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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.


The vagaries of vintages

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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.


Vintage 2014, and California declares war on small wineries

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With the first (light) rain of the season expected tomorrow (today, as you read this) north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought it was a good time to consider the 2014 vintage in California. So, as usual, I asked my loyal Facebook friends, who responded in force.

The story is this: short, compressed harvest. Record early, in many cases a month before normal. (This means that Autumn rains should not be a problem. If they actually come, which everyone is hoping they will.) A good crop, tonnage-wise, not a record, but then, it comes on the heels of two record-setting years (2012, 2013).

Quality? Overall, pretty good. The wines should be plump and approachable. Several people commented on soft acids, but that can be corrected in the winery. On the other hand, others remarked about high acidity, which also can be corrected, partially, through the malolactic fermentation. The exceptional drought has resulted in small berries but that should make for intense flavors.

Potential problems? Smoke taint tops the list. The Sierra Foothills have been hit heavy by wildfires. So has the extreme North Coast, but that smoke drifts down to the south. A second potential issue is that the warmth, combined with the drought, has resulted in fairly high sugars, especially in reds, but true phenolic ripeness lags a bit behind. I wouldn’t call this a statewide problem but it could result in some structural and balance problems. In a few cases, the crush rush could be a challenge for vintners running out of cellar space.

Several respondents commented on the inverted order of picking, with Cabernet coming in earlier than Pinot and some of the whites, a situation that has vintners scratching their heads, and which may be due to the drought.

Overall, the mood among vintners is positive. I’d call 2014 the third year in a row where there’s more cause to celebrate.

* * *

I must say I find this story disturbing. In brief, the State of California has fined a local winery for using volunteers. Seems the winery didn’t pay them wages, or worker’s comp, so Sacramento has cracked down with a fine so heavy, it looks like it will put this little family winery, in business since 1986, out of business.

The story was so preposterous, I called the winery to see if it’s true. I spoke with Westover Winery’s owner, Bill Smyth, who confirmed it. “The State is out of control,” he told me. What will happen now? “We’ll go out of business, 900 of our club members and thousands of customers will lose, and wineries all over California will be devastated.” Bill contacted his state assemblyman, who’s calling for hearings to “do something,” Bill says. But what exactly can be done isn’t clear.

What were the volunteers doing? “The same things as they do at all other wineries: work behind the bar, making wine,” Bill says. They’re friends of the winery who loved participating.

I’ve volunteered at wineries. I’ve punched down, cleaned tanks and worked in the vineyard, and enjoyed and learned from it. There’s something seriously wrong with this development. I hope things work out for Bill Smyth, and I hope that the California Legislature changes the law to allow volunteers to work at wineries. And how about Wine Institute? Guys, it’s time for you to use your clout in the State Capitol.


A day in coastal California’s micro-climates

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It was 101 degrees in Calistoga yesterday when I left, around 4:30 p.m. By the time I reached St. Helena it was down to 94. Then 87 in Napa city. As I crossed the Benicia bridge, across the Carquinez Straights on the 101 freeway heading back to Oakland, I could see, there in the distance, a huge, glowering wall of dark gray hovering on the horizon. At first it looked like the smoke from a forest fire; but it wasn’t, it was the coastal fog.

Bigger and more looming it grew as I drove south. In Richmond, I entered the maelstrom. The blue sky, the picturesque distance disappeared into the gloom; Mount Tam, to the west, vanished as completely as if it had been wiped off the face of the world. The temperature dropped until it was 65 degrees: nearly 40 degrees lower than when I’d left Calistoga, just 1-1/2 hours before. The fog hung low through Albany and north Berkeley, then evaporated as I got to Oakland, where it was again sunny, and the temperature had gone back up to the mid-70s. This was as beautiful, as classic an illustration of Cailfornia’s summer coastal climate as you could possibly wish for. It’s why northern Calistoga specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon (good Charbono, too), why Carneros is good for Pinot Noir, and why the near East Bay is too cold for any serious grapegrowing.

I’d been in Calistoga for a visit and tasting (of various Pinot Noirs) at Atalon, which is part of Jackson Family Wines’ portfolio. It’s on Tubbs Lane; nearby are Summers, Chateau Montelena, Tamber Bey and others. This is the warmest part of Napa Valley, its northwestern-most pocket, where the cooling influence from the Bay pretty much fizzles out. Bo Barrett once told me that there’s something he calls “the Calistoga Gap”—no, not part of the clothing store chain, but a low place in the Mayacamas through which, he said, cooler air from the Russian River Valley funnels in, moderating the temperatures. This may be so; to get to Calistoga from the Russian River Valley (as I’d done that day), you drive east up Mark West Springs Road as it roller-coasters over the mountains, twisting and turning its way towards Highway 128/29. But it’s not clear to me that the Russian River Valley air can actually find its way “over the hill”, to any meaningful extent. Maybe one of my smart readers can explain this. (I had Gus beside me, in the passenger seat, and for a while he seemed like he might throw up, because his little tummy doesn’t do well on twisting mountain roads. But he didn’t.)

The Tubbs Lane part of Calistoga is a distinctive place. To my eye, it’s a bowl of sorts: not like Napa Valley further south, in, say, Oakville or Rutherford, where you have the mountains (Mayacamas and Vacas) neatly lining the western and eastern sides, with the valley broad and expansive inbetween, like the sheet on a bed. Along Tubbs Lane there seem to be mountains everywhere except to the south; it is thus more of an amphitheater. Mount St. Helena looms immediately to the east: this picture, taken at Atalon, only hints at its majestic presence.

StHelena

 

On the other side of the mountain, of course, is Lake County.

That 101 temperature yesterday in Calistoga shows how we’re in the midst of a long, severe heat wave here in California. That’s on top of the drought. The state has had some forest fires, but mainly in the Sierra Foothills and around Yosemite; the coast has largely been spared—so far. Everybody’s hoping it will continue to be. The heat is expected today—as I write these words—to be even worse than yesterday, not good news for anyone, including the grapevines that are so close to being harvested in record-early time.

Although it’s only August 1, I haven’t heard that growers are particularly worried. In fact, the scoop is that it will be another fine harvest, coming after 2012 and 2013. Lest anyone think vintage doesn’t matter in California, the evidence proves otherwise. At the Pinot Noir tasting at Atalon, which we did blind, we tasted through multiple Anderson Valley and Russian River Valley wineries, in two flights: the 2011 and 2012 vintages. There was no comparison. The 2011 flight contained some good wines but overall was disappointing. The 2012s by contrast were fat, lush, opulent. There wasn’t a single loser among them.

Have a great weekend!


Tuesday twaddle: geographic indicators, and the changing seasons

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Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican from Kansas, delivered a scathing attack the other day during hearings by the Senate Finance Committee on the proposed regulations by the European Community that would ban the use of certain geographic names on U.S. goods, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Black Forest ham, feta cheese and even bologna, unless they were made in those European regions.

Such names are known in the parlance as geographic indications, or GIs. The issue of GIs is part of a broader package of issues weighing down Senate consideration of a Trade Promotion Authority bill that the Obama administration supports. The administration was represented in the hearings by the U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, who told the Senate committee that he largely agrees with Roberts, making for rare bipartisanship between the Republicans and Democrats.

The issue of geographic indication names has a long and contentious history, especially in the wine industry. The U.S. has already banned certain names, such as Burgundy and Chablis, unless they were grandfathered in before the laws went into effect. But the new regulations proposed by the E.U. apparently would go even further, possibly making it illegal even for older brands to use certain place names. For example, Korbel, which currently is allowed to use the word “champagne” as long a it’s preceded by “California,” might no longer be able to do so.

Other countries that have negotiated agreements with the E.U. have already banned certain GIs that are still allowed here. Singapore recently passed a tough GI law. South Korea no longer allows any liquor to be called “scotch” unless it’s from Scotland, nor any cheese to be labeled “feta” unless it’s from Greece. Here in the U.S., the rules are considerably looser. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has ruled that, “once a geographic designation is generic in the United States, any producer is free to use the designation for its goods/services.”

It is this lax approach that concerns the E.U.

Are the Europeans being too restrictive about their GIs? I don’t think so. In this era of intense global competition, American consumers have a right to know precisely where their food, including wine, comes from—and the people in ancient regions, like Chianti and Champagne, deserve the right to insist that only their locally-produced products can bear those names.

But the food lobby in this country is powerful, and the Congress doesn’t seem to be in the mood to pass new restrictions on products that have been sold here for a long time. Fortunately, the wine industry is only tangentially affected by this issue, since they’ve largely done the right thing and gotten rid of most of those purloined European place names.

But not all of them, as witness Korbel. And I still see American-made products like cooking sherry and sauterne on the supermarket shelf. I don’t blame the people of Spain and France for being bothered.

* * *

I love this time of year. Winter has been cold, if dry. But now you can sense the changing of the seasons. One day reminds you that the Gulf of Alaska is just up there, with its winds off the ice. A day later and Mexico beckons, tropical-warm and shirt-sleevy, as the temperature hits the 80s. Schizy weather, but most days are inbetween: get in the sun, out of the wind, and it’s summer. Get in a windy place in the shade, and you need a hoodie. That’s why they say the key to clothing in the Bay Area is layers. I should think wine grapes like the same weather as humans. Not too hot, not too cold, just right. Goldilocks weather. East coasters always say that coastal California has only two seasons, wet and dry, but they’re wrong. We have four seasons; the only thing is, they’re subtle, and you have to live here for a while to get it. Well, summer’s almost here, and so far, it looks like another great vintage, on the heels of 2012 and 2013, two masterpieces.


World of Pinot Noir 2014: Random notes

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At the morning seminar on the Pinots of Willamette Valley, my friend Gillian Handelman, of Jackson Family Wines, remarked that Oregon winemakers seem to talk a lot more about soil and rocks than do California winemakers, who lean more toward climate in explaining their Pinots. That immediately rang true to me, and I wondered why it might be so. A few things occur to me:

The historical reference point for Pinot Noir in California is Sonoma County, where the soils are so impossibly jumbled, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault system, that you can walk two yards and find different structures. That may be one reason why: Winemakers were stymied trying to understand their soils, so they very naturally turned to climate. Then too, as someone observed, up in Oregon-Washington, every kid is raised with the story of the great Missoula Floods, which formed so much of those states’ terrain. “It was our creation myth,” said Oregon journalist Katherine Cole, who moderated the Willamette seminar. So it may be that Oregonians have rocks more deeply imbedded in their imaginations than do Californians. Finally, it may be because in Willamette, Pinot Noir is pretty much exclusively the red grape, whereas in California, it’s everything from Pinot to Cabernet and Zinfandel. Pinot seems to draw more from the dirt than most other red varieties, so maybe Oregon winemakers look more toward Burgundian explanations of terroir than Californians. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think Gillian hit the nail on the head.

The seminar on the wines of Louis Jadot’s Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules was stunning. I’ve gone to few vertical tastings in my life in which a continuity of style was clearer, or where the necessity of aging more apparent. We tasted eight wines, from 2010 going back to 1985, and it was easy to find the same elements in them all. But really, only the 1985 was drinkable (to me)–and that, just barely; I’d love to try it in another 20 years. Jadot’s winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, conceded as much. When asked by an audience member if he didn’t feel the need to change the style in response to consumer demand for earlier-drinking wines, Barnier said, in effect: No way. Good for him.

Later, at the walkaround tasting, I found myself gravitating toward the 2011s, from both Oregon and California. Some of them were stunning. The one I particularly recall was the Baxter 2011 Valenti Vineyard, from Mendocino Ridge. (I no longer review Mendocino wines for Wine Enthusiast; Virginie Boone does. She scored it 92 points. I might have gone a little higher, and added a Cellar Selection designation. But Virginie and I are in the same ballpark.)

I’m still formulating my views on the 2011 Pinots. Katherine, the Willamette moderator, told a story about a Burgundian producer she interviewed. When she asked him about a certain vintage would develop, he crustily replied (I paraphrase Katherine’s quote), “How am I supposed to know? You can’t understand a vintage for at least fifty years.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it takes time, and any serious reviewer who doesn’t revise his estimations of a vintage is lazy or dead. Early on, I had serious problems with 2011 Pinots from California. Lots of mold. But there always were some great wines from producers who either sorted out the moldy berries or who sourced their grapes from vineyards (often mountains or hillsides) where mold was not a problem, even in the cold 2011 vintage. So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s. The Baxter is the only one I’ll mention here, but the great ones all were low in alcohol, incredibly streamlined and elegant, brisk in acidity and not overwhelming in fruit. You can call them Burgundian, I suppose. This raises the question of how to evaluate a vintage, overall, when it contains extremes of both sides: extraordinary wines as well as moldy ones. My feeling is to lower the overall score, in terms of numbers, but try to express, in the text, that consumers who choose well will find unbelievably gorgeous wines. This is not always an easy message to get across, but then, of course, the individual scores and reviews of the wines also express how I feel about them.

Finally: Frédéric Barnier on numerous occasions made a distinction between wines that are “good” and those that are “interesting.” I raised my hand five or six times, during the Q&A, to ask him to elaborate; but alas, Katherine never called on me, so all I can do is surmise. I wanted to ask him: Can a wine that’s not good be interesting? Can a wine that’s good be uninteresting? This is fascinating stuff, and I hope to muse on these concepts in the future.

 


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