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Harvest 2010: Late and Light

Unseasonably cool weather means a condensed harvest
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 8, 2010 12:38pm ET

Late and light. These two words often come up when California winemakers describe harvest 2010, now underway.

Late is due to an unseasonably cool year, especially the summer, which many now call the summer that never was.

2010 is considered one of the coolest summers on record. Winemakers tell me it's the coolest year they can recall in decades. Yesterday I heard winemakers comparing it to both 2000 and 1998, two cool, challenging vintages.

Light refers to the crop, which is small this year.

Zinfandel, which thrives on heat, may have suffered the most. A heat wave followed the cool summer in late August, scorching vineyards everywhere, but Zinfandel growers appear to have had the biggest losses. Some vineyards lost all or nearly all of their grapes. One reason: Many vineyards had their canopies opened to allow more sunshine. But then temperatures soared from the 70s well into triple digits.

Pinot Noir appears to be in good shape, according to winemakers I've talked to. But the crop is very light. Sauvignon Blanc was a month behind normal. Chardonnay appeared to come in easily: "All the early stuff is in at good sugar; what’s left in deep Russian River and the Sonoma Coast is 20 to 21 Brix now," said winemaker David Ramey.

The Napa Valley Cabernet harvest is just getting into a gear. Many valley floor vineyards are still a week or two away from ripeness. This crop also is light. Mountain vineyards, and many Syrah vineyards, particularely those in the coolest sites, are going to be even later. It rained in parts of the state earlier this week, which never makes any vintner with grapes on the vine happy.

Nicholas Morlet, winemaker for Peter Michael Winery, in Sonoma's Knights Valley, described how their new Napa vineyard, the former Showket Vineyard on the east side of the valley, suffered.

Temperatures went from 75° F to 115° F in the vineyard, which is located on a west-facing hillside, near Dalle Valle. Eighty percent of the Cabernet crop was lost, Morlet said. "The temperature extremes were too much," he explained.

This condensed harvest puts pressure on wineries to make room for all the grapes and wines that arrive at the same time. "Everything has to be orchestrated," Morlet said.

One gauge I use in assessing how the harvest is going: looking at winemakers' hands. When they're stained red, you know they're in the midst of picking.

Most of the hands I've seen lately have been pretty white and clean.

Dave Pramuk
Napa, CA, USA —  October 8, 2010 3:10pm ET
Yes, Zinfandel on the vally floor took a hit after the August 22nd/23rd heat spike resulting in a befuddling mix of good clusters of fruit and collapsed clusters - on the same vine. A lot of hand sorting is going on to winnow out the dryer fruit. The mountain vineyards' fruit that is being harvested from Meade Ranch, Stagecoach, Lampyridae (Mt. Veeder)and Somerston actually looks especially good. Oak Knoll and the old Moore vineyard near Coombsville took hits but have very nice fruit.
There is going to be some good Zinfandel from 2010 - but not as much as we had hoped.

Dave Pramuk
Robert Biale Vineyards
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  October 8, 2010 3:43pm ET

i don't know about you, but i've had some '98 california cabs that are really singing right now, much better than '97s i've had. so while the '10s may not be early drinkers like '07, if they end up being like '98 they'll be really beautiful in about 15 years.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  October 8, 2010 7:20pm ET
Here is a letter I sent to W.S. a few years back (but was not printed):

As though James Laube hasn't gotten his fill of maligning the 1998 vintage in California, he takes yet another shot (No Bottle Left Behind, September 30, 2007). "Not a good year--certainly not a good year to cellar," he writes, referring to Napa Valley Cabernets.

1998 was admittedly not the best year for red wine in Napa Valley, lacking some of the opulent, rich fruit for which it is renowned. Yet in terms of its cellar-worthiness, I could not disagree more. Unlike classic vintages, the more backward 1998 vintage presents many examples which improve with age, revealing subtle spicy/earthy flavors and a smooth finish with subtle fruit character, not entirely dissimilar to a mature Bordeaux. Of course many wines from classic Napa vintages such as 1997 age as well or better than 1998, but not without a trade-off--some of the vibrant fruit character is lost. I know of restaurateurs who have purposely sought out 1998 California Cabernets recently as they have aged well. This is not surprising, because unlike many of the bold, showy, young Cabernets which receive high marks in wine reviews, the 1998 Cabernets, in their maturity, have the ability to blend seamlessly with food.

"Life is for learning" goes the famous (at least for older folks like me) song by Joni Mitchell. Why is Laube so intent on steering readers away from a valid wine experience? Whatever one's assessment of the 1998 vintage in Northern California may be, there is one point on which I believe Laube fails his readers: To the extent that the vintage is worth drinking, it is worth drinking right now.

Michael Myette
Sacramento, CA USA —  October 8, 2010 8:01pm ET
Vince and Chris,

I just recently had some 98's from my cellar, have been hoping that they would open up and blossom from the green, gritty, tannic monster's they were. I did not find them captivating in the least. Actually, I rather thought Jim was too generous, the 98 Insignia is just not a 93 pt wine, no matter how hard they tried. The 98 GDL from BV, The 98 Spring Mtn Reserve, the 98 Prides, all not showing well. I don't agree that the 98's are any good at all.
Michael Myette
Sacramento, CA USA —  October 8, 2010 8:05pm ET

We (Dr. Sherman and I) harvested some syrah from Lake County this year for a small batch of homemade wine. We were at 23.6 brix 2 weeks ago. It might be a lean, cote-rotie style syrah, but thank god Syrah is so versitile. After cold soak and primary fermentation, it seemed extracted and deep. We'll see how malolactic, French oak and time treat it. Agree, 2010 was a challenging vintage, but hopefully, not a lost one like the 98.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  October 8, 2010 10:14pm ET
I too have not especially been enamored with the 98's. Maybe the only decent one has been the Viader 98 -- however they typically depend on more of a bordeaux style and I think that helps. Other then that, 98 is off my radar -- way off. In that light, I am not very encouraged by 2010 as I live in Sac and realize how cool it was. I guess all we can do is cross our fingers and hope the smaller crop helped concentrate the flavors.
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  October 9, 2010 4:29pm ET
I admit that my 97 and 98 experiences are few and far between, but every time I've tasted them the 98s have been deeper and more complex. The experience that stands out in my mind was a recent tasting of Shafer HSS led by Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara. We tasted 1994-2005. The 97 was falling apart, and the 98 was singing. Andrew significantly downplayed the 97 vintage and extolled the 98 vintage. It was interesting.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  October 10, 2010 8:50am ET
Thanks for the updates. I am involved with both home (mostly) and pro winemaking and have talked to (mostly very small) growers from Mendocino to Paso Robles. I have a few observations. First, sunburn and collasped clusters from our heat spike thankfully appear to be fairly localized. Second, what has gotten ripe has been exceptional (great flavors, acids and ripeness without super high brix although I've heard of some high malic acid levels which might make ML interesting). THird....there is still a lot of fruit on the vine (I have Amador Zin at 24 brix!! In a normal year, Amador Zin in mid Oct would be fit only for the Sun Made raisin box) but fortunately the weather for the next 2 weeks looks very, very favorable so hopefully this last bit of warmth will ripen everything up before the vines go into dormancy for the winter. In terms of 1998 comparison, I think the big difference b/w 2010 and 98 is that there was so much rain in 98, whereas not too much this year so far (knock on wood!). So hopefully, we will not get a repeat as I did not care for my 98s in 2001 and I still do not much care for them now
Eugene Kim
Houston, TX —  October 10, 2010 10:46pm ET
I'm a big '98 fan myself. Found them to be incredible bargains on auction a few years ago, and every time I bring one to a dinner party, it receives great praise. My experience with blends have been better, particularly the Phelps Insignia (750 ml and magnum) has been terrific on several occasions as has the '98 Dominus. Different strokes for different folks.
David Rossi
Napa, CA, USA —  October 11, 2010 7:44am ET
Great year for Pinot in many areas. A roller coaster with the weather and difficult for growers due to the light crop, but quality is the best I have seen. Long hang time, good acid, great flavors.

All my Pinot is in the winery and by all measures a very good year.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 11, 2010 3:13pm ET
This is totally off-topic, so I apologize. I would like to see "shadow" scores/notes from folks that are taking over certain beats from you and other senior editors. For example, instead of just relinquishing Zinfandel to Tim Fish, perhaps you could have published your score and shown his "shadow" score/note. That way it builds confidence in his abilities and also tips off the readership to his palate well in advance to turning the reigns over. I think this will be especially crucial when it comes to the big ticket wines like Cabs and Pinots. Any thoughts from you or Mr. Shanken on this?
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  October 11, 2010 3:56pm ET

We understand how important it is to ensure that new tasters are well-qualified to handle their regions, and so we have instituted a rigorous apprenticeship program.

Before a new taster is assigned any wine beats, or allowed to initial wine reviews, he or she has worked for Wine Spectator for at least three years, has tasted regularly with our senior editors for two to three years, and has undergone multiple evaluations. Even after new tasters begin signing their reviews, senior tasters confirm the highest and lowest scores.

We make sure new tasters have extensive practical experience and thorough training before we allow them to judge wines under our purview. And of course they follow our basic blind-tasting methodology to ensure objectivity, fairness and consistency. We think that is only fair, both for producers and consumers.
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  October 11, 2010 5:25pm ET
Troy's point was a very good one & your response was just as good. Thank you for that information. I will now pay closer attention & have greater confidence in the reviews of the "new kids on the block"
Richard Lee
Napa —  October 12, 2010 3:56pm ET
To Dave from Biale:
Thanks for the update. It makes me wonder how much research James did before posting his thoughts. It is irritating when "experts" take shortcuts and don't properly follow thru.
Richard Moreland
Milford, MI —  October 12, 2010 9:38pm ET
I'd like to thank Dave Pramuk for giving us an update from the front lines. It's always nice to hear a winemaker chime in, especially when I'm on their mailing list.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  October 13, 2010 2:56pm ET
Richard -- there has been a huge amount of variability in damage from the heat spike -- some areas and varietals were "toasted", others minimally or not affected at all (we are in the latter fortunately). I thinks JLs comments are reasonably accurate given his focus in Napa and Sonoma, where there was more damage
Richard Lee
Napa —  October 13, 2010 4:39pm ET
Wlter: I prefer accurate info, not generalizations! Cheers!
Philip Mccarthy
MA —  October 14, 2010 11:06am ET
The '98 I tasted most recently was a Beaulieau Tapestry Reserve. Was not reviewed well originally, but it's bouquet and taste are at an optimum now, with a hint of age in the glass. Wonderful experience! In light of the most recent version being so well reviewed, I wondered what a vertical of this might look like?
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  October 14, 2010 7:11pm ET
I think its good to take in everybody's view on a particular vintage. Why? Reviewers may be more generalized but winemakers are always optimistic - sometimes overly so (remember that they need to sell the stuff). Ultimately, I'll decide on my own how I feel about the vintage.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 14, 2010 7:35pm ET
Jamie and others. Any assessments of growing and harvest conditions at this point come from growers and winemakers. Until anyone has a chance to taste any wines, those in the vineyards are providing most of the information. Since I live in Napa, I'm in daily (sometimes hourly) contact with those working the vineyards. Harvest and vintage assessments will always be generalizations. Spent the past few days in west Paso and the harvest there is also late, but seemingly bigger, which has pleased those I spoke with. Moreover, grape quality appears excellent. The only issue is the condensed harvest. Very late. The weather was hot (in the mid to high 90s) during the afternoons, but quite cool overnight, so the ripening appears to be moving at a good pace. Just heard too from David Ramey in Napa; Cabernet grapes are ripening nicely. Sonoma Zinfandel may be the most affected by the late August heat wave. Some growers lost much if not most of their crop. Pete Seghesio said it was the worst he's seen in terms of damage and lost tonnage. Quality could be sensational.

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