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California's 2011 Harvest Drags On

Checking in with California vintners still waiting to harvest their 2011 grape crop
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 27, 2011 2:00pm ET

Harvest 2011 is ending up more labor than labor of love in most parts of California.

"What a crazy year," Helen Keplinger of Keplinger and Bryant Family Vineyard, both based in Napa Valley, wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "Indeed it has been very stressful and those rains were less than ideal, but not all has been lost and there will be good wines made this vintage. "

Keplinger said she ended up refusing the Kingpin Row Rhône red grapes she buys from Knights Valley due to botrytis. "But everything else has been in very good condition, thoroughly sorted, and has good flavor and ripeness."

She described 2011 as "a year of critical decisions, strict sorting where needed, and patience. I still have more than half the Bryant vineyard hanging and the flavors are good but haven't peaked yet so I'm waiting."

Adam Lee of Siduri breaks down 2011 for the North Coast appellations into three categories. Ripe grapes picked before the rains are solid, he said, while those picked after the first rain are good to very good. Those after the final rain were hit by botrytis.

"Some of our Pinot Noir, our Sauvignon Blanc, and some of our Zinfandel fell into this [first] category," said Lee. "This stuff is really good, perhaps outstanding."

"One of the real problems was the second rain we got Oct. 10," Lee added. "This second rain was what put the fruit that was teetering on the edge over and caused real rot issues."

One other thing to point out: Sugars at harvest were lower. "That was true before the rains and after the rains. Acids on some stuff were higher, but much of the stuff after the rain was diluted and that also dilutes the acids, making the grapes lower in sugar but also lower in acid," Lee said. "Not a great combination. Oh, and yields are down … even down from 2010 which was down from 2009."

It has been warm in Napa during the past few days, but very cold at night. Once the ground gets cold then grapevines start to shut down, said Chris Pedemonte of Colinas Farming Co., a vineyard management firm with clients in Napa and Carneros.

It has been a year that has tested winegrowers throughout the state at just about every turn, from a cold, wet spring, a late fruit set, through a mild summer and harvest that has dragged on longer than anyone hoped for.

This is a year where location matters more than most years. Quality will vary site-by-site, row-by-row and even barrel-to-barrel. For all the grief growers have faced, there will be some excellent wines made. But certainly far less volume and grapes picked at lower sugar levels, which in turn translates to lower alcohol levels. Between a small crop to begin with and thinning to ensure ripeness, tonnage will be way off.

In some vineyards in cooler areas, there are still grapes hanging, notably mountain Cabernets and Syrahs. Dave Guffy of The Hess Collection on Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley said earlier this week that the Cabernet harvest had just begun. On the valley floor, botrytis is evident in many vineyards. In Sonoma, there have been widespread reports of rot, prompting some to call it the worst vintage in years, maybe decades.

For all its apparent unevenness, 2011 turned out fine for some grapes, most notably North Coast Pinot Noir. Winemakers say they picked their grapes under very good to excellent conditions. Rain earlier this month though came at a critical juncture for the thin-skinned Pinot berries still on the vine, leading to the spread of botrytis in many vineyards.

Winemakers will have a better idea about overall quality once fermentations are finished.

But 2011 is not a year they would like to see again anytime soon.

Michael Thomas
Soledad, CA —  October 27, 2011 4:32pm ET
I would add that the Monterey/SLH AVAs seem to be in great shape. Our vineyard got less than a half inch of rain during harvest, and both sugars and acids were where we wanted them to be with no rot. Our Chard and Syrah are still hanging, but that's normal for us, and they look great.
Russell Bevan
Sonoma Mountain —  October 28, 2011 12:13am ET

We have picks on the books for November 1,2,3 and 4. If the rains hold out we will let it go further than that. Right now Bevan Cellars is only 25% in and we have empty tanks waiting for flavors and sugars to develop. If we picked now we could make good wines, but I'm not sure if we could make great wines.

Lower production levels, winemakers not sure how to make wine in cool vintages, botrytis, throw in a tough economy and the potential for another industry shake up looms large.

All the best,
Russell Bevan
Bevan Cellars
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 28, 2011 11:53am ET
A note from Thomas Brown, of Rivers-Marie and Schrader, among others:

God must love Cabernet because we are getting completely bailed out by this weather. There's some botrytis issues out there but when you break it down by percentage everything is coming in at least than 5% impacted so all our fermentation protocols are the same. We still have about 90 tons out that will be slowly pulled off in the next 7 days. Would have never guessed everything would get there this year but that looks to be the case. Most sugars are lower on average but that's just what the year is, 24-25 brix seems to be the norm. Happy to be hanging still but won't shed too many tears when this harvest wraps up.

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