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2012 Vintage Report: California

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Not in California, where most winemakers report an easy growing season with plenty of high-quality grapes

Posted: November 14, 2012

Harvest. For winemakers, no other word is loaded with so much potential and anticipation. After a long growing season of endless work in the vineyards, harvest means pencils down, time's up. And no matter how hard you have labored all year, at the end of the day, nature usually has the last word. On the West Coast in 2012, most vintners are reporting the easiest season in years—the winemakers' job is to not destroy the gift nature gave them. In many parts of Europe, however, it's a year for damage control, a year when you can learn who knows how to best handle challenges and rise above the rest.

In the first of five 2012 vintage reports, California winegrowers up and down the coast are celebrating a long, sunny year. After two tough harvests, 2012 provided plenty of gorgeous grapes and potentially outstanding wines. As for final quality in the bottle—it's too early to know. But here's a sneak peek.


Anderson Valley
Napa Valley
Paso Robles
Santa Barbara
Sonoma

Anderson Valley

The good news: An excellent vintage with an even growing season and little to no rain or heat spikes.

The bad news: Winemakers weren’t prepared for such a big crop.

Picking started: Sept. 4 for sparkling wine; Sept. 14 for still wine

Promising grapes: Pinot Noir had a superior year, but Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer also show promise.

Analysis: Anderson Valley growers and winemakers had little to complain about in 2012, a big change from the past few seasons. "2012 was one of the best vintages I can remember," said Mila Handley of Handley Cellars. "The summer was near perfect—no major hot spells, but enough warmth to ripen the fruit. The crop was larger than the last few vintages with fruit that matured at reasonable Brix and good flavors."

The only challenge was finding enough room for all the grapes. “Although quality was still high, we did have some grape blocks come in heavier than expected, which necessitated turning over some tanks a bit early,” said Breggo winemaker Ryan Hodgins. He had but one quibble—Riesling would have benefited from longer hang time before the rains arrived in late October. As for the variety that is rapidly becoming the valley's trademark grape, Kristy Charles, co-owner of Foursight winery and president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, said, “All reports are that the Pinot crop was excellent, with great color and flavor.”

—Tim Fish

Photograph by Chris Leschinsky

Inspecting Chardonnay at one of Constellation's Sonoma vineyards.

Napa Valley

The good news: An ideal season—no frosts, a mild spring and summer and a tranquil fall.

The bad news: The biggest challenge was finding space for all the grapes.

Picking started: Aug. 6 for sparkling wine; Sept. 10 for still wine

Promising grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon shined brightest, but everything prospered, from Merlot to Zinfandel to Chardonnay.

Analysis: Winemakers in Napa Valley were not only elated by the quality and quantity of the 2012 harvest, but a few see a level of excellence that supersedes past vintages, going back decades. “2012 will be a new high-water mark for Napa and California," said Chuck Wagner of Caymus, who celebrated his 40th harvest in Rutherford. “I'd say that it is likely that many vintners have made their best wines ever.” Celia Welch of Corra echoed that sentiment. “The vines appeared so beautifully balanced that even some veteran growers were fooled by the size of the crop load. If the vintage presented a challenge, it was one of logistics,” she said, as in, “where can we put all of the fruit above and beyond what we had planned for?”

No growing season is easy, but 2012 presented few challenges. A mild spring led to a good fruit set. Summer and fall brought warm temperatures, but no heat waves. All the fruit enjoyed a long, slow ripening. Early indications are that Cabernets will be dark, rich and ageworthy, inviting comparisons with 2001, 2002 and 2007. “The saturation of color is amazing; the wines are almost black,” said Jeff Ames of Rudius and Tor. “The Bordeaux varieties are all heavy with tannins but it is sweet tannins and not drying at all."

“Skins appeared to be pretty thick so I'm guessing it will be a high-structure year even with the bigger crop,” said Thomas Brown, owner of Rivers Marie and winemaker for a dozen wineries, including Outpost and Schrader. "The one thing we know for sure is there will be plenty of wine for everyone—a really nice change after the last two years.”

—James Laube

Photograph by Chris Leschinsky

Workers sort red grapes at l'Aventure in Paso Robles.

Paso Robles

The good news: A good growing season for most wineries.

The bad news: A heat wave means a small crop for some.

Picking started: Sept. 1

Promising grapes: Grenache; Syrah in some parcels

Challenging grapes: Counoise, Mourvèdre; Syrah in less lucky parcels

Analysis: Following two challenging years in 2011 and 2010, Paso Robles enjoyed a more normal growing season in 2012. The year started cool, with a dry spring, followed by a hotter than typical summer and a warm, dry harvest. “Our first real heat wave came in the first week of August,” said Saxum winemaker Justin Smith. “It came at the right time—pre-veraison—and did a great job of giving the vines some water stress, which kept the cluster sizes down.”

But those two weeks of sustained heat were rough for some vintners, with shriveling fruit and raisining, leading to as much as 25 percent crop loss in some vineyards. “Syrah was challenging because we had to manage the shrivel, and we had to pick it almost at once,” said Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch Wines. Yields were low for many vintners, but the resulting wines are concentrated. “They are much more powerful and textural than the 2011s, which were more elegant and aromatic,” said Eric Jensen of Booker.

—MaryAnn Worobiec

Santa Barbara

The good news: Abundant harvest

The bad news: Frenzied harvest—everything ripened close together and yields were high

Picking started: Aug. 15

Promising grapes: Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc

Challenging grapes: Counoise, Mourvèdre

Analysis: For some vintners in Santa Barbara, harvest was a scramble to process all of the grapes that ripened close together, but that’s a good problem to have when the rest of the growing season went as smoothly as 2012 did. Spring was easy: No rain, no frost, no storms and no wind meant a good fruit set, with slightly-higher-than-average yields. That was followed by a mild summer, with warm, sunny days and cool nights. August was a bit warmer than normal, helping to ripen grapes, as they got enough hang time to develop complex flavors and textures. “If we did not have those hot trends, we would have been in a world of hurt considering the crop load,” said Zaca Mesa winemaker Eric Mohseni.

Despite the higher yields, winemakers are reporting extracted and concentrated wines. “The wines are all concentrated. I have never seen such low juice yields, low alcohols, low malic acids, brown seeds and full lignification of the stems [the conversion from herbaceous to woody]. This all leads to great color and tremendous concentration,” said vintner Douglas Margerum.

—M.W.

Photograph by Liza Gershman

El Molino winemaker Jon Berlin punches down fermenting Pinot Noir at his Napa Valley winery.

Sonoma

The good news: A long and moderate growing season; no heat waves or heavy rain

The bad news: Crop was much larger than expected, which could impact quality, especially since winemakers scrambled to find space for all those grapes.

Picking started: Aug. 14 for sparkling wine; Sept. 4 for still wines

Promising grapes: Looks excellent across the board, particularly Pinot Noir.

Challenging grapes: Crop size and tannins needed to be managed with some reds.

Analysis: It was a Goldilocks year, according to Pete Seghesio of Seghesio Winery. “2012 was not too hot, not too cold, just the right amount of sun and fog,” he said. When more than an inch of rain finally hit in late October, about 95 percent of the grapes were already picked. That was especially welcome after twin challenging years in 2010 and 2011.

Harvest was more of a logistical problem than a grapegrowing or winemaking issue. Mark McWilliams of Arista said that in the last week of September “there wasn’t an empty fermentor in Sonoma County." Wineries had to make sure heavier red varieties had ripe tannins even though sugars were already high, and after picking each lot had to be given the time it needed to ferment and macerate. “Tank space was a real nail-biter. We started to consider our bathtub at home,” said Mike Officer of Carlisle.

—T.F.

Photograph by Chris Leschinsky

Tasting the results in barrel in Paso Robles.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  November 15, 2012 12:49pm ET
Well, at least I don't have to buy much 2010 and 2011. Sounds like I need to build a warchest for all the 2012 purchases I'll be making. Glad to hear so many vintners having such "problems" with yields.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  November 15, 2012 2:17pm ET
The larger crop in 2012 is much appreciated in the Russian River/ Sonoma Coast areas, as our 2011 yields were down over 50%, for Pinot Noir.

The superior quality is a bonus too!

Eric-
Roaodhouse Winery
Steve Pickelman
Alamo, CA —  December 4, 2012 10:24am ET
With the large harvest across most areas, maybe supply will help moderate price. It would be nice to lay in a good supply of top notch, well priced, local wines to enjoy as they peak.
Corey Goldman
Las Vegas NV —  March 5, 2013 4:46pm ET
Loved 2009. 2010 so far is just OK.
Cant wait for 2012

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