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The heat is on


“Be careful what you wish for!” That’s what Rob Mondavi told me at lunch yesterday. He was referring, of course, to the heat — the baking, relentless heat that’s caused records to topple from the North Bay to L.A., which recorded its hottest day ever: 113.

I’d been complaining about the cold since last winter. Cold, wet Spring, cold, foggy summer, the vines weeks and weeks behind schedule. Then California had a few days of heat a month ago, and a lot of stuff got baked. Then it got chilly again. Everybody was worrying, especially in the North Coast, because just around the corner are the winter rains.

And now this!

My colleague, Joe Roberts, at 1WineDude, reported today on the heat. I had the same instinct yesterday, when I asked my winemaker friends on Facebook to report in from their regions and let me know what’s happening. Judging from some of the replies, things are looking up:

Jason Haas, Tablas Creek, Paso Robles: Things are accelerating a little, but the vineyard still looks in good shape…high temperatures at Tablas of 105 (today), 104 (yesterday), 101 (Sunday) and 97 (Saturday) aren’t really that unusual for late September. It’s cooled off nicely, into the 50s, each night. I’m more worried for places/grapes that don’t usually get hot. San Luis Obispo hit 110 yesterday (!).

Jeremy Kreck, Mill Creek, Russian River Valley: Sugars are really starting to move after stalling out for a couple weeks. We’re bringing in Sauvignon Blanc, and I expect to roll right into the Gewurz, followed by the Chard. Flavors are really starting to develop as well.

Eric Keating, Keating Wines: I think this heat helped overall. Took a berry sample of my Beckstoffer Georges III Rutherford valley floor Cabernet, 22.9 with pH of 3.40. Tasting nice, acid still high at the moment. Still a bit behind. With 1-2 days more of this heat… …followed by dry, moderate weather for a couple of weeks, it could be a great vintage. My mountain fruit (Rockpile and also Mayacamas on the Sonoma side) is a little different. Those vineyards were waaay behind and absolutely needed this heat. The previous two vintages, my Napa Cab was the last to come in, and this year it could possibly be the first. Short answer, in my opinion, this heat not only helped but was necessary in most cases.

Dan Tudor, Tudor Wines: we’ll be picking soon. The heat hasn’t been too bad in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Karl Wente, Wente Bros., Livermore Valley: Moving things along quite nicely. Not too hot and a welcomed change from generally cooler weather. Chard all ready or close and merlot right behind.

Laura Zahtila, Zahtila Vineyards, Napa Valley: From Calistoga – it got to 107 degrees here today. We’ve been hydrating the vineyard for the past couple of days. Also walked our growers vineyard in Dry Creek this morning. The heat wave a couple of weeks ago really burned up some crop. Wish we could have some low 90’s to finish this off. Still about a week to 10 days before harvesting zinfandel.

John M. Kelly, Westwood Wines, Sonoma County: Might get young-vine Pinot up to 23 Brix by Friday. Soil profile is dry – we’re irrigating. Will be interesting to see if our earlier predictions for high natural acids pan out for the reds.

Stacy Vogel, Napa Valley: The heat helped our chardonnay with a nice final jump in ripeness. Bringing in all CH from Stagecoach Vineyard today and tomorrow, with most of Carneros not far behind. Finally!

Darek Trowbridge, Old World Winery, Sonoma County: First time I’ve ever picked Pinot Noir this late and the flavors are extraordinary! Zin and Chardonnay we have to remove the sunburn…

Karen Steinwachs, Buttonwood, Santa Ynez Valley: Well…we needed a little heat, but this is ridiculous. Next time you come to Santa Ynez, Steve, don’t bring 108 degrees! SRH is picking now (mine is all in), but Chard still ripening. Sauv Blanc in Happy Cyn mostly picked – I’m starting my pick in the LOD on Thursday. Sugars rising, but acids also still high. Weird. I agree with Darek – berries all taste amazing!

Richard Davis, Londer, Halleck and Calstar: ask me again in a week, trying to get stuff to ride it out and picking where it won’t

Gary Agajanian, Agajanian Vineyards, Central Valley: Temperatures in the high 80’s to low 90’s are the best. The extremes are difficult to manage. Grapes in the cool regios either got burned because of excessive leaf pulling , or benefitted if the canopy was intact. The grapes in the hot regions, said “what the f___!, you call this hot? This is normal.”. So, instead of 3 weeks behind, we are only two weeks. Overall quality will be good and clean, but you must be on top of it to get the best quality.

Mike Brown, Cantara Cellars, Lodi: Harvest has been great in Lodi. The heat is speeding up a slightly late harvest, with moderate alcohol levels and great acid.

[Steve again]
In non-Facebook conversations, vintners also weighed in to me:

Matthias Pippig, Grassini and Sanguis wineries, Santa Ynez Valley: The recent weather has everyone a little panicked now, but after touring all of my vineyards this morning, I have to say so far so good. The numbers haven’t jumped too dramatically but development has definitely been affected positively after the long cool (non-)summer.

Genevieve Janssens, Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley: We have some baked fruit, 15-20% loss on Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir is dehydrated a little, not too bad, finishing this week. Petit Verdot, 70-80% dehydration, lost it bigtime. Raisins. Cabernet Sauvignon is great, like nothing happened. Chardonnay is fine, too. Malbec dehydrated like the Petit Verdot. Merlot is okay, fine.

  1. I like how some winegrowers no longer irrigate their vineyard, but now hydrate it. This is one of the most important advancements in wine speak. Everyone who carries their own personal bottled water and tends to their own personal hydration understands how natural it is to maintain hydration. Instead of that unnatural irrigation by winegrowers who intervene with Mother Nature, many now just maintain hydration.

    I would say to the person who lost 80% of the late ripening Petit Verdot to raisining. You need to maintain your hydration a little better. 102 & 104 F are not unusual temps in the Napa Valley in September. I like Gary Agajanian’s attitude. You think this is hot?

    Looking at Accuweather, I think Eric Keating is going to get his wish. Sunny and moderate as far as she goes. At a degree a week, he will have 24.9 by October 13. Like I said… 2010 – Vintage of the Century! :>)

  2. Thanks for the mention, and the great write-up. Another example of the power of something like FB – think about it this way: these types of discussions totally open up a new level of understanding for the average wine consumer looking to understand the vintage… it totally re-frames the conversation and in near real-time. Damn, I love this stuff! 🙂

    Also just thrilled to be called a colleague!


  3. Dude, now all I have to do is master twitter. sigh…

  4. Morton, let’s hope it is VOTC!

  5. Granted we aren’t very far into the century. It occurred to me I have become somewhat like Brother Timothy, who was always asked by the media to weigh in on the vintage, and who always had something very positive to say about every single one. A good lesson for everyone who makes and eventually has to sell their wine.

  6. For those of us with simple enough minds to be fascinated by the weather the car thermometer is a very entertaining invention. Of course you have to overcome the “parked car effect”–it usually takes a mile or two of driving before you are getting the true air temperature. Yesterday driving from Graton to Calistoga around 4:00 PM the hottest temperature I saw was 101, on River Road just east of Olivet Lane. Ten minutes later on Mark West Springs Rd. I was shocked to see it was only 89–this driving along the creek by the Lodge. Arriving in Calistoga it was 95 along Hwy 29, and then 91 upon arriving home at 600 ft elevation on Diamond Mtn Rd (and then glancing at a Max/Min mercury instrument in the shade confirmed the accuracy of my car thermometer). An hour later going out for a swim I saw two poolside thermometers in the shade over at Solage, not far from Zahtila, each reading 105 degrees–but this is surrounded by many square yards of concrete decking radiating lots of heat. So this makes me skeptical of many of the temperatures I saw reported in the newspaper yesterday–perhaps they were so high because of their close-by surroundings–e.g. paved roads or metal stands. The bottom line is there is lots of variability by topography and the close-in conditions. A roadway in the shade will be different that one in the sun. But for sure the car thermometers certainly do counter some of the old myths, such as that Napa Valley always is hotter the more north you are.
    Another source of entertainment for me is observing the windmills to check the wind direction. Often the ones around Calistoga show the wind blowing from the Northwest, while the ones around Oakville to Napa are blowing from the south–direction of the Bay. Somewhere in between it must not be blowing at all, and this seems to be confirmed by temperatures being higher around St. Helena than around Calistoga, counter to conventional wisdom.
    Lastly regarding Morton’s comments about “hydration:” I am amused whenever I see one winery in particular that makes quite a big deal about dry farming with their sprinklers on in their vineyards on hot days.

  7. Hi Bill, I love making those kinds of observations too. The biggest temperature change I ever saw on my car thermometer was heading east on Highway 44 from the Templeton Gap area of Paso Robles toward downtown. The temperature rose something like ten degrees in as many minutes.

  8. Well we’ve had another 100°+ day at our vineyard and some marked dehydration in a couple blocks of Pinot since Monday. I was predicting 23° Brix by Friday but it looks like 25° unless the vines rehydrate as it cools a little. When you get 0.43° Brix a day you know it is dehydration and not normal photosynthetic accumulation, right? Still, flavors are fabulous. VOTC? from your lips to god’s ears.

  9. I’m with Morton…we all know when we’re going into a heat event, WATERING your vineyard a couple of days before that event means a greater chance at maintaining the health of the canopy so that photosynthesis can continue when the temperatures drop.

    Our estate vineyards in the Livermore Valley are moving through this last couple of days nicely. Sugars are accumulating but maybe moving toward the “normal” ripening curve more than getting to much sugar.

  10. Steven, your latest Steven Kent wines are wonderful. Congrats.

  11. Namedropper!!!


  12. How are the hot temperatures affecting the vintage at Domaine de l’Intestine de la Maladie?

  13. gdfo, the weather at the Domaine is always perfect!

  14. Ron Saikowski says:

    Brix, ph, and TA are a small part of the equation. Grape maturity and taste are as important or more so than chemistry. Obviously, as you dehydrate your grape, the Brix will rise drammatically. Chemistry is a “feel good” issue. However two vineyards did reflect on the tastes. Not one reflected on grape maturity. Not good if you have GREEN seeds in a red wine fermentation. Let’s get valid input on all aspects of grape progress in the vineyards.

    Sounds like there will need to be a lot of hand sorting in varietals that have never been hand-sorted before. Are the wineries ready for this labor-intensive hand-sorting along with tankage for the short period of harvest. In years past, the harvest has been 6-8 weeks which allows for 3-4 uses of a fermentation tank. With the harvest at 3 weeks, what will be happening in the wineries with no fermentation tank volumes?

  15. Steve:

    Thanks very much.

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