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California's Grapes Are Late to the Table (Again)

The long, cool 2011 growing season means California grapegrowers in cooler wine regions could still be harvesting in late October and beyond
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Sep 26, 2011 4:00pm ET

At first I thought it was me, that I’d spent too much time on the road this past summer, moving to different venues, blurring time zones.

Two weeks ago I noticed that it was getting dark early, earlier than I expected. When I mentioned it to friends in passing, they too felt the same way. Summer didn’t make its usual presence felt.

We had a summer all right, but what made it so different was that it never got hot. I didn’t turn the air conditioner on once.

Several times I thought about the tomato theory and what it might mean to vintage 2011. The tomato theory is that both wine grapes and tomatoes thrive in heat: If you have a great tomato year, the wines should also be great. I had a great tomato year, sort of.

My tomatoes started out like gangbusters, quickly reaching my height and then passing. I figured that was a good harbinger all around. But then I noticed that I had a lot of oddly sized clusters and perhaps more foliage than necessary. Turned out that the nursery mislabeled about half my plants. I ended up with lots of orange cherry tomatoes. They say to make lemonade when you're handed lemons; I made soup with my orange cherry tomatoes.

Harvest is slowly shifting into gear in California. It’s a late year all around and harvest reports indicate the crop is good yet spotty in size. A damp, wet spring extended into summer. Some vines had a very uneven set; some vineyards were so hard hit they won’t produce much fruit. Summer was cool. Friday I returned from a week in New York to find a Sunday of drizzle, with rain in the forecast.

Today is warmer. I heard that Marcassin wrapped up its Sonoma Coast Pinot harvest last week; Chardonnay is next. The Pinot crop looks good from the people I’ve talked with and if the weather holds and stays warm, the sugars in other reds will rise and the flavors will develop.

There have been some hot days, particularly during an early-September heat wave and a warm streak last week. One Zinfandel grower quipped that his grapes went from veraison (when the grapes start to change color) to raisin just like that, an exaggeration, yet indicative of the season’s unpredictable nature.

Late-ripening reds, such as Cabernet and Syrah, may be the most difficult, especially in cooler areas. A note last week from Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non and Next of Kyn, in Santa Barbara County and points south, indicated that his harvest had started but was moving slowly.

“It will be a laaaaate one for sure,” he wrote in an e-mail. “For us, that means that [the 2011 harvest] will be one that drags on for months again. Since we have vineyards in such different climates, we start relatively early (we already started down here at our home ranch in Oak View—picked Petite Sirah, Petite Manseng and a bit of Syrah too … and probably most everything else [from the home ranch will be brought in] within the next week to 10 days), and then stuff is going to start coming in from the The Third Twin vineyard in Los Alamos. [Harvest won't end] until the end of October for us again this year.”

Grenache from Sine Qua Non’s Eleven Confessions Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills didn’t get picked until Nov. 16 last year. “It ends up feeling like a never-ending harvest-crush season. But it is what it is. Gotta deal with it … focus … and stay with it.”

Jeffrey D Travis
University Park, FL., USA —  September 27, 2011 1:32pm ET
Thanks for confirming what many of us knew all along. Global cooling. It is what it is.
Michael Myette
Sacramento, CA USA —  September 28, 2011 1:49pm ET
We harvested Syrah from Lake County Sept 16, cold soaked, and are in our fermentation (started at 26.5 brix). A bit warmer up there. How does this year compare to last?
Michael Hixson
Orange County CA —  September 30, 2011 2:42pm ET
A sweep through Napa, SLH, Edna Valley & Sta. Maria valleys last week turned up a universal consensus from growers: with reasonably good conditions, a small-yield harvest (65-75%?) of better than average quality.

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