"Normal" is not a word that California winemakers use nowadays when describing a vintage. Weather patterns, in the past decade or more, have been all over the map. There is no normal anymore.
Take vintage 2015, for example: Harvest kicks off today at Mumm Napa Valley. Sparkling houses always lead off harvest in California, but this is the earliest ever for Mumm. In the past few vintages, the crush has started earlier and earlier. May of 2015 was unusually cool in Northern California and June was quite hot. Lodi vineyards were tattered by hail in April and Paso Robles received 2 to 3 inches of rain last weekend.
Is uncertainty the new normal?
Most regions are well into veraison, the stage when grapes begin ripening, turn softer and change color. Harvest won't shift into full gear for another a month or so, but in the meantime I reached out to a few winemakers for a snapshot on what's happening in their vineyards right now.
In Napa Valley, Doug Fletcher oversees winemaking at Chimney Rock and Rutherford Hill, and he says 2015 could be "the earliest year since I've been making wine." And Fletcher has been a winemaker since the mid-1970s. He compares the year to 1997, which produced ripe and opulent wines in Napa, but he predicts the crop will be much smaller than '97's.
Fletcher expects harvest to start with Sauvignon Blanc in about a month. "I just hope we don't have any strong heat waves before harvest," he said. "With low soil moisture and some vine water stress already, we don't need a heat wave to dehydrate the fruit. If that doesn't happen, it could be a top-notch harvest."
In Sonoma County, the growing season had another early start in spring with budbreak finishing almost a month early. May was unusually cool, which played havoc with grape set in some areas. Some growers have been dealing with mildew issues all season long, which can also affect the quality and size of crops.
Siduri winemaker Adam Lee expects the Pinot Noir crop to be smaller than usual. "It's not a bad year—except for quantity—but it could be really good year," Lee said. "We just need a relatively mild to modestly warm August and very little rain until end of September."
Things were a bit muddy over the weekend in Paso Robles on the Central Coast after as much as 3 inches of rain drenched the area in a short time. "We were prepared for a much lower level of rain, but who's complaining?" Caliza winemaker Carl Bowker asked.
Rain this time of year is almost unheard of, but because of the severe drought conditions in the region, Bowker doesn't believe it will be detrimental to the crop. Syrah and Cabernet Cabernet Sauvignon, the two leading reds in Paso, have a great deal of shatter, a term growers use to describe loose and uneven clusters that lead to smaller crop sizes.
Down on the South Coast, rain was also predicted last weekend for Santa Barbara County, but once again the region struck out. The drought there is among the most severe on the coast.
In the Sta. Rita Hills region of Santa Barbara, Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton says they received a quarter-inch at most. The growing season there started with a warmer-than-usual spring, and it looked to be yet another early harvest, but temperatures moderated by summer. The fog also began to arrive, and that's crucial to the region's beloved Pinot Noir.
"No real challenges to speak of thus far," Brewer said of the vineyard. "The Pinot crop size appears to be somewhat variable this year. It stands to reason after two sustainable yield years of 2012 and 2013 followed by a larger than normal 2014."
He expects the first Pinot blocks to start coming in during the last few days of August, average for recent years, or "a whisper early."
Besides the typical concern for late-season heat waves, winemakers and growers are keeping an eye on early rain. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center is monitoring a large and powerful El Niño building in the Pacific Ocean, which means parts of California will likely get drenched this fall through spring.
Yes, winemakers want the rain. They need the rain. But can it wait until after harvest? We'll see how it goes.
If you're a grower or winemaker, how do things look in your region and vineyards? Let's hear from you.