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As California Begins Harvest, Questions Loom Over Quality

Cool, rainy growing season has delivered inconsistent crops in many regions

Tim Fish
Posted: September 2, 2005

The 2005 vintage in California has been one wild ride so far. Even in the bumpiest growing seasons, winemakers and growers are often quick to applaud the vintage, but as the 2005 harvest kicks off, many are simply shaking their heads. Although California is accustomed to relatively temperate growing seasons, this one has been more typical of France.

"It has just been a wacky year," said Michael Browne, winemaker at Kosta Browne, which harvests Pinot Noir in Sonoma County and the Central Coast.

The winter season was unusually cold and soggy, but in mid-March the temperatures soared unseasonably into the 80s throughout much of the state. That set the vineyards into action much earlier than expected. Inspecting the vineyards after budbreak, growers predicted quite a large crop.

But then the rainy season, which typically peters out around Memorial Day, just kept going. Much of the state saw record rainfall and cool temperatures in May and June, just as many of the vines were in bloom. Some areas were harder hit than others. In the Central Coast's Edna Valley, Terry Speizer, owner of Domaine Alfred, said, "We normally get 19 inches of rain in a season, and this year we had 55 inches." But 100 miles to the north, and high in the Santa Lucia Highlands, Gary Franscioni of Garys' Vineyard dodged the bullet. "We just didn't have the rain like a lot of areas," he said.

When rain and cool temperatures strike during bloom, the flowers often fail to turn into healthy grape bunches. The affected bunches are often uneven, scraggly-looking and have fewer grapes, a problem growers call "shatter." If the impact is severe, entire bunches fail to grow. Paloma Vineyard on Napa's Spring Mountain felt the effects, with shatter taking a serious bite out of the crop size, according to owner Jim Richards. "You walk in some vineyards and they hardly have any crop, and some are normal," said Dennis Martin, director of winemaking at Fetzer Vineyards, which uses grapes from around the state.

If the wet, cool weather wasn't enough to ruin vintners' plans, more severe problems followed: mildew and botrytis. "It's a difficult year everywhere," Martin said of those vineyard blights. Almost every grower and winemaker interviewed has battled one or both of those problems in 2005. Because of the wet conditions, many growers had a hard time getting into the vineyards to spray sulfur, which helps ward off mildew. "If you were diligent, there wasn't a problem," said Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery in Sonoma County.

Several North Coast vintners reported that because of severe disease problems they are exercising clauses in some grower contracts and are declining to accept grapes. The problem was severe for a handful of newer organic growers who lost entire crops, vintners reported.

Except for a handful of hot days in June and July, the rest of the summer has been generally moderate around the state, with pleasantly warm days and cool evenings, although it has been particularly cool and foggy in some coastal regions, such as Sonoma and Monterey counties.

The overall crop is now expected to be below normal on the North Coast, but average to slightly above average along the Central Coast.

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, vintners report, are generally showing well, with average-size crops around the state, but in cooler regions those varietals have only recently finished veraison, the period when grapes change color. That means winemakers are just now beginning to get a real taste for what to expect. The Cabernet harvest in Napa Valley, for example, is still many weeks away.

The Chardonnay crop is generally of good size around the state, but some regions in the North Coast felt the weather impact more than others. Old-vine Zinfandel in Sonoma's Russian River Valley was hit particularly hard, though Officer and Martin report that Dry Creek and Alexander valleys fared better with Zinfandel.

The Pinot crop is low throughout the state, vintners report. In the Sonoma Coast, Adam Lee of Siduri said he expected to harvest only about a third of his expected Pinot crop from Hirsch Vineyard. Similarly, "In Carneros, it seems like an awful lot of the crop is low, especially Pinot Noir," said Chateau Souverain winemaker Ed Killian. This couldn't come at a worse time, vintners say, since the Sideways effect is still boosting demand for the variety.

However, the small crop and shattered grape bunches aren't necessarily bad for Pinot Noir and many other varieties, growers said, since low yields mean the grapes often ripen better and have richer flavors. "For what crop we have, it should be good quality," said Ross Cobb, winemaker at Flowers winery in western Sonoma County, which grows Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. "The flavors are really concentrated, and there's a good tannin structure."

The bulk of harvest isn't expected to begin until the second week in September, so plenty of pitfalls still lie ahead. While last year's harvest started exceptionally early, this year's crush only began in the second week of August, when growers began picking for sparkling wine. Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat and other whites are now beginning to trickle in. Winemakers are generally pleased by the early results with those varieties.

The final verdict on vintage 2005 depends on how the weather plays out now. "The past few weeks have been perfect Pinot weather," Lee said. But winemakers such as Killian and Officer, who have Zinfandel and Cabernet crops to consider, are hoping for warmer temperatures to get their grapes fully ripe. "We haven't seen that five-day streak of 105 degrees yet," Killian said. "It seems we always get that around Labor Day."

Almost everyone is hoping there won't be any significant amount of rain during harvest, as they agree that could be a disaster this year. "There are a lot of [mildew and botrytis] spores still in the vineyard," Martin said, "And if there's any amount of wetness, things could just explode. It could get really ugly out there."

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