California Winemakers Expect Early, High-Quality Harvest
Posted: Thursday, August 24, 2000
By Daniel Sogg
After small harvests in 1998 and 1999 that were delayed by cool, rainy conditions, Mother Nature seems to be smiling on California wine estates this year. Growers around the state report that crush should be about one or two weeks ahead of the usual schedule, with yields significantly larger than those of the last two years.
Sparkling wine producers kicked off the 2000 harvest in the first week of August, when they began picking Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay followed soon after, and producers said that they have rarely seen such clean, healthy grapes.
Most vines have had an easy go of it throughout this growing season, although there were some nervous moments for winemakers during a stretch of torrid heat in June that saw temperatures in some vineyards soar to well over 100 degrees F. Conscientious producers needed to drop roasted clusters or risk making wines flawed by burnt, raisiny flavors.
"There's some concern about sunburn in younger vineyards," said Michael Beaulac, winemaker at Markham Vineyards in Napa Valley. "This is a time of the year when we all try to be optimistic, but the reality is that things look pretty good out there."
In Sonoma County, Matanzas Creek winemaker Bill Parker is equally upbeat. "The way things are looking now, it could be an extraordinary vintage," he said, noting that yields look to be average and that there is no mold or mildew to be seen. "But you never know -- it can always go down the toilet in a hurry."
Most North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is still about six weeks away from harvest, and some vineyards have not yet finished veraison (the point of ripening at which the green grapes change color).
Down south in Paso Robles, conditions also look promising. Gary Eberle, owner of Eberle Winery, anticipates that he will start to pick his estate Chardonnay around Aug. 29, and he expects his Cabernet to begin to come in five or six weeks after that. "Right now, it looks as good as '97 or '99," he said, "but until you get it into the tank, you're not sure. But unless the weather goes haywire, it should be a very good year. No rot, no mildew; and veraison was pretty consistent."
Eberle shares North Coast producers' concern that everything will be ripening at the same time, meaning that winemakers will need to scramble during harvest and crush to find enough pickers and sufficient fermentation facilities.
If the weather holds, wineries in Santa Barbara County should get a welcome respite this year after two consecutive challenging vintages. "We're set up for a great harvest," said Steven Roberto, winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery. "The weather's been perfect, and we have a nice, balanced crop of the highest quality that people down here say they've seen in decades."
Roberto expects to start picking Chardonnay in one to two weeks, and his Grenache should be ready by the middle of September. While this year has been unusually warm in Santa Barbara, temperatures dropped last week, allowing grapes to get additional hang time and develop flavor complexity.
It's very early in the game, but winemakers across California are uniformly confident, hoping that their luck holds. "Things are moving faster than I thought they would," said Michael Havens, owner of Havens Wine Cellars in Napa Valley. "I've never seen better leaf color, I've never seen better seed maturity. We could be in for a goody."
Check back next week for more harvest coverage. In the meantime, read about last year's harvest in California: