 vintage versus 2012. Education, disclosure, pulling back the curtain and letting the wine in the glass speak for itself, those things made the 2011 a great vintage.

    2015 doesn’t worry me.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Last year I attended the Sonoma in the City whistle-stop visit to Los Angeles.

    And experienced first-hand how mold affected some of the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

    I can recall the dire warnings about the 1998 vintage California Cabernets grown and harvested in an El Niño year.

    As Rod Smith, writer-at-large for Wine & Spirits magazine stated in his Los Angeles Times wine guest column (“Food” section, October 17, 2001, page H4):

    “. . . the results of that long, cool season in Napa Valley are luscious, intense, well-defined wines that express the terroir of individual sites more clearly than riper wines from warmer years. . . . The vast majority of consumers won’t see much, if any difference between these lovely [1998] wines and the delicious 1997s or the powerful 1999s. . . . These 1998s may well age better than their top-heavy counterparts from hotter, dryer seasons.”


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