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Let's Get Real About 2012

Two of California's best winemakers ponder the future of this year's vintage
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 7, 2012 10:30am ET

Winemakers in Northern California are finally catching their breath as harvest 2012 winds to a finish. In the mood to kick back, and perhaps celebrate a little, winemakers Adam Lee of Siduri and Mike Officer of Carlisle had a long lunch last week at Stark's Steakhouse in Sonoma County and let me tag along.

Both brought red Burgundies— Lee opened Bouchard Père & Fils Beaune Grèves Vigne de l'Enfant Jésus 2008 and Officer the Jerome Chezeaux Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots 2009—while I fished out a 2001 Kathryn Kennedy Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from the cellar.

For most of the meal, we talked about everything but harvest and the 2012 vintage, but we finally got around to it. "It was the most difficult easy vintage I ever had," Officer said. "Bingo," Lee added in agreement. The biggest issue was the size of the crop, which was unexpectedly large. "Pinot across the board in Sonoma County, the yields were off the charts," Lee said.

Many wineries ran out of tank space. We had each heard stories about grapes left to over-ripen in some vineyards because there was no space in the winery. Also, a short heat spell in the first week of October sent sugars soaring, but in some cases the flavors weren't fully developed. That could be an issue to watch as the 2012s mature.

The growing season, however, didn't leave much more to complain about. It was more or less ideal, a Goldilocks year: not too hot, not too cold, just the right amount of sun and fog. When more than an inch of rain hit Northern California early last week, 95 percent of the grapes were already in the barn.

"The Achilles' heel of the vintage is the yields. I worry that it could be a 1997. It was a big crop and the fruit got ripe, but in the end how well did the wines hold up?" Officer wondered.

Predicting the quality of a vintage at this early stage is tricky. Officer said his 2011 Zinfandels were disappointing at first taste last year, but he now believes they are the best wines he has ever made.

"It's easy to decide the bad years," Lee said, "but deciding whether a vintage is good from very good is tough. I think we agree it's at least a very good year, but we don't know if it's an excellent year."

Why were they being so cautious when most winemakers are waxing poetic about 2012, I asked them? They shrugged.

"People are just happy," Officer said, "that it's not 2010 and 2011 all over again."

So true. California certainly was due.

Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  November 7, 2012 12:33pm ET
I'm not sure how any winemaker can predict how the wines of a vintage will really turn out this early in the process. So it's always good to be cautious. Unless you're the Rain Man of winemaking ;)

What I found most interesting this year was the difference between yields in the north and south. While the yields were super high in Sonoma, they were just above average in Santa Lucia Highlands, and actually quite low in many places in Sta Rita Hills. Even though Cali is very large, we generally see a consistent trend across the state. Not so this year. That just added to the "fun" for those of us that buy fruit statewide :)

-- Brian Loring
-- Loring Wine Company
Stephen Martin
Paso Robles CA —  November 8, 2012 11:54am ET

As a grower in Paso Robles 2012 was a difficult growing season. We had fairly warm temperatures then a severe heat spike in late July that put undue stress on the fruit. As a result fruit ripened way earlier than has been the case at our site. It is not unusual for us to harvest Zinfandel as late ae early November. This year we were completely done by the 1st week in October.
Compounding the early ripening was a moderately low tonnage which was a mitigating factor. My concern is for the loss of hang time for the fruit this year. We could not take advantage of a fairly mild and quiet October where we could have developed some intense fruit flavors. Fortunately the wineries we partner with are happy with the fruit but as a grower who is interested in helping make the best wine I feel like we got shortchanged with the vintage.
David Rossi
Napa, CA, USA —  November 8, 2012 3:54pm ET
I feel great for the growers. They needed a year with solid prices and big yields. From a wine quality standpoint we'll have to see, but I am not as optimistic as in past years.

Big berries and clusters has us bleeding off more than ever. Grape chemistry was off in many vineyards we have worked with for years. We normally like to pick earlier than we had to in 2012 just because we didn't see the flavors we wanted when the sugars were low.

Good vintage? Sure, but I'm not gushing about it. Ask me 12 months from now. Maybe I'll be more positive.

David Rossi
Fulcrum Wines
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 8, 2012 7:12pm ET
Thanks for the comments. Always great to hear from other winemakers and growers. We had some serious rain here in Sonoma briefly today. The seasons move on. Cheers.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  November 9, 2012 11:38am ET
It was oddly perfect for us harvesting Pinot Noir from the Russian River & Sonoma Coast, here in Healdsburg.
No watering back, no acid needed, no nothing really. (Except scrambling for bins, barrels, and tank space!)
I kept the labs busy running the numbers over & over again, because they seemed too uniformly the same across multiple vineyards. Even the malolactic fermentations happened fast and spontaneously on their own.
After 2011, I am feeling like we deserved this nice one.

Roadhouse Winery
Tim Bell
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  November 9, 2012 3:57pm ET
I'm with Mike Officer on the quality of 2011 Zinfandels; while I wouldn't have characterized them as disappointing early, I did think we might have an average vintage on our hands. But the wines are developing beautifully and I can't wait to see what we end up with in the bottle. As for this year's quality, Zinfandel truly is looking good right now, and that isn't something I've been able to say at this time of year in the last few vintages! Nice to have an "easy" year.

Tim Bell
Dry Creek Vineyard

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