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Climate, Santa Maria-style, and the vagaries of bizarre vintages

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It’s one thing to write or talk about how consistent the Santa Maria climate is. We all know about how the fog blows in in the evening and then melts away the following morning, giving way to turquoise skies.

All this is true, but to be here, as I am now and have visited frequently for the last 25 years, is to appreciate it anew. For an eastern-born boy, where the weather changes every 15 minutes, such invariability of the annual pattern is mind-blowing. Each year has two seasons, wet and dry; each day has two times, foggy and sunny. So it was when the mastodons roamed these parts, and so it is today.

Yesterday, Thursday morning, I awoke at 6 a.m. to an impenetrable ground fog. When I walked Gus I needed my hoodie. Even when the surface fog blew off at 8 a.m., the high clouds remained throughout the morning.

By 1 p.m., when I met Jonathan Nagy, Byron’s winemaker, for lunch in Los Alamos, the sky was cerulean blue, clear, infinite. The sun was strong and hot on the skin. Yet the day remained cool, never getting out of the 70s. Stand in the sun, out of the wind, and it’s hot. Move a corner into the shade and the breeze, and it’s cold. This is indeed the “refrigerated sunshine” that Hawk Wakawaka, I think it was, so aptly described. The vines, like us, to it are sensitive.

Like the rest of coastal California, the Santa Maria Valley had a dry, record warm winter. Then May came. I think, in the annals of California vintages, May of 2015 will have some renown, recounted by aging geezers around bars. It set records for chill and damp, just at a time when the plants thought it was all right to blossom. Budbreak had occurred early; May’s moisture posed the risk of widespread botrytis. Growers turned a hopeful eye towards June. This month, so far, has extended the pattern for weirdness. The rainfall of last Tuesday and Wednesday was epic, by mid-June standards. Thursday, when I wrote this, finally was warm (not hot), dry and breezy, ideal weather for blowing away water in the vines. But it’s still to early to assess whatever damage this bizarre June storm caused. Although I’m here in the Central Coast and not in close touch with the media, my understanding is that Wednesday’s rain in the North Coast set all kinds of records. In Oakland, it rained for the better part of a day, not heavily, but consistently. I can’t recall anything like that in June in the 36 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area.

Viticulturalists—the folks who keep the vineyards healthy—are watching the skies. This has been an unsettling period for them. They know well that this is farming, and that farming never has absolutes when it comes to the weather. But even absent absolutes, they’ve come to expect at least some sort of pattern. But the pattern, alas, seems to be shattering before their very eyes. It may well have been warmer in January than in May. It may well have been wetter in June than in February. Unless you understand our climate, you cannot appreciate how insane these realities are.

As I reread what I wrote, I realize I’ve made it sound like all vintages are the same down here in the Santa Maria Valley. I do think that vintage variation here tends to be less than in more northern regions, like Carneros or Anderson Valley. Still, it exists, especially with wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, low-tannin varieties than transmit the terroir into the wines with high-tension precision. The problem in Santa Maria Valley is a cold year, like 2011. I’m hearing increasing comparisons between 2011 and 2015 from winemakers and growers, but I think it’s way too early to go there yet. July and August could continue this cool pattern; equally, they could be hot. Nobody has the slightest idea. Our most expert meteorologists are puzzled. Even with these increased predictions of a strong El Nino in 2015-2016, no one is willing to say what it means. More rain? Average rain? Will Southern California get more rain than Northern California? Will the drought continue, or won’t it? You’d be hard-pressed to find a weatherman who will say anything remotely specific about any of this. The only good news is that this recent rainfall has reduced the early danger of catastrophic wildfires. A blessing.

Have a wonderful weekend.


Throwaway Thursday: Notes from the road

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Spent part of yesterday blending again with Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek. This time, it was putting together the winery’s flagship “Journey” Sauvignon Blanc. This would be a tedious exercise, if one didn’t enjoy it so much, which I certainly do. It makes it all the more pleasant in that Marcia and I agree more than often. It truly is amazing when one particular sample pops! after a string of several that don’t, due merely to the barrel. I can honestly say I never really understood the importance of barrel and toast levels until I began blending with Marcia.

* * *

My sympathies are with the good people of Boston, where I see by today’s forecast it will be bone chilling for at least a week. Meanwhile by contrast (and this isn’t to rub it in, honest), here in Northern California wine country it will be close to 80 this week. This is, as I understand it, because the West is under the influence of a huge high pressure system that’s sending the jet stream “up and over,” as our meterologists call it, into Canada, whence it dips back down into the American Midwest and east coast. I don’t think that’s particularly climate-changy in itself; it’s a question of how persistent the pattern gets. Our drought here in California is temporarily on reprieve, no thanks to record-dry January but to superwet December and a pair of back-to-back February storms. However, if you dig deeper, you find that those storms were warm ones—they call it the Pineapple Express because it comes from Hawaii, not the Gulf of Alaska. This means that, while the Coast got drenched, snow levels in the mountains were quite high—and the Sierra Nevada is where you want that nice, thick snow pack next Spring and Summer, when the runoff will fill the California aqueduct. So far, no luck on that front.

* * *

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting that the 2014 “Grape Crop Sets Record,” based mainly on “strong demand for top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.” The value of the North Coast grape crop hit $1.45 billion last year, a new record, and while the paper reminds us that was despite the 2014 crop begin lower than in 2012 and 2013, it still was the third-biggest crop ever.

Well, good for Cabernet Sauvignon! I still love a good one but have reached the point where, most of the time, I’d rather have a Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, the poor Central Valley continues to struggle with maintaining prices and production. Whenever someone says consumers are “drinking less but better,” the viticulturalists from Fresno and Madera must wince.

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It was announced yesterday that Jackson Family Wines has purchased Captûre Wines, the project from Denis and May-Britt Malbec. I had followed their wines quite closely, giving a pair of 95s to two 2009s, the Harmonie Bordeaux blend and the Revelation Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which had mountain intensity and ageability. Following on our acquisition of Siduri, this further fuels the company’s practice of partnering with small, prestigious wineries. Welcome, May-Britt and Denis!

* * *

Glad to see California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom announce for Governor in 2016. No surprise there: Once Kamala threw her hat in the ring for Senator, The Gavinator was a cinch. He’s likely to win the election, too—I mean, who else is there? He’s young, personable, visionary and made his reputation on gay marriage, which his opponent, I have no doubt, will try to hurt him with, but it won’t work in California. Gavin will be a great friend of wine: his PlumpJack wine empire owns several wineries. Gav is an old—well, I don’t be so presumptuous as to call him a “friend,” but he is an old acquaintance; we go back to the early 1990s when he was this tall, skinny, good-looking kid who wanted to get into the wine biz. So congratulations, Governor-to-be Newsom!


Monday Meanderings: the Central Valley, Siduri, rainless January and more good news about red wine

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One of the themes making the rounds at the recent Unified Wine & Grape Symposium was how poorly the Central Valley winegrape industry is faring.

You heard talk of it everywhere. As the Napa Valley Register reported, “In the San Joaquin Valley…bulk imports, costs, growing labor issues, water shortages and especially competition from beer and spirits are causing a market decline.”

The sad, bad news from the Central Valley contrasts with generally upraised spirits in California’s finer winegrowing regions along the coast. Yes, wineries are concerned with imports and the drought [see below]. But they’re also feeling upbeat about the future due to America’s rising economic conditions and the fact that the U.S. is now the world’s biggest wine market, and we’re apparently more willing to “buy more expensive wines.”

We premium wine drinkers have made fun of the Central Valley for years, but really, the valley has served a most useful purpose. Its grapes went into all those jug and boxed wines on the bottom shelf of the supermarket, which is where millions of Americans turn for their everyday wine; and, as Thomas Jefferson noted more than 200 years ago, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.” Of course, he added, “and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” It seems that our Founding Fathers had a rather negative view of spirits. Imagine how they would react if they came back today and could see what superstars our mixologists have become!

* * *

I obviously couldn’t be more pleased that Jackson Family Wines has purchased Siduri Wines. I’ve known Adam and Dianna Lee for a long time, profiled them in my second book, “New Classic Winemakers of California,” been a fan of their Siduri and Novy wines, and have valued Adam’s always insightful comments on this blog. So it’s an absolute pleasure for me to be able to call Adam and Dianna my professional colleagues. Welcome to the Family!

* * *

You’ve probably heard the startling news: San Francisco in had its first rainless January ever in 165 years of weather-keeping, after one of the wettest Decembers in history.

No wonder we Northern Californians are feeling a little whiplashed. The general feeling among growers is that, if February and March are rainy, we’ll be okay despite this arid January. If not, then things could get quite serious in California. (As I write this, the forecast is calling for rain this Friday and Saturday, but it doesn’t look like a soaker.) Along with competition from imports and the battle over immigration, water (or the lack of it) has emerged to the forefront as a chief concern of wineries. Everybody is going to be carefully watching the skies over the next three months.

take-shelter

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By the way, it’s not “Cabernet over cardio,” as the writer of this article says, it’s Cabernet and cardio! A perfect pairing.


Wednesday Wraparound: charity wine tastings and climate change

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Every day I get dozens of invitations to wine tastings in my email in-box, most of them for charities. (This is mainly because I have a Google alert for the word “wine.”) It’s quite amazing how the wine tasting format lends itself to fundraising. Is it because people who love wine are naturally more charitable? Or because, once they get a little boozy, they become more generous? Anyhow, the wine industry doesn’t get enough recognition in this regard.

* * *

I’ve been looking into the intricacies of sustainable wine growing and winemaking lately, and am frankly developing an appreciation I didn’t have before. For years, I suffered from MEGO syndrome whenever discussions arose of sustainability, organic, biodynamic, etc. It’s not that I thought those practice and beliefs were bad, because I didn’t. It’s just that I didn’t see what they had to do with wine quality. I still feel that quality is not particularly connected to your vineyard and/or winery practices, but as the challenges of climate change and energy provision become more acute, it makes more and more sense for wineries to do whatever they can to be good citizens of the world.

This seems especially true here in California, where the drought is really the biggest story in quite a while. As the Desert Sun, down in Palm Springs, reported today, “Californians should brace for hotter temperatures, reduced water supplies, longer droughts and more wildfires in the future,” a prediction based on the the administration’s release of a major new report on climate change.

I personally watch the to-and-fro over this debate with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I can understand the skepticism held by some people who feel that elements in the scientific and political communities are exaggerating the threat of global warming, or at any rate over-stressing man’s contributions to it. This skepticism is heightened by the sort of freezing cold, snowy winter that much of the country east of the Rockies just endured.

On the other hand, the fact that the majority of climate scientists—up to 97 percent, according to some reports—not only believe in climate change, but “agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities,” resonates with me. I happen not to be particularly suspicious of expertise, so the fact that so many knowledgeable people, who have studied the field of climate change for years, are united in telling us something is meaningful to me. All you have to do is take a look at the snowpack in the High Sierra this year to realize that (a) it’s minimal and (b) the chickens are going to come home to roost one of these days in water-hungry California. I talk to a lot of winemakers and grapegrowers and can tell you that in many instances they are completely freaked out by the lack of water. Not everyone is in the same boat: some wineries have good reservoirs that will get them through another dry summer. But many don’t. Fortunately, we’ve gotten through this Spring (so far) without a major freeze, and with the passage of every day, it seems less likely that there will be one before summer comes in all its fullness. But then, of course, we’ll have heat waves—and wildfires—and all the other strange fruits of California summer. If there’s not enough water to deal with those things, there’ll be trouble.


More on the drought

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I know I’ve been harping on this damned drought out here in California for months, ever since it appeared (by early December) that 2013 was going to be the driest year in California’s history, with records going back to the Gold Rush.

That’s exactly how it turned out. People were hoping the rains would return in January, but now, with the month half over, that hasn’t happened, and the extended forecasts–completely dry and warm–mean we’ll now have to pin our hopes on February and March, both of which can be extraordinarily wet. February historically has been the wettest month of the rainy season, with 4.61 inches falling, on average, in San Francisco. That’s about one-fifth the seasonal total. This is why Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet declared a Drought Emergency in California, although he’s been urged to do so by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others; the Governor feels it’s a little too early to panic, and he may be right.

On the other hand, vintners, as well as farmers of all crops, are starting to panic. Or maybe “panic” is too strong a word. They’re concerned. They’re forming contingency plans. What will they do if there’s no water to fight off Spring frosts? What will they do for irrigation when the heat spells return next summer? There are no easy answers. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a few days ago that “residents in many parts of California are being asked – and sometimes ordered – to scale back their water use.” It’s not only been a dry winter, it’s been a warm one. Yes, we had an unusually chilly early December, but since then, it’s been more like May. Oakland, where I live, has set numerous high temperature records lately, including yesterday, when it was 74 degrees. Other records were set in San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Maria, where it was an unbelievable 83 degrees. The flowering trees in Oakland (magnolias, plums) are in full bloom. We’re in Day Three of a high fire danger, Red Flag warning in the East Bay and North Bay hills. This morning, the situation has grown even worse; the state now is under an Extreme Fire Danger alert, and Southern Californians are on edge, as those dreaded Santa Ana winds kick up, howling through the canyons where wildfires erupt and roar through places like Malibu and Laguna Beach. The warnings extend all the way up and into the Sierra Foothills.

I see red-breasted robins, honeybees and tiger swallowtail butterflies flying around–things you shouldn’t see in the Bay Area in deep winter. It doesn’t make sense. My T.V. weatherman last night called the weather “eerie,” a good word. He’s a trained meterorologist and he doesn’t understand what’s happening. Nobody does.

As the website, Wunderground.com, reported today, “The prospects for any significant rain or mountain snow in California over the next seven to 10 days look dismal, according to the latest computer model forecast guidance. If this type of pattern were to persist through the final week of the month, many January precipitation records could fall by the wayside.” That should cause everyone–not just Californians–deep concern.


How bad is California’s drought?

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If you live in California, you know what happened this winter and spring.

In December, it rained, and rained, and rained or, if you were in the mountains, snowed and snowed. In parts of the Sierra Nevada, December, 2012 was the second snowiest ever measured.

It was reassuring news to a state that gets most of its water from snowmelt–especially after the parched December of 2011, when the snowpack was only 14% of average.

But a funny thing happened as soon as 2012 turned into 2013. The rain stopped. Seriously stopped. January and February were the driest months ever recorded in California. March brought a little rain, but not enough to help. Last week, the government released its “drought monitor”, which declared that most of Central and Southern California is suffering from “severe” drought, while the north is experiencing moderate drought.

Moreover, the National Weather Service is predicting “Persistent” drought throughout all of California (and most of the West).

Just this past week, the California Department of Water Resources published, on their website, a drought statement that begins with this alarming statement: “It’s official. The 2013 January-May period is the driest on record (since 1920) for all regions of the Sierra.”

The arid conditions already are beginning to threaten vines. San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles) “face[s] spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new water sourcesleaving the area even more short of water at a time when vineyards are planting as many as 8,000 new acres of wine grapes.”

In the North Coast, Sonoma County has been under an official federal “disaster declaration for drought” since January, 2012,

Grapes being the thirsty plants they are, California growers are having to look at their options, including more efficient use of existing water sources. Those who dry farm–a minority–are on safer ground than those who depend on irrigation. California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, just two days ago, noting “how bone dry the state is so early in the summer season,” called for “[e]xpanding and improving California’s water storage capacity”; if that is not done, she predicted, “California is at risk of becoming a desert state.”

Water shortages are nothing new for California, but they seem to be happening more frequently; and with vineyard acreage expanding, water–or, more precisely, the lack of it–could emerge to be the biggest problem the wine industry faces.


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