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Rainstorm Brings Coastal California's Harvest to a Close

Daniel Sogg, James Laube
Posted: October 27, 2000

A heavy rainstorm that swept through most of California's coastal areas --from Mendocino to Santa Barbara -- on Wednesday and Thursday may be enough to bring much of the 2000 harvest to an abrupt end. Continued cool weather and the possibility of scattered rain only made the outlook gloomy for those with grapes left hanging on the vine.

The good news is that 85 percent to 95 percent of the grapes had been picked prior to the storm. A few winemakers in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley reported that some grapes, including Chardonnay, remained on the vine in cooler areas. And in Napa Valley, a substantial amount of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing in the cooler hillside and mountain areas are still not ripe.

GeneviKve Janssens, winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, said that they have already harvested all the white varieties, Pinot Noir and reserve-quality Cabernet Sauvignon. She estimated that about 350 tons of Cabernet remain to be picked this weekend. "Some of the [remaining] vineyards have come along beautifully [since Tuesday]," she said. "We had a very cold night on Wednesday, but it really seemed to help tannin maturity in some places," although she is not sure why. "Other vineyards have not moved, and we have some mold and rot."

Wet weather is particularly devastating to grapes such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel because rain can break the skins and lead to mold or rot. Fortunately, the great majority of these varieties have been harvested. Cabernet is a much heartier, thicker-skinned grape, but it can still rot in very wet conditions.

The changing weather might be of greatest concern to estates with mountain vineyards. "[The rain] is bumming me out," said Bob Foley, winemaker for Pride Mountain Vineyards, on Spring Mountain, in Napa Valley. "Another five days of great weather, and we would have been done. We've had 24 hours [of rain], about 2.5 inches. We're through with all of the early and vulnerable varieties." However, about 85 percent of Pride's Cabernet is still out there.

Despite the storms, Foley is not too concerned. He remains on normal schedule to harvest the Cabernet sometime between Nov. 10 and 20.

In Sonoma County's Alexander Valley, winemaker Nick Goldschmidt of Simi Winery was surprised by the strength of the downpour. "The rain came [Wednesday] afternoon," he said. "No one predicted this until Tuesday afternoon. None of the weather forecasters predicted this, not CNN or our local guys, which makes it a pretty major storm to be missed."

Nonetheless, Goldschmidt has already brought in 92 percent of the Simi grapes. The remaining 8 percent is all Cabernet and constitutes only 12 percent of Simi's total Cabernet production. He plans on picking everything before the water swells the grapes, diluting sugars and flavors.

Farther south, in Santa Barbara County, most estates have picked more than three-quarters of their vineyards, according to Bryan Babcock, owner and winemaker at Babcock Vineyards. But some of the Bordeaux varieties and Syrah planted in cool sites still need to ripen further.

Babcock is very pleased with the quality of the harvest and is only waiting on one Cabernet Franc site. But for people who still have lots of grapes on the vines, he said, "what matters is what happens after this. If this is the beginning of a winter weather pattern, then you go out and salvage it. This storm itself shouldn't be too much of a problem. We could still have an Indian-summer heat wave."

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