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2010 Vintage Tests California Vintners

From record-breaking cold and rain to crop-killing heat waves, it has been a tough year

Tim Fish
Posted: September 9, 2010

A plague of locusts is about the only challenge that Northern California growers and winemakers haven’t faced in 2010. The growing season has delivered one headache after another and as the harvest begins in force, winemakers are already wiping their brows. As if the sluggish economy wasn’t already making their lives difficult.

“Another vintage to sort the men out from the boys,” said Nick Goldschmidt, winemaker of Forefathers and Goldschmidt.

“The past three years, we’ve had some weird vintages,” said winemaker Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars. While it has been a tough spring and summer, winemakers hesitate to label 2010 a “good” or “bad” year. Certain varieties are struggling, others aren’t. Bad weather has afflicted some regions while others have had a fairly normal year. And the season is still far from over.

California endured record-breaking low temperatures throughout the spring, which led to a late budbreak. Summer wasn’t much better. It was the second coldest July in 50 years in Napa, Sonoma and other regions. “This year would be good to have Pinot Noir planted in Rutherford,” joked Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards in Napa.

Rainfall in May was twice the historic average in Northern California. Growers who had battled drought in recent years were happy to see the rain, like Robert Biale winemaker Steve Hall, who didn’t have to irrigate until mid-August, but it also created problems.

Some vineyards were going through bloom when the rains hit, stunting the size of the crop and creating loose and uneven clusters that matured unevenly, known to growers as shatter. “It’s the worst I have ever seen,” said Wagner.

The vines also liked the water a little too much. “The persistent moisture and later rains led to very vigorous vines, with lots of shoot and leaf growth,” said Adam Lee of Siduri and Novy, who harvests grapes from around the state.

Marco Cappelli, grower and winemaker for Miraflores in the Sierra Foothills, said it created a daunting task. “We did have to do a lot more canopy management and weed control than usual, which so far have increased my farming costs about 10 percent.”

The combination of cool, moist weather and bountiful growth meant that mildew and botrytis were a constant threat. Many growers, already worried the grapes were too slow to ripen, dropped crop and pulled leaves, opening up the canopy for sun exposure and better airflow to make sprays more effective. “We had to be extremely diligent on our fungicide spray intervals as we would have weeks of 100 percent mildew pressure where the daily temperature barely hit 70 degrees,” said Bob Cabral, winemaker of Williams Selyem in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.

Then, Aug. 23, the heat came—in spades. Temperatures pushed first into the high 90s and then cracked 100 for several days, breaking records around Northern California. A thermometer placed under an old-vine canopy by one Dry Creek Valley grower reached 120 degrees.

Some vines just couldn’t handle it. Many grapes were sunburned or just withered in the heat, leading to extensive crop loss. “The extreme heat literally cooked the clusters,” said Cabral.

The level of damage varied from region to region, by variety and even within the same vineyard. Hall said that damage seemed to be the most severe in clusters that were still going through veraison, when grapes begin to ripen, turning softer and changing color.

While most Central Coast growers dodged the bullet, vintners throughout Northern California reported crop losses averaging between 5 and 20 percent in many vineyards. All varieties were affected, from Cabernet in Napa Valley to Sauvignon Blanc in Sonoma. Pinot Noir reportedly fared better than Chardonnay.

Vineyards equipped with irrigation systems had some protection, as growers could water the vines before the heat wave and help diminish dehydration. “It’s not pretty out there,” Cohn said. Heat damage was severe in some cases. Carneros took a big hit, growers said.

But old Zinfandel and other dry-farmed vineyards suffered the most, Russian River Valley Zinfandel vineyards in particular. “It looks like we may have lost the entire crop at Carlisle and Papera vineyards,” said Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery, which produces highly regarded vineyard-designated wines from both. “With the record-breaking cold, foggy weather, the fruit had built up no toughness to the elements. The fruit was too delicate and fragile.”

Some growers may have exposed too much fruit with heavy canopy thinning, but Officer said that even heavily shaded Zinfandel grapes suffered. “There are berries that still look visually OK, but break them open and you find brownish-colored flesh. Basically, the berry is dead and won’t ripen further.”

Despite the challenges, growers are optimistic about the potential quality of the 2010 crop still on the vine, though most believe it will be smaller than usual. Less wine may not entirely be a bad thing, with many wineries still holding onto excess inventory. Wine sales in 2010 have been generally better than 2009 and late 2008, but far below a few years ago.

“This might allow those brands with excess back vintages to move through that inventory before they need to release their 2010s,” said Cabral.

But with harvest running two to three weeks behind, anything can still happen. Weather forecasters were recently warning growers that a major storm system could bring significant rain in mid-September. “Throw out the normal harvest dates,” Hall said. “It’s a brave new world.”

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  September 10, 2010 4:17pm ET
I've only heard worry out of owners and winemakers, especially in Northern Cali. It sounds like 2010 will be a cruel year for many.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 10, 2010 10:02pm ET
Troy, sadly you're right. I keep hearing from growers and winemakers. For some, this is the toughest year in a generation. I think even old-timers are stunned.

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