2011 Vintage Report: California

A first look at vintage quality in California, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers
Nov 17, 2011

This is the fourth of Wine Spectator's reports on the 2011 vintage in the northern hemisphere. All this week, we'll be bringing you harvest details from winemakers throughout Europe and North America.

The 2011 growing season was simply nasty for many California winegrowers. Cool weather up and down the coast slowed ripening. An April frost shrank yields in the Central Coast, while heavy rains in October threatened Sonoma and Napa with rot. For some, a sunny latter half of October saved the day. For others, it was too late. 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

Anderson Valley

Black Kite’s Jeff Gaffner summed up the 2011 harvest in Anderson Valley when he consoled a young colleague with these words: “This is the year that will make you a winemaker.”

Anderson Valley, the premier wine region in Mendocino County, faced myriad challenges. A cool and wet spring delayed the growing season and summer temperatures rarely rose above 90° F. By the beginning of September, the season was lagging weeks behind the norm. But sun and 90-plus temperatures finally arrived mid-month, jumpstarting harvest for early ripening grapes such as Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir, particularly for grapes destined for sparkling wine.

Just when things looked brighter, a major storm brought more than an inch of rain starting Oct. 3. After a few days of sun, another storm swept through Oct. 10, bringing hot, humid conditions with it. “It was this warm, tropical downpour,” said Navarro winemaker Jim Klein. “I didn’t sleep that night because I knew what I was going to see the next day.”

Botrytis, which had been a problem all season due to the soggy spring, exploded throughout the vineyards. “I walked through all our vineyards the next day and it just got worse as the day went on,” Klein said.

In hindsight, Klein was glad he harvested most of his Pinot Noir before the rain. “They have lower sugars than we normally see. Most of the Pinot looks to be about 12.5 to 14.5 percent alcohol, and normally it’s like 13.5 to 15.2.”

At Black Kite, Gaffner let the Pinot hang through the rain on the estate vineyard. “It’s a hillside vineyard and the soils are well-drained,” Gaffner said. In the end, the Pinot “is still a bit green,” he said. “The wines are going to be a lot more elegant. Alcohols will be a lot lower.”

Chardonnay was another story. “Chardonnay,” Gaffner said, “got the hell kicked out of it.” Klein estimated that “60 percent of the Chardonnay in the valley was wiped out in a 48-hour period.” Sorting out diseased fruit was the biggest task after the rain. Young and inexperienced growers were caught off guard by the magnitude of the problem, the winemakers said. A few vineyards were 100 percent loss.

Despite the challenges, vintners remain optimistic about the fruit they brought into the winery, but admit that Anderson Valley was clearly a mixed bag in 2011. “It was one of those years they have in Burgundy on a regular basis,” Klein said.

—Tim Fish

Napa Valley

Here’s one word Napa growers never want to hear in the same sentence with Napa Valley Cabernet: botrytis. Noble rot works magic with dessert wines, but not with the valley’s premiere red wine. While no one in Napa made Cabernet with botrytis-affected grapes, the fact that it spread through vineyards, forcing grapes to be left on the ground, shows how hard 2011 was.

Cabernet thrives in the warm, dry weather that is the Napa norm but was AWOL in 2011. There simply wasn’t enough heat to turn the tables on a year that tested winegrowers at just about every turn, from a cold, wet spring, a late fruit set, a mild summer and a harvest that dragged on into November, bedeviled by rain and rot. “It was a horrible year for Napa Cabernet,” said Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards.

Photograph by Chris Leschinsky

A vineyard worker harvests grapes at Niner Estates in Paso Robles.

The cool spring weather hampered fruit set, when flowers turn to berries, in most vineyards reducing the crop by about half compared to normal, Wagner said. “Yields ranged from 0.5 to 3.5 tons per acre," he said. Yet "oddly the low-yielding vines did not ripen well either.”

Rain in October caused further delays and triggered the onset of botrytis in many vineyards. “The weather was like Europe,” said Wagner, so much so that he flew in a French consultant for advice on how best to manage the crop. “To me the quality of fruit ranged widely—one vineyard fine, the next a failure.”

“If you start late, you finish late,” said Thomas Brown, co-owner of Rivers-Marie and winemaker for a dozen Napa wineries, including Schrader. “No matter how nice the summer was, there was only so much catching up we could do. With the smallest Cabernet crop most of us had ever seen, we thought ripening would speed along but again that was not the case.”

Vineyard managers did what they could to save the crop, removing leaves to let more sun in and thinning bunches where possible. But the hot weather that usually comes at harvest didn’t arrive. In its place came botrytis in many vineyards. “I admit I'd never seen botrytis in Cabernet and the idea of losing up to half of what was already a really small crop was not very appealing,” said Brown.

Philippe Melka, who oversees winemaking at more than a dozen Napa wineries, says the late, cool 2011 harvest reminded him of a rainy year back home—in Bordeaux. In 20 years in Napa, he’s never seen botrytis affect Cabernet.

Earlier-ripening grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are showing great character and style, Melka said. The Cabernet quality could be more inconsistent, he said. “I also think that a great selection of Cabernet lots blended with some amazing Merlot and Cabernet Franc could create some very successful wines," he said. "Either way it will clearly be one of the lowest alcohol years in a long time.”

Because botrytis-affected grapes were dumped, it won't be rot that holds Cabernet back. It will be lack of ripeness. "I think the lack of ripeness, and not so much the degree of botrytis or other fungal organisms, will be the dominate issue in 2011," said Chris Pedemonte of Colinas Farming Co, a vineyard management company.

Photograph by Chris Leschinsky

Many California properties harvest at night, keeping grapes cool as they travel to the winery.

While no one is calling it a great vintage, many believe great wines were made, just not enough of them. “I think there will be some exceptional wines, but they won’t be because of luck,” said Tor Kenward of Kenward Family Vineyards. “They will reflect experienced growers and winemakers who took adversity and turned it to their advantage. I expect a mixed bag.”

—James Laube

Paso Robles

“It’s been a crazy year,” said vintner Scott Hawley of Torrin, recounting an unusually cool year in Paso Robles and a late frost that hurt several vineyards. But it’s the low yields that appear to be the big story in Paso in 2011. "We harvested anywhere from 33 percent to 50 percent of our typical production,” said Terry Hoage of Terry Hoage Vineyards. “Ouch!"

The frost, which arrived April 7, was significant because of how widespread the damage was. Eric Jensen of Booker said that Grenache and Bordeaux varieties seemed to be hit particularly hard. Only Mourvèdre, a late-bloomer, appears unaffected. In addition to cutting yields by up to half, the frost also set the clock back at least two weeks for vintners, as the vines needed to recover and start growing again.

What followed was an unseasonably cool and long growing season, which ended up giving the grapes plenty of hang-time, allowing them to ripen well. Without excessive heat, Jensen said that there was no drying of grapes, “There’s a lot more juice in the grapes,” he explained.

October brought a sustained period of 85° to 90° F weather, with just a touch of rain. Hawley reported very little rot, as the clusters were loose from the frost damage in the spring. This warm period right before harvest saved the vintage. “I think Mother Nature really bailed us out,” said Hawley.

Photograph by Curt Fischer

Bringing in Cabernet Sauvignon on Howell Mountain in Napa Valley.

For most growers, harvest was about four weeks behind schedule. It started well, but as it stretched into November, it became more hectic. “We started to run out of calendar days,” explained Hawley, and juggling timing and picking crews led to 24-hour workdays.

The resulting wines are promising. “So far, sugars have been lower than we typically see,” said Denner’s Anthony Yount. “But flavors, concentration and power are very impressive. Syrah is exhibiting powerful dark notes of violet, tar, blood and black tea, while Grenache is spicy, fruity and tannic.”

Jordan Fiorentini, winemaker at Epoch Estate, agreed. “Wines won’t have the super-jammy, ultraripe Paso fruit, but will be balanced in alcohol, acid and tannins.”

—MaryAnn Worobiec

Santa Barbara

Vintner Brandon Sparks-Gills calls the 2011 vintage in Santa Barbara a "Cinderella year,” full of challenges but with a storybook happy ending. But getting there meant grappling with a cool season, threats of botrytis and a devastating frost.

The season began with a late frost in April that inflicted heavy damage in the vineyards. "We have never had such extensive damage from frost in the last 18 years we have been growing," said vintner Steve Beckmen. But frost wasn’t the only factor that shrank yields. Intense winds over a three-week period during bloom damaged flowers. By the end of harvest, vintners were reporting yields of 10 to 75 percent below normal.

After the winds, cool temperatures arrived and continued throughout summer, with August and September dominated by foggy conditions. "We just could not get rid of the marine layer this year,” said Beckmen. “Normally June and July are the foggiest months but this year it extended into August and September."

Photograph by Sara Sanger

Sorting Pinot Noir grapes as they arrive at Kosta Browne in Sonoma County.

Botrytis, triggered by mild September rains, further reduced yields. Brian Loring of Loring Wine Co. reported higher than normal levels of botrytis in some of his Pinot Noir. "Basically any stuff that got rained on," he explained. "There are some varieties that handle rain pretty well—but Pinot isn't one of them. That doesn't mean that all the fruit was bad, it just meant you had to sort out a lot more clusters than normal. And in a year where yields were already down due to frost and the cold weather, sorting out that much fruit really hurt."

Thankfully, October brought ideal weather for slow ripening, giving the grapes plenty of hang time. And the consensus is that the low yields are resulting in high quality, with tiny berries and clusters that are intensely flavored. “The silver lining is that what remained is often amazing. But there’s just not that much of it," said Loring.

There’s plenty to be optimistic about what grapes are left. "The structure looks fantastic. Everything looks great so far," said Tensley, “The color and extraction are beautiful." Though Pinot Noir crops are particularly small, winemakers are reporting purity of fruit and a brighter profile than in recent years.

"Right now Syrah seems to be the quality leader for us," said Beckman. "We have brought in some very great Grenache as well."

But the whites might be the standout in 2011. “The Sauvignon Blanc this year is off the charts good,” said Doug Margerum of Margerum Wine Company. “Nothing underripe and nothing overripe. Stunning intensity and rich mouthfeel already at this young stage.”



For the third year in a row, Sonoma County was hammered by major rainstorms during harvest, testing the mettle of even the most seasoned winemakers. “I’ve been in the business for 36 years and this one of the worst vintages I’ve ever seen,” said Fetzer winemaker Dennis Martin.

The growing season got off to a late start because of an unusually wet and cool spring. Then in early June, when many vines were in bloom and pollinating, one final big storm hit, stunting the size of the crop and creating uneven growing patterns in many vineyards. Summer temperatures were cool, rarely rising above 90° F.

Because of the damp spring, rot and mildew were constant threats in the vineyards. By Labor Day winemakers were biting their nails since most vineyards were weeks behind, but finally in mid-September temperatures reached the mid-90s for nearly a week.

It was just what winemakers like David Ramey needed. It helped that the vines were generally carrying a small crop, allowing faster ripening. The harvest of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and, to some extent, Chardonnay, moved into gear. Ramey was able to bring in about half of his Carneros Chardonnay and most of the warmer-area Russian River Chardonnay after the heat wave.

But the hot weather didn’t last. In early October, with the forecast calling for significant rain, many growers and winemakers faced a tough choice. Pick before the rain and settle for less than optimum ripening or risk all and hope the grapes would weather the storm.

“A lot of the Chardonnay, especially in Russian River, was just not ready,” said Dry Creek Vineyards winemaker Bill Knuttel. Varieties such as Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon—particularly in cooler regions—were far from reaching optimal ripeness, so there was little choice but to sit out the rain.

In the warm upper reaches of Alexander Valley, Sebastiani winemaker Mark Lyon harvested his Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from before the rains. “I feel like I dodged a bullet,” Lyon said.

The storm ended up being a one-two punch that arrived with rain and cool temperatures Oct. 3 and over the course of several days dumped nearly 2 inches of rain on parts of the county. Then, after a few days of sun, another storm arrived Oct. 10, and while it didn’t pack much rain, it was a warm, tropical storm. “The last rain was especially devastating as it was warm advection rain,” said Carlisle winemaker Mike Officer. “The higher temperatures and humidity caused rot to literally appear overnight.”

How the vineyards fared after the rain is hard to generalize. As Officer put it, “So much of it depends on the particular vineyard, farming practices, timing and, in some cases, even luck, or lack thereof.”

Photograph by Sara Sanger

Sonoma Pinot Noir awaits in an oak fermentation vat.

Williams Selyem's Bob Cabral harvested most of his Russian River Pinot Noir before the rain but was forced to leave the majority of his Chardonnay hanging. “I lost about 40 percent of my Drake Estate Chardonnay due to botrytis after the rains, same with Heintz and Hawk Hill vineyards Chardonnays,” Cabral said. So far, he says, the Chardonnays and Pinots from his Russian River vineyards taste elegant and ripe, and carry less alcohol than recent vintages.

Winemakers report that in some instances even typically hearty grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon became so engorged by the rain that they literally cracked open while on the vine. “They just burst open in your hand,” Knuttel said. Careful sorting of the grapes was a must in order to weed out grapes with botrytis. That only cut into what was already a small crop.

Warm and sunny weather followed into early November, which allowed for a bit more ripening, but for the most part harvest finished within a few weeks of the rain. A new phrase entered the winemaking vernacular: “mercy pick.” Some vineyards were as ripe as they’d ever be. Might as well pick.


More Harvest Report 2011

See More

2011 Vintage Report: United States

Nov 18, 2011

2011 Vintage Report: Europe

Nov 16, 2011

2011 Vintage Report: Italy

Nov 15, 2011

2011 Vintage Report: France

Nov 14, 2011

Spotty Describes California's 2011 Harvest

Oct 28, 2011

Harvest United States California Harvest Report 2011 News

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