Nothing in the wine industry generates hype like preharvest prognostication. But some years justify more optimism than others, and 2007 in California is shaping up as a potential winner. Unusually mild weather this year has permitted the major grape varieties to ripen steadily without a hitch, and producers in North and Central Coast appellations feel that, at least for now, they've got the pole position.
Yields in most vineyards appear close to average, though smaller than initially predicted. According to the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the 2007 harvest should yield about 3.1 million tons, significantly less than the record-setting 3.7 million tons picked in 2005.
A handful of North Coast producers are now picking sparkling wine grapes and early-ripening white varieties, especially Sauvignon Blanc, which show relatively high acid levels. Later-ripening varieties on cooler sites, such as Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from the mountains, may not be picked until October, so it's still too early to gauge quality. If the mild weather continues, it could translate to nicely balanced wines with relatively low alcohol levels, but late-season heat could send sugar levels soaring.
In Napa Valley, the weather has been uneventful, without the intense summer heat spikes that often plague growers. "So far it's been fantastic," said Genevieve Janssens, winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, who began picking Sauvignon Blanc in Calistoga on Aug. 8 and expects to bring in more from Oakville this week. "There's been very little [high] heat, so the canopies are very green. We've done very little irrigation, and the vines are well-balanced. I'm pretty excited."
Throughout the North Coast, modest winter rainfall and a dry and mild spring led to budbreak and flowering about two to three weeks earlier than normal. That was a welcome change from California's 2006 and 2005 vintages, both of which ran late; this year, most winemakers expect to finish crush relatively early, though the Central Coast appears to be running late. The dry conditions helped curtail the vines' shoot and leaf growth, directing their energy into maturing the fruit, and also resulted in small berries, which can yield more intense wines.
Patz & Hall winemaker James Hall--who produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Sonoma County appellations, as well as Napa, Carneros and Mendocino--expects a small crop. "We've got high cluster counts but small berries," he said. "I'm hoping for yields in the 3 ton range. But hey, I love small berries. It reminds me of 2002."
Likewise, Janssens expects yields to be slightly lower than normal, an average of 4 tons per acre for Mondavi's Cabernet from the To-Kalon Vineyard in Oakville, which should be ready in mid-September.
Sparkling wine estates are usually the first to begin picking in earnest. Schramsberg, based on Diamond Mountain, began with Pinot Noir from Napa's Oak Knoll District and Chardonnay from Carneros on Aug. 10, a few days earlier than normal. Judging from the few blocks they've brought in, said estate president Hugh Davies, the cool weather has resulted in relatively high acid levels, which are necessary for quality sparkling wine. Davies expects the pace of picking to accelerate by the end of this week.
Despite the early budbreak, cool, foggy conditions since the beginning of August have slowed down ripening, especially in the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. "We won't pick anything before Labor Day," said Hall. This recent stretch of fog could lead to problems with late-season rot if there is rain. But the dry weather in spring and summer has kept mold spore counts down, and no rain is anticipated in the short-term forecast. "All I need is another month of decent weather, and we'll have the Pinot in the barn," Hall added. "I'm excited."
Zinfandel producer Seghesio Family Vineyard, based in the Sonoma town of Healdsburg, is also hopeful. "The weather has been really even. The only thing is that this is the windiest year I can remember," said winemaker Ted Seghesio, who noted that the winds disrupted flowering and reduced the crop. "But it's been ideal. July wasn't like last year, when it was an inferno."
The Central Coast, which has also experienced unusually mild weather this year, has been even drier than the northern appellations. "There's been a pretty good drought down here, so we've seen the effect in smaller canopies, smaller clusters and berries," said Justin Smith, who manages 200 acres of vineyards in western Paso Robles and owns Saxum Vineyard.
Smith thinks the modest warmth could favor Grenache and Mourvèdre, which suffer in extreme heat. Syrah from warmer vineyards could be picked in the third week of September, while cooler sites might not be ready until late October, in line with normal timing.
In the Santa Rita Hills area of Santa Barbara County, vintner Greg Brewer expects the Pinot Noir harvest to occur in mid- to late-September, about two or three weeks later than usual. Yields should be a fairly standard 2 tons per acre, and while it's too soon to evaluate potential quality and style, the grapes and vines look healthy. "It's been very mild for months and months, June type of weather all summer long," said Brewer, winemaker at Melville and partner at Brewer-Clifton.
Just to the north, in the Santa Maria Valley, Au Bon Climat winemaker Jim Clendenen is also expecting a later harvest. The Chardonnay crop looks fairly small, perhaps 2.5 tons an acre, with lower acidity than last year because, although the days have been mild, the evenings have been warmer than usual.
Clendenen's Pinot Noir has set a relatively healthy crop of about 2.75 tons per acre, a full ton more than in 2006. Dry weather has minimized rot, and the Pinot looks on track for a successful harvest, though not until the third week of September. That's why Clendenen spoke to Wine Spectator from his kitchen, rather than the vineyards or winery. "I'm knocking on my cutting board right now," he said.