Up until three days ago the conventional wisdom across California was “2009, fantastic vintage.” The season was cool and dry. A few heat spikes here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. Some vintners, like Scott McLeod, at Rubicon, even told me, in early September, he was experiencing the Holy Grail: “Things taste better at lower brix.”
A freaky rainstorm caught everybody by surprise on Sept. 12-13, but it was quickly replaced by a big, fat high pressure ridge that brought warm weather and sunshine back. Mild breezes, too, which for most quality vineyards eliminated any danger of mold or mildew caused by the storm’s residual moisture in the vines.
A major heat wave developed a week later and lasted the better part of a week. That made growers uncomfortable, but the better ones were able to manage it through proper trellising and irrigation regimes. Fortunately, at the end of the month a huge cool-down occurred, just what the vines needed to recover. As October arrived, the cool pattern continued — there was even record cold by Oct. 9. But it remained dry. By then, most of the Pinot Noir had been picked, so the 2009 vintage for that variety could indeed be spectacular. But Cabernet, as well as Syrah, might not fare as well.
Indeed, on Oct. 9, which was a Friday, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers announced, in the most hopeful terms, that “the 2009 harvest is in full swing and the grapes being harvested are of superior quality. Growers are predicting an incredible vintage and are hoping for a continuation of the mild weather pattern, minus the heat wave that was experienced in recent weeks.” It’s true, their press released admitted, that “We’re keeping a close eye on the rain forecast for Tuesday (Oct. 13).” But, it added, “on the positive, Cab is very tough & could handle some rain.”
Well, here it is Wednesday Oct. 14, and as it turns out, the storm wasn’t “some rain,” it was a real gullywasher, the powerful remnant of a Japanese typhoon carried into California by the jet stream. Never, it’s being said, has California experienced a storm this big, this early in the rainy season. According to the T.V. weatherman, rain totals as of this morning in wine country ranged between 6 and 9 inches, in less than 24 hours. That is spectacular.
My guess is that most of the Pinot has been picked, although there could be far Sonoma Coast Pinot and even Chardonnay that hasn’t been. The big problem is Cabernet and coastal Syrah. If the vines are on a steep slope, it’s probably okay. The flatlands, though, could suffer from mold and rot. Those vintners who rushed to pick over this past weekend in advance of the storm may well have done so out of fear, before the grapes were ripe. And those who decided to brave the storm in hopes it would be manageable may be finding out, in coming days, that it wasn’t. The rain will lower brix, requiring even longer hang time to make up the deficit, which pushes harvest further out into October and even November. The end result could be a classic case of “Who picked before the rains and who didn’t?” What looked like a fabulous Cabernet (and Syrah) vintage could be the most challenging in years.
From beyond the grave, Julia Child shows that print still matters
The late chef’s magnum opus, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” sold 22,000 copies in one week following release of the movie “Julie & Julia.” That is “more copies than were sold in any full year since the book’s appearance” nearly 48 years ago, according to the New York Times, citing the book’s publisher, Knopf.
The book also hit No. 1 at both Amazon and B&N.com earlier this month, and is racing up the charts at Publishers Weekly’s hardcover nonfiction best sellers.
i.e. People still read books!
Yes, I know how Twitter can drive events. The Tehran uprisings are a classic example. But predictions of the demise of print (as well as the power of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie) have been greatly exaggerated!
Think about it. Here we have a 752-page book that’s racing off the shelves, and the publicity for it has been driven exclusively by the film, as well as (I would argue) the stellar reviews it got, mostly in print newspapers and magazines. Could social media have resurrected “Mastering”? Maybe, but the book’s amazing comeback proves that the tried-and-true way of making things famous still holds a trick or two up its sleeve.
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2009 Vintage could be great
The winter was very cold. Rainfall was low until Spring, when the skies opened up, making for near-normal precipitation. A hard frost hit statewide in mid-April, followed by a heat wave. May and June were rainy and cold, with June setting low temperature records. July was fairly average, and August has been mild. There were some excessive heat spikes in the usual hot places, like Paso Robles, but nothing that could spoil the vintage
Harvest began August 12, mainly for sparkling wine grapes and Sauvignon Blanc. Some vintners expressed concern about green flavors, due to the coolness. Monsoonal moistness in late August also raises the threat of mold, although this doesn’t appear to be a big problem. The big reds have yet to be picked, but 2009 could be a very good year for Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, provided that ripening proceeds steadily, with no major heat waves, and the rains hold off. With a weak El Nino effect in the Pacific, California, especially Southern California, could be in for higher-than-usual rains this Fall, but it’s too soon to tell. But overall, the pieces are in place for a good vintage: coolish weather, dry conditions during harvest (so far) and an absence of heat waves should enable ripeness without high alcohol.
Maybe it’s the freezing cold spell we’ve been having lately, but I’ve been thinking about the weather, and how it affects grapes in these modern times, when there are so many weapons in the winemaker’s tool box to un-do any damage it might cause.
It’s so different from the old days. Prognosticators used to opine on a vintage almost before the grapes had been picked, and buyers would genuflect and base their buying decisions on the edicts of a few. I was reminded of this when I picked up my old copy of Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book, which is one of the best wine books ever. Michael colors entire Bordeaux vintages with a few flourishes of his pen:
1863: mediocre quality
1864: A truly grand année
1866 and 1867: unripe vines and feeble green wines
1870: the greatest, possibly, of all time
Blog disclosure: This is not my cellar!
Of course, Michael wasn’t alive then, but resorts to reports then current from vignerons and brokers, as well as his own extensive tasting of old wines. How easy it was then to paint Bordeaux vintages with a single brush. After all, it’s a smallish region — only about 40 miles separate St. Estephe and Bordeaux — and a relatively homogenous one, weather-wise. True, it might hail on one vineyard and spare another next door, but mostly the entire district has the same weather. Also, because Bordeaux is in a damp continental (as opposed to Mediterranean) climate, yearly weather patterns can differ dramatically.
California is so different. With our Mediterranean climate, the old saying that “Every year is a vintage year” is truer than not, although it was long the fashion among critics to claim otherwise. If you live in California, you know this to be true. Summers are dependably warm and dry. Autumn is typically gorgeous. Yes, it can rain in September, particularly in the north, but not heavily, and even if it does, the next week usually will be sunny and dry, allowing the water to evaporate off the grapes instead of spoiling them.
Winter can be nasty, with floods and freezes, but the vines are dormant and don’t much care. Spring is iffy, with late rains and frosts sometimes wreaking havoc in the vineyards (as they did in 2008). But for the most part, a bad Spring will result in a short crop, but not an inferior one. California’s weather is so dependable — even with climate change — you can set your watch by it.
And then there are all the tricks vintners use to counter the effects of weather, in both the vineyard and in the winery. The sciences of viticulture and enology have salvaged crops that would have been ruined once upon a time.
I write up Wine Enthusiast’s California vintage chart every year, and I’ll praise a year like 2005, which was so kind to Pinot Noir, or 2001, when North Coast Cabernet excelled. But the truth is, everybody tends to make more of vintages than they deserve in California. The downside of a harsh vintage rating — for example, the way some critics trashed 1998 — is that consumers, buying into the anachronistic Bordeaux model, tend to shun everything from that year, including some very good wines that didn’t suffer at all. The bottom line for consumers — and for budding bloggers — is that vintage variation should be taken with a grain of salt.