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2008 Vintage Report Card: Part 1

A first look at vintage quality in American wine regions, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers

Posted: December 10, 2008

Every year, vintners learn a crucial lesson—no two vintages are the same. In 2008, California faced one of its more dramatic growing seasons in years, with frost, heat waves and wildfire smoke. Meanwhile, Oregon and Washington had an easier time. Back East, New York successfully dealt with rain and humidity. Though it's too early to assess overall wine quality, Wine Spectator's editors have analyzed the season's conditions in key regions and given each a preliminary grade.

California: Central Coast
California: Napa Valley
California: Sonoma
New York: Finger Lakes & Long Island
Oregon
Washington

United States

Region: California: Central Coast
Grade: B-

To say 2008 was a year of extremes in the Central Coast is not an exaggeration—Santa Maria weathered its hottest recorded day ever in June when temperatures peaked at 110° F, while a series of October freezes resulted in all-time lows in San Luis Obispo.

"It was definitely a tough year. I'd be lying to you if I said it was a fabulous vintage," said Ken Volk, who manages vineyards in Santa Maria and Paso Robles.

Tablas Creek's Jason Hass agrees. "The vintage was a collection of calamities—spring frost, the second drought year in a row, a lot of [grape] varieties had issues with shatter, heat in August, rain in September, major freezes in October, and fires as well—I was kind of waiting for a plague of locusts."

Spring started with unusually warm weather, but then some areas were hit by frost. Kevin Sass of Justin winery in Paso Robles called the spring "schizophrenic," with temperatures swinging from hot to cold. High winds were also a factor. Doug Margerum of Margerum Wine Company in Santa Ynez Valley said, "It was really hot, then really cold—the vines didn't know whether to grow or not." He said that yields in some of the vineyards he uses were down as much as 40 to 50 percent because of frost damage.

Morgan winery's Dan Lee said a close proximity to the ocean helped prevent his Santa Lucia vineyard from being affected by frosts, but not strong winds. "Right around bloom time, there were ferocious winds, and a lot of shatter as a result." Overall, most vintners had a lighter crop, with yields down between 20 to 50 percent due to spring frost and winds.

For Testarossa winemaker Bill Brosseau, who uses fruit from all over the Coast, it's the fires that will stand out most. Though summer wildfires didn't threaten the vines directly, smoky skies affected the solar conditions for months. Vines weren't getting full sunlight, yet they were getting ultraviolet light. "The smoke held in the atmospheric humidity," said Brosseau. "It was like the vines were growing in a greenhouse. The fruit was not ripening as usual."

Harvest was on time or early for most Central Coast vintners, though many struggled with grapes that were ripe but not yet physiologically mature. "We did a lot of winemaking," said Margerum, adding that he believes many vintners had to add water to the fermenting grape must to keep alcohol levels down and account for dehydration. Vintners agreed that sorting grapes once they arrived at the winery was crucial.

Despite the drama, many vintners are still optimistic, if cautious, about how the wines are developing. Lee said his Morgan wines are showing good flavors, but moderate alcohols. Hass said the Tablas Creek wines have "pretty fruit characteristics, good dark color, good intensity, and no hard edges." Margerum said his wines are "leaner, tighter and more structured." Brosseau agreed that tannins will not be as smooth and fine as with 2007.

The weather extremes have Volk concerned about the 2009 vintage, too. He says the unusually warm weather means that some vines have not yet gone dormant as of December, which could mean irregular budbreak in the spring.

—MaryAnn Worobiec

Region: California: Napa
Grade: B+

Napa vintners will remember 2008 as a year that offered winemakers a little bit of everything. "If you only looked at the dates of budbreak [early March] and harvest [early October], 2008 would look pretty much like 2007," said Celia Welch Masyczek, of Corra Wines in St. Helena. "It's all the 'in-between' information that made the vintage a dramatic and challenging year."

It may well end up being an exceptional year for quality, too. But 2008 won't be remembered for abundance—it delivered a very small crop.

But it could have been worse, winemakers said. Drought preceded a hard frost, which led to an uneven set and a small crop. Then heat spikes hit as harvest began. But after that it was smooth sailing, winemakers said, resulting in wines of very good to exceptional quality. Given all the climatic challenges, winemakers were only disappointed by the low tonnage in many vineyards.

"2008 was, for most of us, a great relief seasoned with shock," said Tor Kenward of Tor Kenward Family Vineyards in St. Helena, with the shock being the crop size. Vineyards were harvested both earlier and later than normal, depending on the location. All estimates were off. Worst-case scenarios saw vineyard yields down by 80 percent, and many off by 20 to 30 percent. Very few vineyards enjoyed the same yields achieved in recent years.

The hard frost—the worst in decades—started the headaches, wiping out vineyard buds in the coldest sites; a few vineyards were disasters, with no crop. That frost led to both an uneven set, a reduced crop and staggered ripening times, making it a farmer's year, where attention to the vines was paramount. "To make a long story longer, if you didn't get hit by frost in April, heat during bloom in May, or desiccating heat in August, it was a lovely growing season," quipped Masyczek.

Napa's main crop, Cabernet Sauvignon, rode the same rollercoaster as other grapes, but winemakers were generally happy with the quality. "The 2008 vintage shows great potential," said Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker Joel Aiken, noting that mid-valley vineyards in Oakville and Rutherford had little frost damage. For most of the harvest, weather was perfect, he added, resulting in "very dark and powerful" wines. "Our Rutherford Cabernet has the classic black olive and ripe cherry character. The wines are very rich and full-bodied, with plenty of tannins for aging. I think the tannin [levels are] a little more firm than in 2007, but the wines are very powerful and well-balanced."

In Carneros, Pinot Noir yields were down by nearly 45 percent in some vineyards, according to some winemakers. But despite some frost damage and a small crop, the wines are complex and concentrated. Small berry size made for wines that were very dark and powerful. Overall, 2008 may go down as a less-is-more year.

James Laube

Region: California: Sonoma
Grade: B

"Mother Nature was stubborn," Chateau St. Jean winemaker Margo Van Staaveren said of the 2008 vintage. "You really had to be flexible and reactive this year." Just like the Central Coast, there were no clouds of locusts, but there was frost, heat, drought and wind. But despite the demands of the weather, winemakers say the early results are positive.

Late winter and spring were unusually dry, then a killer frost struck in April, forcing many growers to use their already scarce water supplies for a protective spray of H20 on the vines. "Some of the old growers were saying it was the worst frost they'd seen since 1972," said Geyser Peak winemaker Mick Schroeter.

In May, as the vines were blooming, an early heat wave wrecked havoc, setting a smaller crop than usual in the vineyards. Summer itself was typically moderate and warm, and harvest got off to an early start in August, with many varieties ripening at the same time.

Already busy winemakers went into frantic mode when a prolonged period of heat settled in at the start of September. Sugar levels shot up and many winemakers rushed to pick early-ripening grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. JC Cellars winemaker Jeff Cohn said some winemakers might end up with green tannins if they picked before the flavors were mature. "It was really too early to pick in most cases," said Van Staaveren. "The acids were very high at that point."

For those growers who could afford to be patient, the cool weather returned in late September and harvest slowed to almost a halt for a week or two. Rain largely held off until about Halloween, so the vintage ended peacefully.

There was a great deal of variability from region to region and vineyard to vineyard, but each grower shared one similar result—smaller crops, down as much as 20 percent from 2007.

But the early results look promising. Winemakers seem pleased across the board, saying most varieties seem balanced. "It's one of those years that low yields make for better wine," Schroeter said. Cohn harvests a wide range of varieties in the county and gives the vintage a thumbs-up. Schroeter was particularly pleased with Sauvignon Blanc, and Van Staaveren said Merlot did surprisingly well.

—Tim Fish

Region: New York
Grade: Finger Lakes (A-), Long Island (B)

Despite a wetter-than-usual growing season, Finger Lakes vintners are happy with the results of their 2008 harvest, thanks primarily to a stretch of good weather from September through mid-October.

"In the Finger Lakes we're used to vintage fluctuations," said Morten Hallgren, owner and winemaker at Ravines Wine Cellars on Keuka Lake, which forms the western edge of the region. "But 2008 was still very unusual."

July was wetter than normal, with a number of thundershowers adding to the disease pressures that are common in this humid grapegrowing area, and growers reported having to undertake aggressive anti-mildew spray programs. But the extra moisture had a benefit, as the region's typically dry August period, when vines sometimes shut down due to drought stress, was virtually eliminated.

A mechanical harvester moves through one of Anthony Road Winery's vineyards in New York's Finger Lakes.

With the Indian summer weather stretching late into the harvest period, Riesling, the region's top vinifera variety, ripened slowly and steadily, while retaining its acidity.

"Riesling performed brilliantly," said Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run, located on Seneca Lake. "A little bit of noble rot will add some apricot and marmalade notes, way in the background. Acids are right where they should be. I think the dry styles will be especially exciting."

Other white vinifera varieties also came out well. "Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer showed better ripeness and balance in 2008 [than in 2007]," said Bob Madill, partner and winegrower for Sheldrake Point Vineyards, located on Cayuga Lake, the easternmost of the region's three major lakes.

Reds, though generally less compelling than the region's whites, also look promising in 2008. "Beautiful color, nice tannin structure and lots of fruit across the board in Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon," said Marti Macinski, owner and winemaker at Standing Stone Vineyards.

"It could be a year to elevate our game here relative to other more established regions," said Steve Shaw, owner and winemaker at Seneca Lake's Shaw Vineyard. "No real excuses for bad wines this year!"

Further south and east, on Long Island's East End, winemakers grappled with a season of ups and downs. Some did okay, while others struggled. "2008 was the most challenging vintage since we started growing wine here in 2000," said David Page, co-owner of Shinn Estate Vineyards.

Spring started out cool—a spring frost wiped out two-thirds of Shinn's Sauvignon Blanc buds. Summer brought nice warm weather with plenty of sun for ripening. But there were periods of heavy thunderstorms, and plenty of humidity, always a challenge for a thin strip of land sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound.

"Due to some humid days there was higher than normal botrytis pressure," said Roman Roth, winemaker at Wölffer Estate and his private label, the Grapes of Roth. "With very careful vineyard management and open canopies, we were able to produce wonderful and stylish wines."

A nice Indian summer allowed wineries to leave grapes on the vine long enough to fully ripen. Most wineries began harvesting whites in early October and then brought in reds later that month, finishing up in the first week of November. Roth reported yields were down slightly, but his Merlot quality was good enough that he selected more barrels for Premier Cru, his top wine.

—James Molesworth and Mitch Frank

Region: Oregon
Grade: A

Sam Tannahill, partner and winemaker at Rex Hill Vineyards in Newberg, employed a baseball analogy to express the nail-biting atmosphere of the 2008 vintage in Oregon. "We were down five runs in the bottom of the ninth and pulled it out," he said. "Then we looked up and realized it was the seventh game of the World Series, and we had won. At least that's how it felt."

Cool, gray weather in September kept grapes from ripening, and rain loomed on the horizon as it had in 2007. But unlike last year, when rain challenged the vintage late, the sun came out when the calendar page turned to October. The clouds went away. With no rain, vintners could pick grapes whenever they wanted, and nothing got too ripe.

"Overall, 2008 is going to be a fantastic vintage," said Tannahill. "The wines remind me of a combination of 1999 and 2000. They have great purity of fruit and structure. But it sure was long. We were still picking at Halloween. That never happens."

Josh Bergström of Bergström Vineyards said he was able to pick vineyards at his leisure as grapes reached full physiological ripeness. "These wines may someday be counted as some of the best that have been made in Oregon."

Vintners who picked early, trying to avoid the rains that never came, almost certainly made thinner, less enjoyable wines, however. It won't be a fine vintage for everyone.

Yields were down significantly, about 20 percent overall, more in some vineyards. One reason was poor weather at flowering, which produced small, uneven bunches. Berry size was smaller than normal, too. The result was more flavor concentration than usual, and more tannins in the Pinot Noirs.

"In winemaking, we had to back off on extraction," Tannahill said. "The wines would have been too structured." That's true of both Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, Oregon's signature red and white wines.

Harvey Steiman

Region: Washington
Grade: B+

Washington vintners worried as September days went by and nothing was getting ripe enough to pick. But then the starter's gun went off, temperatures got warm, and everything ripened fast.

"We started two weeks late," said Doug Gore, senior vice president for winemaking and vineyards at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which makes more than half the wine in the state. "But we wrapped up in the first week in November, as usual. It was a compressed year, and that made for a lot of cranky winemakers."

But the boos turned to cheers when the wines finished fermenting, especially the Merlot. "If I had to pick one variety so far, the star is Merlot," said Gore. "Most everybody's going to hit it out of the ball park. Really good balance, and plenty of flesh." Syrah always does well everywhere in the state, he added, and 2008 was no exception. So did Chardonnay and Riesling.

The picture is not spotless, however. Later-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon struggled to get enough sugar and flavor as moderate weather continued through October, especially in cooler sites.

"We haven't seen a delayed harvest like this since 1993," said Chris Camarda, owner and winemaker at Andrew Will Winery. "Merlot and Cabernet Franc got the biggest boost from the weather. But I am happy with our Cabernet, although it did have to hang out there longer this year."

Camarda, who makes wines from vineyards in several different subregions, sees 2008 as a more subdued vintage than other recent ones. That's a good thing, in his book.

"The wines seem complex to me," he said. "They all seem medium-bodied, not as big as some years. The fruit isn't as much in-your-face. If they come out as well as I think, they will have a good sense of definition about them."

Ultimately, 2008 will favor better growers and winemakers. "This is a year that will reward those who kept yields down," Gore said. "They could get the flavors they wanted."

H.S.

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