For Winemakers, Hell is a Cold, Damp Place
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
Those who forget that wine is fundamentally about agriculture need only drive up to Napa Valley or Sonoma County, sit down in a local cafe or coffee shop and listen to the conversations. No talk of elegant Chardonnays or expressive Cabernets here. Food and wine pairings? Who cares about that when winemakers, in the midst of picking or fermenting grapes, only have time to grab a sandwich or a slice of pizza anyway?
Yes, it's harvest time. And most folks in wine country are talking about the weather, which has proved to be particularly traumatic for them this year. A cold, damp spring caused poor flowering in many vineyards, significantly reducing this year's crop. To make matters worse, the inclement weather also slowed down vine growth, and vintners are looking at what may be the latest harvest in memory. Most of California's wine grapes are normally picked by late September to mid-October; this year, it looks like things won't be wrapped up until Thanksgiving. For winemakers, a late harvest is nerve-racking, because each passing day brings a higher chance that seasonal rains will come and spoil their grapes.
Three weeks ago it looked like the game was lost for nearly everyone but the sparkling wine producers, who traditionally pick early. Bubbly makers picked their typically underripe grapes a month later than they did last year, but at least they finished up before "the week from Hell" started on Saturday, Sept. 26.
It wasn't as bad as the hurricane that destroyed Long Island's grape crop in 1985 or the massive frosts that killed off gobs of fruitful buds in France early this spring. But it was ugly nonetheless to watch the rain come falling down hard in the Carneros region, with most Chardonnay and Pinot Noir still on the vines. The skies cleared up at night, but by the next morning it was raining steadily near Calistoga, at Napa Valley's northern edge. With Cabernet still a month away from ripeness and about 90 percent of Napa Valley's grapes still not picked, it was agonizing for most winemakers, who had spent all summer waiting patiently for their laggard grapes to get a move on.
Even before the week from Hell, things looked ominous. Kendall-Jackson's eternally upbeat public relations man, Jim Caudill, couldn't contain himself when he said gloomily from his Sonoma office on Friday, Sept. 25, "It's been foggy and damp every day this week until afternoon, then it's dark by 6 p.m."
By Tuesday, the sun came out in Napa Valley--for a day--but the fog covering Sonoma County brought a chill wind to Napa's vines. It chilled the vintners' spirits as well. Even I was getting depressed. Believe me, it's a lot more fun to review wines from a great vintage than a mediocre one. Adding insult to injury, a joyful call came in from a winemaker in New York's Finger Lakes region: He was picking the last of his red grapes in the warmest, earliest harvest he could remember.
On Wednesday, the weatherman was predicting a Friday arrival of a major storm from Alaska, and some wineries started gathering grapes that were barely ripe by even New York's relatively modest standards. It looked like the purveyors of grape concentrate were going to make a killing this year in California, because winemakers would be tempted to enrich their juice with a little extra sugar to retain that full-bodied California style. (California law forbids the addition of sugar to grape must, or juice, but some winemakers circumvent this rule by adding supersweet--and legal--grape juice concentrate, when necessary, to juice or wine.)
Unseasonably cool, damp weather continued until the dreaded Friday, when--in a surprise move--the sun came out and stayed there. Now we've had two weeks of solid sunshine, and winemakers report that grape sugars have been soaring. It's a new ball game for those who sweated out the depressing scenario of late September and early October. The bases are loaded (with grapes), and continuing good weather could hit a grand slam for some growers.
Sure, there are still a few problems to deal with--like botrytis, for example. This has been a bad year for rot, and vineyard managers have had to work extra hard at controlling outbreaks. Zinfandel in Lodi, in the Central Valley, was hit hard, and growers were forced to drop much of their crop to insure a delivery of clean fruit for their customers. Chardonnay throughout the state has been affected by botrytis, although levels have not been significant enough to send many winemakers into a panic.
The biggest wild card, of course, remains the weather. This has a been a year when nerves of steel come in handy. Yields are down, but considering last year's bumper crop, that's not so terrible. The key is to make good wine from what remains, and another week of rain, fog and "misting" could still spell disaster for the grapes still on the vines.
For the moment, the sun has decided to cooperate, and winemakers are breathing easier. Will it be a good vintage or a bad one? For whites, generally picked earlier than reds, it might be just fine. Pinot Noir, an early-ripening red wine, could also be in good shape, although yields are way down for most producers. Later-ripening reds, like Cabernet and Merlot, will be challenging. Perhaps the wines will be a bit leaner on the palate than usual. But flavors could still be exceptional--if only the sun would stay out. That's the bottom line in the world of agriculture. It's no place for those with a low stress threshold.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.