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2009 Vintage Report Card: Part 1

A first look at vintage quality in U.S. wine regions, with eyewitness reports from growers and winemakers

Posted: December 2, 2009

Every year, vintners learn a crucial lesson: No two vintages are the same. In 2009, California was enjoying a long, dry growing season until an October thunderstorm threatened Cabernet and Syrah. New York faced early rains in June that cut yields dramatically. In Oregon the challenge was heat, while in Washington, an ideal season was cut short by frost. Here's a first peak at the upcoming vintage.

California: Central Coast
California: Napa Valley
California: Sonoma
New York: Finger Lakes
New York: Long Island

United States

Region: California: Central Coast

The 2009 growing season was tricky for Central Coast growers, with drought conditions, low yields and a heavy storm during harvest. "It was a struggle from beginning to end," said Tablas Creek's Jason Haas. "I think we're going to end up with some terrific wines, but we were fighting for it the whole time."

Still, most vintners agree it was an easier year than 2008's extreme temperatures and wildfire smoke. Yields were down across the board, thanks to a mixture of drought (the third year in a row) and some early season frost damage, which delayed vine growth in some areas. "The weather during spring set was great, but the clusters that resulted were just tiny," said Justin Smith of Saxum.

While the slow start made 2009 look like it might be a late harvest, the vines caught up quickly, thanks to some heat spikes in August and September. Harvest started slightly early and, because of the low yields, moved swiftly.

And then the rain hit. One of the most defining moments of the 2009 harvest was a massive Oct. 13 storm. "The 18 hours of rain was a damper on our mood," said Fred Holloway of Justin. Central Coast vintners were soaked with almost 10 inches. Haas claims it's the most rain in a single storm in his winery's 20-year history. Thankfully, the storm was forecasted, giving vintners plenty of time to pick what they wanted to before the rain. Many say they had harvested about 75 percent to 80 percent of their grapes before the rain.

For the grapes left on the vine, the weather after the rain was crucial, and vintners reported mixed results. Two weeks later, many were able to resume harvest. Haas said the nicest weather of the season came right after the rain. But Dan Lee of Morgan winery wasn't as happy. "The rain wasn't as problematic as the weather afterward," said Lee. "We had four to five days of warm and humid weather, and that's when mold can start happening." Lee says that thankfully 85 percent of his grapes were in before the storm.

"It's going to be a spotty vintage," said Smith. "There is some excellent wine that will come about, but also some disasters from rot and dilution." Other vintners are more encouraging, reporting early wines with intensity, deep colors and tannins. "We have a lot of concentration and a lot of tannin and acid," said Jeff Pisoni. That said, he added, "The wines will not be as showy as '07."

—MaryAnn Worobiec

Region: California: Napa Valley

For most of the 2009 harvest in Napa Valley, things went smoothly. Early-ripening whites—Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc—and reds, namely Carneros Pinot Noir, were picked at optimal ripening levels, capping a summer of mild, steady weather. Pinot had none of the hard spring frost troubles it experienced in 2008, which cut the crop by nearly half. This year, winemakers are already elated by the flavors of the young fermenting Pinots.

Napa's biggest money grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, enjoyed the same ideal growing conditions until October, when a pair of strong storms dumped enough rain to worry growers. Those who picked before the storms were excited about the young wine's color, flavor, acids and tannins. But those who waited out the deluge faced a mixed bag. One of the wineries that gambled was Caymus, which saw both sides of the coin.

"We held 80 percent of the crop through two October storms, standing firm in the belief that the loose-clustered Cabernet will not rot," said Chuck Wagner, working his 38th harvest in Rutherford. "We did not have a problem with rot but did experience some clusters with mold which we dropped to the ground."

Coming out of three great vintages where the fruit had time to attain thorough ripeness, this year Wagner found himself unwilling to take anything less ripe. "I feel that we were stubborn to the point of fault, in denial about the warm days behind us, but the wines may come out just fine. Our wines will likely be different than most, as we picked significantly later than others. The wines which have already fermented are dark and good, but some are lighter and will be sold in bulk."

"I've pressed off my lots and I'm extremely happy," said Tor Kenward of Tor Kenward Family Wines. "I had two picks after the storm and nine picks before the storms." The pre-storm passes produced wines, "with dynamite colors, extraction and flavor. It's a slam-dunk. There's going to be some extraordinary wines." After the storms, though, the grapes didn't gain any sugar, but added a little flavor.

—James Laube

Region: California: Sonoma

The 2009 vintage was like a good book with a lousy ending. "You had a vintage before the rain and a vintage after the rain," Souverain winemaker Ed Killian said. "It changed it from one of these dream vintages into something else entirely."

Following a cold and soggy finish to 2008, late winter and early spring of 2009 were unusually warm and dry. The growing season was uneventful and temperatures were cooler than growers had seen in recent vintages, with fewer heat spikes above 90 degrees in July and August than usual. As September approached, winemakers were worried that ripeness levels lagged, but an extended spell of warm temperatures jumpstarted harvest.

Then the rainy reason began a few weeks early on October 13. The downpour quickly dumped six inches in regions like Dry Creek Valley and then continued intermittently. In the days before the rain, growers scrambled to bring in what they could. "We had pretty good warning about the rain," said Clos du Bois winemaker Erik Olsen. "We did a quick triage on what to pick and what to leave." Picking crews were at a premium and it wasn't unusual to see pickers running through the vines with full bins.

With ripeness levels lagging, there was plenty of late season Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah remaining on the vine after the rain. Killian estimates that 10 percent of his Cabernet was still hanging. "I don't think the 2009 Cabernets will be powerhouses but they are plush and elegant," he said. "We saw a lot of fruit that stalled and never did get ripe."

With cool and humid days following the rain, rot was a serious concern for growers who still had grapes on the vine. Thin-skinned Zinfandel from cool regions took a serious hit, with some small vineyards in Russian River Valley losing most of their crop after the storm. The Zins picked before the rain are generally elegant and lower in alcohol, although winemakers will have to be careful to balance the tannins.

Early ripening grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir generally had an excellent year. "It was truly very cool in Russian River in 2009. The wines have a lot of acidity and I think that they will be pretty zippy. Pinots from the Sonoma Coast are very perfumed and intense," Olsen said.

Killian agreed. "Chardonnay and Pinot are going to stand out. The Pinots have bright fruit and it was a large crop of Chardonnay, with really nice bright yellow fruit. Because it wasn't too hot, it's going to be a very good year for Merlot, too."

—Tim Fish

Region: New York: Finger Lakes

After two very good, but very different vintages in 2007 and 2008, Finger Lakes vintners were put to the test in 2009. The growing season was intermittently cool and wet, resulting in late and uneven ripening and putting a premium on vineyard management and location.

"This will be a vintage of extraordinary variation from site to site," said Morten Hallgren, owner and winemaker of Keuka Lake's Ravines Winery.

In a region where myriad grape varieties are grown and yields are often still high, those who managed their vineyards well and focused on the best varieties are likely to stand apart from the pack. "The growers who were careful about crop loads and completed early leaf pulling were able to produce good quality grapes," said Steve Shaw, who has been growing grapes in the area for 30 years and started his own Shaw Vineyard wines in 2002.

Riesling proved best at handling the challenging weather, showing once again why it's the region's best grape. "Fruit and flavor intensity is terrific, with structure like '08," said Dave Whiting, winemaker and co-owner of Red Newt Cellars, referring to the previous harvest, which produced bright, nervy whites.

Other aromatic whites, including Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, also did well; red varieties were far more inconsistent however. "The growing season was not great, but it was good enough for varieties we should focus on more up here anyway – Riesling, Lemberger [Blaufränkisch], Zweigelt," said Johannes Reinhardt, winemaker at Anthony Road Winery. "The only thing that kept our situation manageable was the more modest and balanced crop load. It would have been a disaster if we had the same crop on our vineyards like some years back."

With inconsistent warmth and sunlight, veraison came late for some varieties such as Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Vineyards with high crop loads struggled to ripen fully, despite a dose of warm weather in early September. More rains later that month followed by an early frost compounded the difficulties of the year.

"The leaves dropped [after the frost] and that signaled the end of photosynthesis," said Whiting, who has been making wine in the region since 1988. "It was one of the earliest frosts of that severity I've seen since I've been here, but fruit condition was good and we were able to harvest it in good shape."

"It's not going to be a weak year for whites, that's for sure," said Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards. "But for reds, we'll have to see."

—James Molesworth

New York: Long Island

Sometimes life gives you 28 days of rain, and you have to make rosé. That was the dilemma confronting some Long Island vintners in 2009, as a cool, wet summer played havoc with the vineyards. In some spots, growers were able to use every trick they've learned to get their fruit ripe. Lower than normal yields and a long growing season helped. A lot of wineries picked later than they ever have. In others spots, there was nothing to do but make some outstanding pink wines from grapes that would normally go into reserve reds.

The struggles started in June, as Mother Nature decided to dump four weeks’ worth of rain on both the North Fork and the Hamptons, right in the middle of fruit set. Roman Roth, winemaker at Wölffer Estate, reports that he ended up with 30 percent less fruit because of the deluge. Other winemakers report similar numbers—some spots had 60 percent less than normal. "Merlot was the most impacted," said Richard Pisacano, who owns Roanoke Vineyards and is vineyard manager at Wölffer. "It's always the most fussy during flowering."

The lower yields would prove to be a mixed blessing. On one hand, no one likes less wine to sell. On the other, it made it possible to ripen the fruit despite a relatively cool summer. And it reduced disease pressure. "We had these nice open clusters, which kept away the rot," said Roth, who also makes wine for his own label, the Grapes of Roth.

The Chardonnay ripened nicely and most winemakers sound pleased. But the Merlot, Cabernet Franc and especially Cabernet Sauvignon are more uneven. On the western part of the North Fork, Barbara Shinn dropped clusters three times at Shinn Estate Vineyards and used various biodynamic treatments to try and ripen the fruit more fully. Husband and partner David Page reported that they picked the last of their fruit Nov. 13, the latest ever. Pisacano said he waited until the 16th. A lack of frost and better canopy management allowed him to stretch the season until the grapes were physiologically ripe.

Frost did eventually arrive, leaves dropped off the vines and growers whose fruit hadn't fully ripened had no choice. Several producers report the quality of their rosés will be higher thanks to decent fruit that wasn't ripe enough to make reds. Roth found another silver lining in the long, wet season. He had such nice botrytis in blocks of Riesling and Vignole that he's making a trockenbeerenauslese.

—Mitch Frank

Region: Oregon

A hot summer, untimely September rains and uneven temperatures throughout harvest challenged Oregon Pinot Noir producers to make wines that fit the state's ideal of delicacy over power.

"I am worried that an excellent vintage might be less so for human reasons more than nature's," said Tony Soter of Soter Vineyards. "This was a year when we had to do the right things or the wines would suffer."

The hot summer followed an ideal spring that produced a potentially huge crop, up to three times normal yields unless growers thinned the proliferation of bunches to normal dimensions. Early September rains brought mold to some vineyards, though several days of hot weather dried most grapes. Warm temperatures in late September and October lulled some growers into picking late, at potentially high alcohols. The right decision, the top winemakers agree, was to get the grapes in while they still had fresh flavors.

"Responding to rapidly rising sugars and softening fruit," Soter said, meant picking earlier rather than waiting. "We were keenly aware of how on the edge we were."

"Our wines this year show full-on flavor if cropped properly, and the vine avoided raisining in the sun," said Rollin Soles, winemaker for Argyle and his own ROCO winery. "The reds are especially vibrant in color with some really attractive, balanced textures."

Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars was pleasantly surprised that his wines showed no overripe flavors or overly soft textures from the heat. "Now that we have pressed all of the lots, the profiles are dominated by fresh fruit aromatics with an emphasis on the high notes," he said.

Harry Peterson-Nedry, proprietor of Chehalem Vineyards, said that investments in sorting tables paid off big-time in 2009. "Some early season heat in warmer sites contributed to a little botrytis and dessication, so we justify sorting conveyors and even a pass of vineyard sorting." The potentially large crop made the resulting reduction in volume less financially onerous than usual.

One oddity, Soles reported, was that vineyards at different elevations ripened all at once in 2009. "Usually, you can count on a 10-day difference for every 200 feet of elevation. Not this year," he said.

The heat was a godsend for southern Oregon, which relies on varieties other than Pinot Noir. Growers in Applegate and Rogue Valley report fully ripe flavors, which does not happen every vintage.

—Harvey Steiman

Region: Washington

Since 2005, Washington state has enjoyed four consecutive vintages of moderate warmth that produced beautifully balanced wines. But in 2009, one of the hottest summers on record made Washington vintners worry this harvest would bring big, overripe wines.

The worst didn't happen because temperatures eased in early September and remained cooler than normal except for a brief heat spike in mid-harvest. Growers could wait patiently for flavors to catch up with sugar development. Everything was going great until Oct. 11, when temperatures in the prime growing regions dipped into the low 20s. The vines lost all their leaves in the frost, which meant an end to flavor development.

"It's a tale of two vintages, maybe two harvests," said Bob Betz, proprietor of Betz Family Cellars. "It was historic for us, one of the earliest harvests on record. We had all our grapes picked by Oct. 7."

Betz is happy with the results. "I think the wines are super. The grapes had thick skins, lower berry weight, great concentration," he said. "I see less heat effect than in other warm vintages. I am surprised at the brightness of the fruit in barrel already."

Betz and other vintners say that the vintage favors Cabernet Sauvignon, which got the most concentration without losing the acidity to balance the intensity. Syrah also did well, as did white varieties, which generally come off the vine early. Other red varieties did not fare so well.

"The early ripening Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc colored up late," noted David O'Reilly, winemaker for Owen Roe. "They came in about eight days later than normal years. The parents of Cabernet Sauvignon don't like heat." But the Cabernet Sauvignon, he reported, came though fine.

O'Reilly got all his grapes in before the frost as well, but others did not. About 20 percent of Washington's grapes were still on the vine on Oct. 11, according to several growers, when the frost ended the season.


Pacific Rim Winemakers
Portland, OR —  December 3, 2009 10:57am ET
Just wanted to drop a note about WA Riesling (number one varietal for WA). The grapes came with a surprinsingly high acid for a hot year (we did not use any acid this year, just as 2008). The flavors were a bit more delicate and less overipe than I would have expected (that was good). Phenolic content was higher than average though, once again, not off the charts as one could have expected from a warm year. We were almost done picking our Riesling before the frost but I know much was left out in the field for other producers which will probably be reflected by a lower Riesling total harvest for the state. It was also a low botrytis year overall due to the fair weather and the cold snap that ended harvest for most of us.

Larry Schaffer
central coast, ca —  December 3, 2009 11:41am ET
Thanks for this post . . .

But to cover the 'central coast' and not touch upon anything below Paso really isn't doing the area justice . . .

It was a great harvest in Santa Barbara County, with yields reduced for the reasons mentioned above, and cluster size usually smaller than previous years.

Unlike our Northern colleagues, though, the Oct. 13th rain was not as detrimental to our area. We received a fraction of what they go up north, and therefore our harvest did not come to a grinding halt . .. and though there was some small levels of mold damage, it was easily sortable.

Overall, most wineries in our area are very pleased of what is now in barrel!

Just another data point this am!


Larry Schaffer
tercero wines
Vinfolio Inc
Northern California —  December 3, 2009 2:06pm ET
Why are we hearing about vintage conditions in Sonoma County from Clos Du Bois and Souverain, while in Napa we hear from Chuck Wagner and Tor Kenward?
There is a major discrepancy here, as always, showing that Wine Spectator appears to care very little for the great wines of Sonoma County. Maybe you should ask Beringer and Sutter Home what their thoughts on the Napa Valley Harvest season was like? Or maybe Fred Franzia has some ideas he'd like to introduce pertaining to the growing conditions there?
There are a myriad of incredible wines produced in Sonoma County. Why don't you check with Mike McNeil at Hanzell, or James MacPhail or Mick Unti about what they thought of 2009? How about Mike Benziger or Sally Johnson (Pride)?? Come on, Tim!!
H Bruce Smith
Roseburg, Oregon —  December 3, 2009 2:42pm ET
Once again the WS has perpetuated the myth that Oregon is all Pinot Noir and Willamette Valley. You do your readers a disfavor by not highlighting the diversity of wines in other AVA's other than Willamette. You give two sentences to southern Oregon only to leave out a jewel of an AVA, the Umpqua Valley AVA. (Ask Mat Kramer what he thinks of our wine!)

Wine should be more than who can out market the other. Unlike other regions all are wineries are family owned and produce small case lots. With 22 tasting rooms and growing rapidly, this is a "not to miss" region with a solid mix of varietals, such as Tempranillo and Gruner Veltliner, both of which where first planted in the USA here!

I would like to see the WS break out of its Willamette Valley preoccupation and give the readers some meat to chew on.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  December 3, 2009 6:43pm ET
Vinfolio Inc

Our Vintage Report Cards are meant to offer a big picture view of the county and that's what Ed Killian and Erik Olsen can offer since they harvest from vineyards around the county, and my discussions with dozens of other winemakers back up their comments.

I'm a fan of small, quality producers like MacPhail or Unti but they can offer only a modest slice of a vintage.

We're big fans of Sonoma's top producers at Wine Spectator. Two of this year's top 10 wines are from Sonoma, with nine overall on the Top 100. (Napa has only six.) And in recent years we've featured Koasta Browne, Ramey, Siduri, Carlisle, Unti, Benziger, Marcassin, Seghesio, Merry Edwards, DuMol, Peter Michael, Patz & Hall and so on.

Thanks for the comment.

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