I’m setting up my annual tasting for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business, which this year will be on April 9. This is one of my favorite tastings because the students—future MBAs who are members of the school’s wine club—are totally into wine. They’re a smart, curious bunch, eager to learn, and they ask the best questions.
When you’re the speaker or moderator at a wine seminar, it’s always nice to have an audience that works with you, instead of just sitting there expecting you to do all the heavy lifting. A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar in San Francisco, on high-altitude wines. One of the moderators was a winemaker. It was a very interesting topic, and I had lots of questions, so I raised my hand often to ask—probably more so than any of the other 50 or 60 people in the audience. I’m not shy about such things! Afterwards, I went up to the winemaker to pay my respects, and the first thing he did was to thank me for asking so many questions! I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve been on panels where the audience was like Forest Lawn Cemetary. Not fun! So if I’m in any position to offer advice, it would be: Next time you’re in the audience at a winetasting and they permit questions, raise that hand! Participate! We’re all in this together.
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I’m sure we’re still officially in a drought, but we had a lot of rain in March and even some good storms in February, after the driest December-January in recorded history, which got the media buzzing about the D-word. Downtown San Francisco got nearly an inch of rain during this most recent storm (yesterday), which puts it at 51% of normal. Other cities are doing better. Calistoga is up to 83% of normal as of yesterday, if this chart from the San Francisco Chronicle can be believed. Santa Rosa got .53 of an inch yesterday, bringing the annual average up to about half. This storm hasn’t yet hit the Central Coast, where the water situation is really dire, but the National Weather Service is predicting it will, although the amount of precipitation doesn’t appear to be very great. So the area from Paso Robles down through Santa Barbara really does need rain, badly. We can only hope they get it before the rainy season is over.
At any rate, this morning’s Chronicle says that despite yesterday’s hefty soaking, recent dowmpours “fall far short of ending [the] crisis.” The Sierra Madre Mountains, it says—which is where most of California’s summertime water comes from, via snowmelt—are still at only 29 percent of historical normal, meaning Monday’s thunder, lightning and heavy rain were “too little and too late to have much impact on this year’s severe drought.”
However, others are seeing a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. “The trend is improving,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat quoted a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency. That’s because the recent storms have been so soaking that “you’re looking at a lot of run-off…into the reservoirs.” For instance, Lake Sonoma, which sits at the top of Dry Creek Valley, now is at 74 percent capacity.
The rain is over, for now, and, as is typical of big winter storms moving through California, the temperature is expected to plummet as the cold front passes. It’s quite cold this morning (as I write), meaning that vintners have a new fear in mind, beyond the drought: “when these storms come through and then stop, there’s cold storms from the north and you’ve got to watch your frost protection,” the Press Democrat quoted an Alexander Valley vineyard manager as saying. Since so many wineries depend on overhead sprinklers for frost protection, if we do end up with a spurt of below-freezing mornings, vintners may be in for a real challenge.
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.”
The 2011 growing conditions are starting out eerily like notorious 2010, when “summer never came.” Winter was long, wet and cold. We had a couple of warm days in April, but nothing out of the ordinary. Since then, it’s been nothing but cool, abnormally so. And now, rain.
Significant quantities of rain and hail and even snow at higher elevations (3,000 feet) fell overnight, particularly in the North Country, with rain expected to move south today. This is really crazy for the middle of May–and it’s not over. Rain will pick up in the Central Valley today, and move into L.A. on Wednesday, as a deep trough more typical of January cuts through the West. The National Weather Service yesterday said “winter-like weather will return to Northern California later this afternoon and tonight. Periods of heavy snow will likely redevelop across the northern Sierra Nevada this evening.”
By Thursday, fortunately, it should all be over. But what will the damage be to tender young grapeshoots?
And the extent of the April 8-10 freeze, when temperatures plunged as low as 24 degrees in the Central Coast, is becoming clearer. I was in Paso Robles last Friday, and it was the main topic of conversation. Paso Robles, southern Monterey and the Santa Ynez Valley were especially hard hit. The Western Farm Press reported that “Damage is unquestionably extensive”; several people told me that the Paso Robles crop has been wiped out by 50%. A local radio station reported that, of 25,000 planted acres in Paso Robles, “about 15 to 20,000 acres of those were affected at some level by the frost.” I can scarcely believe the quantity of blasted fruit is that high; maybe it is. There are reports that some wineries in Paso’s western hills will produce no crop this year. I asked a grower about secondary crop. He replied, in effect, don’t count on it.
I know nobody wants to hear about 2011 being as weird as last year, but why shouldn’t it be? Every vintage since 2005 has been cooler than the one before it. We thought 2008 was cool (despite the wildfires) and then came 2009. Then came 2010, the coldest year in memory. People are still freaked out by it. So far, 2011 is showing no sign of being any different.
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I speak today at the International Special Events Society, which is meeting in Sonoma County. They asked me to talk about trends in the wine world. I plan on mentioning the different values and outlooks between Boomers, on the one hand, and Millennials and Gen Xers, on the other; the search for value; a movement toward lower alcohol levels in wine; new negociant models; a spate of M&As in California; social media, and a boom in the acreage of “alternative varieties.” Maybe one or two other things will occur to me. I don’t like to be too prepared when I speak to groups. I like things loosey-goosey. It’s more interesting when nobody, including me, knows what’s going to happen. I like to encourage questions and comments. Good feedback, even disagreement, from listeners inspires me; it makes me say things that surprise myself, things I didn’t even know I knew. Unfortunately, the drive up to Sonoma is likely to be a drag, with all the rain and fender benders. More tomorrow.
Yesterday’s headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that Schwarzenegger is playing politics in refusing to declare an end to the drought that he officially declared two years ago didn’t surprise me. Despite “heavy snowfall [that] buried the Sierra Nevada and torrential rains [that] drenched much of California,” the Governator found plenty of reasons to allow the drought to continue — on paper, that is.
It certainly no longer exists in nature. California’s snowpack was more than 140 percent above average as of April 30, and that was already before the recent wave of storms dumped still more snow in the mountains — with more set to fall this weekend.
On Monday, about half an inch fell throughout Northern California wine country. By this time of the year, it should be dry and sunny, with temps in the 70s. But no! Lance Armstrong was in Santa Rosa, for the Amgen Tour, and the Press Democrat had him asking, “Does it always rain here?”, a question millions of the rest of us have pondered.
It wasn’t just wet in the north country. “One storm barreling ashore now and another expected to follow this weekend will bring rare, drenching May rain and cool conditions to much of California and the West Coast,” said this article on AccuWeather’s website
May storms batter California
I got a nice little running commentary the other day on my Facebook page when I posted about “the coldest, wettest May in years.” Apparently I have a lot of winemaker friends, and they engaged each other in the comments section, describing how they’re try to control mildew and botrytis. From John Kelly: “’no rain on bloom’ from your lips to god’s ears.” The more optimistic winemakers, such as Justin Mund, down in Santa Barbara, said, “It [the rain] doesn’t really matter anyway right now unless it is going to affect bloom. It will be dry soon enough!”
But will it? My faithful Facebook friend, Peter Cargasacchi, wrote from his perch in the Santa Rita Hills, RAIN/DRIZZLE… EL NINO CONDITIONS CONTINUE ACROSS THE EQUATORIAL PACIFIC OCEAN WITH SEA SURFACE TEMPERATURE DEPARTURES OF +1.0 DEGREE C OR GREATER ACROSS PORTIONS OF THE CENTRAL PACIFIC. OCEAN SUB-SURFACE TEMPERATURE ANOMALIES ALSO REMAIN POSITIVE FROM THE SURFACE TO A DEPTH OF 75 METERS FROM NEAR 160 E EAST…
And El Nino, as we know all too painfully, pulls the storm track southward, resulting in greater precipitation in California.
It’s not just wet, it’s cold. I asked my friend, KTVU-TV meteorologist Steve Paulsen, just how cold it’s been, and he wrote: “the mean temperature at Sacramento Executive Airport so far this month is 55.5 degrees. That is 3.4 degrees below normal and the coldest mean temperature for Sacramento since 1948.” Folks, 3.4 degrees is a HUGE temperature change. By the way, the reason they picked Sacramento, not San Francisco or some other coastal city, was because Sacto is “not influenced by the cold, onshore flow from the Pacific” and thus is a more reliable gauge of weather-related (as opposed to maritime-influenced) temperature.
Today’s Chronicle says the well-known Bay Area meteorologist, Mike Pechner, calls “the string of cold, wet weather ‘unprecedented in its strength and duration,’” and that it could “last until June.” My own take is that climate change is deranging California’s weather pattern, making it cooler; add El Nino, and you get wetter, too. What’s that you say? “Heimoff’s not a meterologist, what the hell does he know?” Well, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
It’s raining again here in cloudy, wet Oakland, as it is in most of California from the Central Coast northward. It seems like this has been a really rainy winter, and it doesn’t want to stop. Not that I’m complaining. Well, maybe I am, a little — but the most common phrase this year has been “We need the water.” And we do, “we” being not just us humans, who consume it in the form of melted snowpack from the High Sierra mostly, but also the grapevines. Several winemakers have told me over the last two weeks that, despite all the rain, they were wishing for one or two more storms. Well, they’re getting what they asked for.
The season started out rainy and never stopped. Oakland got a record 3.86 inches back last Oct. 13, the “storm from hell” that sparked the infamous question, “Did you pick before or after the rains?” (For the record, Napa got 3.65 inches in that storm, while 3.16 inches poured down on the Sonoma County Airport.) In November, things dried out, but December turned wickedly cold and wet, a trend that has lasted until now.
By the time April comes to Northern California, your mind and body are prepared for Spring. Every flowering tree is in full bloom, the wildflowers lend a riot of color to the fields and hills, the robins are back, and even the fruit flies make their first appearance of the season. (Where do they live during the winter?) April holds the promise of six months of warm, sunny weather; April is the threshold of Paradise.
But this April has been a cruel tease. We had a day or two in the high 70s. But here are random notes from my Vintage Diary:
April 4: Cold, wet and windy.
April 7: More very cold weather, very wet and rainy.
April 10: The month continues to be very cold and wet.
April 22: The rain continues. Very, very cold.
April 28: Two consecutive days of rain.
The Oakland Airport weather station has had 19.75 inches of rain since last July 1 through today, which is 115% of the normal rainfall, 17.11 inches. The average precipitation for the season (which runs from July 1-June 30 every year) is 22.94 inches, so even though it feels like it’s been raining forever, we’re more than three inches below average. But we still have May to get through, a tricky month; the average precipitation here in May is less than an inch, but last May was very rainy, especially in the North Coast. We had big storms the first week of May, 2009, with totals up to 5 inches, and June was no picnic. My local weatherman called June, 2009 “the coldest June in 15 years.”
I’ve been noting ever since 2005 that the weather here in coastal California seems cooler than normal. That seems to be continuing. It may be that the Great Interior Basin (around the Four Corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) is heating up, as well as California’s Central Valley. That would create a lower pressure gradient that would suck in air from over the eastern Pacific, where the water temperature is always cold, cooling the coast before the air warmed up again on its way inland. Whatever the reason for our cooler weather along the coast, it’s good for the grapes and wine (unless you get hit by mold or rain or a frost). Cooler temps = longer hangtime = ripeness at lower brix = more flavor with lower alcohol. At least, that’s the theory.
Anyway the forecast for today is continued showers and even the possibility of thunderstorms. The longer range forecast calls for clearing and warmer after today. But Springtime in California, like I said, can be a tease.