We're in the middle of another crazy, late California harvest.
Good but spotty are other themes that run through most of what you hear about California's harvest 2011.
And on the horizon, the smaller crops in recent years could spell price increases.
In areas where grapes are still hanging, harvest is winding down quickly and should be finished by next week, ahead of predictions of rain and cooler weather.
"The weather's nice [today], cold this morning [as in 39° F, up from 33° F on Thursday], but things look good," said Justin Smith of Saxum in Paso Robles.
Smith and others are bringing in grapes while keeping an eye on weather forecasts that call for storms beginning next Thursday. "We'll try to wrap it up before that," he said.
Paso had a hard spring frost, which cut the crop by nearly half in some vineyards, but the area midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco dodged most of the rain. Smith said the area had only one rainstorm, which didn't cause much damage. The bigger issue has been the unusually cool weather.
"We had that one rain storm, but the others [that hit the North Coast] missed us," Saxum said. "We were lucky in a way that the frosts reduced yields, making this a less crop year."
The oddities of grapes and terroir were are still on full display at his vineyard. Syrah and Grenache were frosted in April, yet Mourvèdre, a later bloomer, wasn't. Mourvèdre, a key grape to his James Berry bottling, is always the last grape picked. "We usually start [picking Mourvèdre] around Halloween and finish by Thanksgiving."
Overall, "it's good but spotty," Smith said of Paso Robles in general. "Some areas where it's harder getting things ripe, it's not going to be perfect."
The '09s, '10s and '11s will be different than the '08s and '09s, he said.
Santa Lucia Highlands appears to have survived and prospered better than many areas in California, according to winemakers. Santa Lucia and Sta. Rita Hills, in Santa Barbara County, avoided this second rain front and winemakers such as Adam Lee of Siduri and Novy were still letting Syrah hang on the vines. "With very little real issues," Lee wrote. "In fact, we still have Syrah hanging in the SLH and it looks as good as any year ever."
"2011 has played out like a cross between 2008 and 2010," Brian Loring of Loring Wine Co. in Santa Barbara wrote in an e-mail. "Lots of frost issues like 2008, and very late ripening like 2010. But the kicker this year was the rain in early October. That turned what could have been another great vintage into one that will be mixed. Due to the rain, the biggest problem was mold and rot. Our Sonoma fruit that we let hang through all the rain showed significant amounts of botrytis. Even in Sta. Rita, despite little rain, botrytis became an issue. Picking decisions and sorting will be the key to the vintage. In order to make great wines, you should have picked only truly ripe fruit before the rain, and had the guts to let the rest stay on the vine. And then, despite how much it hurt, you had to be willing to pull out all the botrytis and underripe fruit when you sorted. And trust me that hurt a lot in some cases."
Saxum's 2011 harvest
Aside from all the gloom and doom, there is a lot to like about the vintage, Loring said. "We've seen some awesome fruit that was fully ripe, including dark brown seeds, at some of the lowest sugar levels we've ever seen. That won't equate to lower alcohols, but it did mean that we added less water than usual. [It] should result in good concentration and depth of flavor."
Yields may end up being a big story as well. They were way off everywhere. "Our Pinot Noir take was off 25 percent from 2010, which was a very short year as well [and off by 24 percent from 2009]," Loring said. "That means over a two-year span, our Pinot Noir yield dropped 41 percent, from the exact same acreage."
The bottom line is that supply will be scarce, and prices will most likely have to rise, Loring said, adding, "That's not something any of us look forward to doing."
The standout area for Pinot Noir in 2011 will be Santa Lucia Highlands, he predicted. "The fruit was ripe and we picked just before the rains hit. That's where I'd place my bet for wines of the vintage."