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james laube's wine flights

A Frosty Surprise Start for 2008

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 28, 2008 4:17pm ET

No one who farms grapes for a living is happy with recent spring frosts throughout California, which have been widespread and devastating by most accounts, extending from Anderson Valley in Mendocino to Santa Barbara in the south. Some vineyards may lose up to half their crop. Most growers were blindsided by the sharp drop in temperatures and were unable to adequately protect their vines.

But at this stage, the damage is being assessed in terms of its economic impact. How adversely wine quality might be affected remains to be seen, vintners admit.

Matt Gallo, of Gallo of Sonoma, and its affiliated wineries, says the outlying and unprotected areas, such as Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, and Pope Valley in Napa County, were among the hardest hit of their vineyards. In the past 10 days I talked with perhaps a dozen winemakers and vineyard managers who say the frost was the worst since the early 1970s, including 1972 and 1970.

“I don’t know if everyone expected it [to be this severe],” Gallo said. “We didn’t expect this much damage.” As for secondary buds that may develop, he said, “Well, we’ll see. The old-timers [say] you can’t get your full potential crop [after this kind of frost] and we should expect 50 percent crop loss.”

The fact that it’s been decades since a frost of this magnitude means that most of today’s vineyard managers are unfamiliar with its potential impact. Vintners who did sustain serious losses may be scrambling for grapes to augment their supply. Once the grapes are set—usually by June—winemakers can estimate what their crop size might be.

As for quality, “you’re not going to try to predict that,” said Gallo. “It’s more of a production scenario [at this point]. We’ll still go on with the growing season and see what happens. But it’s economics right now.”

I was reminded that in 1997, a severe spring frost hit Tuscany, leaving vintners gloomy that summer. But spring frosts in Tuscany can be a good thing, says my colleague in Tuscany, James Suckling, since it’s nature’s way of thinning the crop. That fall, Tuscans had their best vintage since the 1940s, a small but sensational year.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  April 28, 2008 7:39pm ET
They better hope it's a sensational vintage, because they're going to try to charge a mint for the finished wines! Beware en primeur!
Linda Schwartz
Fort Ross, CA —  May 1, 2008 12:47am ET
Farming a mile from the Pacific Ocean has its challenges - more rainfall than the Amazon, violent winds and fog that can encourage pathogens to party - but in our Maritime Climate we have never experienced any frost damage before this year. Luckily the damaged vines were less than 20 out of 50,000 so that it was an interesting phenomenon rather than a problem. My heart goes out to all the farmers and wineries who will work as hard as ever to produce very little wine. We can only hope that the wine will be magnificent!

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