California winemakers don't usually have time to talk this time of the year, but this week they're chatty. The 2011 harvest is more or less underway. Sort of. Let's just say that grapes have been picked, a few anyway, mostly whites and for sparkling wine.
Yep, the season is running late again this year, and while the size of the crop is generally small, winemakers aren't complaining, at least to anyone willing to quote them. And anything is better than last year. The only thing that vintage 2010 lacked was locusts.
"It's looking like another compressed, nail-biter of a harvest," Carlisle winemaker Mike Officer said. When all the grapes ripen at once—instead of the tidy six- to eight-week schedule winemakers prefer—it leads to madness.
The season has been running late all year, plus some areas like the Central Coast had severe spring frost and it rained in June during bloom, which created mildew and botrytis in the vineyards. Long story short: It's a small crop and several weeks behind schedule.
"Last week's heat wave made some numbers jump, but this week's cool down has things stalled again," said Brian Loring of Loring Wine Company, who harvests mostly Pinot Noir from Central and Northern California. He postponed his first Pinot harvest from Tuesday until Friday. "Sugars were there and seeds nice and brown, but acid levels were through the roof."
Justin Smith, winemaker of Saxum, is facing a similar experience with Syrah and Grenache. "We are still really behind despite the nice heat we have had over the last couple weeks," he said. "We will probably pick a few hilltop Syrah blocks in a couple weeks but won't start really rocking until mid-October."
Michael Scholz, winemaker of St. Supery in Napa Valley, began harvesting Sauvignon Blanc last week but doesn't expect to bring in the last of it until October. "Reds are a long way out, but look good on the vine. I doubt that we will see much action with the red harvest until next month."
On California's Central Coast, Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards started night harvesting Pinot Noir in Rosemary's Vineyard on Monday and said they were bringing in only a ton to the acre. "We like what we're seeing so far," Talley said, "The colors, flavors are great."
For now winemakers are mostly just waiting. "Lots of stuff is hanging at fairly low Brix—between 19 and 21—and it's not moving much," said winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri, who harvests grapes throughout the California Coast.
Robert Biale winemaker Steve Hall is eyeing one Zinfandel vineyard for harvest soon, Old Crane near St. Helena, which is just above 22 Brix; close but not quite. Ridge Lytton winemaker John Olney said most of his Dry Creek vineyards are hovering around 20 to 21 Brix. "A couple of days in the 90s is all it will take," Olney said.
Officer may harvest some Zinfandel in Sonoma and Dry Creek valleys later this month, but said, "October will definitely be crunch time. We may even be harvesting DuPratt Zinfandel from Mendocino Ridges in November, if the weather holds of course."
If the weather holds. And that's a big "if" considering the last few harvests. Smith sums up what every grower and winemaker is thinking when he said, "I'm just hoping we don't get a crazy mid-October storm like we got in 2009. That might really put the kibosh on things."
Let's hear from other winemakers and growers out there. How are your vineyards doing? What have been your biggest challenges? When do you expect to wrap up harvest 2011?