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2010 Vintage Report: United States

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

Posted: November 17, 2010

Every year, vintners learn a crucial lesson: No two vintages are the same. In 2010, much of California faced a brutal growing season as a cool, gray summer gave way to blistering heat waves, followed by torrential rains. Washington also had a cool summer, but growers were able to leave fruit on the vine longer and produce elegant wines. Oregon vineyards suffered a scene from Hitchcock as hungry birds swarmed. Meanwhile, East Coast wine regions switched places with California, enjoying a warm, dry summer.


Arizona
California: Anderson Valley
California: Carneros
California: Napa Valley
California: Paso Robles
California: Santa Barbara
California: Sierra Foothills
California: Sonoma
New York: Finger Lakes
New York: Long Island
Oregon
Virginia
Washington

United States

Arizona

Arizona grapegrowers dealt with a topsy-turvy growing season in 2010, one that saw reds harvested before whites in some areas, while a devastating hailstorm wiped out production in others.

“An odd vintage,” says Eric Glomski, owner and winemaker at Page Springs Cellars, located in the central Verde Valley region, south of Flagstaff. “Whites came in early because of fungal pressures after mid-August rain. Reds are a different story though.”

“[This year's wine is] riper and heavier than ’07 through ’09,” says Glomski, who also works with Maynard James Keenan on the Arizona Stronghold and Caduceus wines. “Those who like bigger wines may deem it better than ’09. But my gut feeling is that we will have less natural balance and will have to rely more heavily on blending to make things work. One obvious standout in 2010 though is the Grenache.”

Aug. 15, a severe hailstorm decimated the vineyards in the southeastern Sonoita region, where several wineries, including Callaghan, Canelo Hills and Dos Cabezas, harvest most of their fruit. “Sixty minutes of 60 mile-per-hour-driven golf ball-sized hail,” says Tim Mueller, Canelo Hills owner and winemaker. “The vines were totally defoliated, just three to four weeks from harvest.”

Sonoita wineries with contracts for fruit in other southeastern areas, such as Willcox and Portal, will be able to maintain some production levels, despite the loss.

—James Molesworth

California: Anderson Valley

Anderson Valley, the winemaking jewel in Mendocino County’s crown, endured much the same fate as most of Northern California’s wine regions in 2010. “It was wait and wait and then hurry up,” says winemaker Milla Handley.

Spring was unusually cool and rainy, and temperatures remained below normal throughout most of the summer. As a result, growers needed to be vigilant against botrytis, mildew and other vineyard diseases, particularly with white varietals such as Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer, according to vintner Larry Londer.

For organic growers such as Handley, protecting the vines with chemical sprays wasn’t an option. She kept on top of it by dropping clusters and thinning out the canopy, which also helped her accelerate ripeness. “Our estate vineyard is on the edge of ripeness every year as it is,” she says. Londer, on the other hand, did less thinning of canopies this year in an effort to tone down the tannins in his Pinot Noir. “It was a blessing in disguise,” he says.

The mid-August heat wave had an impact but was generally less severe than in Sonoma County. Still, growers had to trim away considerable amounts of baked fruit. “Because there had been just huge canopies and it was such a wet spring, the grapes were like a Scandinavian being put suddenly on Waikiki Beach without any shade,” says Handley.

Losses ranged widely, from about five percent to 30 percent compared to average tonnage. There was a good side to the heat – it jumpstarted the growing season. When harvest arrived in late September, winemakers say flavors were good in the reds, with high acidity but less ripeness than normal.

Pinot Noir fared best, Londer and Handley agreed, but Chardonnay and some other whites struggled to ripen, so many vintners are reserving judgment. “I’m really happy with what I’m seeing in the tanks and barrels with Pinot,” says Londer, pausing for a moment. “I can’t comment on the Chardonnay.”

—Tim Fish

California: Carneros

Like much of Northern California, Carneros weathered a challenging year. Spring and early summer was rainy and cool, delaying budbreak and impeding flowering. As a result the crop was quite modest in size, particularly that of Pinot Noir. The dramatically foggy and cold weather continued through July. “Mildew pressure was high,” says David Graves of Saintsbury. “And when veraison was also late, the question was whether the weather would hold through harvest.”

Growers and winemakers didn’t have to wait until harvest for an answer. “After a summer of seemingly endless 73° to 80° F days, the end of August brought a blast of heat,” says Anne Moller-Racke of Donum Estate. "A practically unheard of 105° day was recorded in Carneros."

The heat further stunted the size of the Pinot, Chardonnay and Merlot crops. “Lots of ripening clusters, especially on the west side of grapevine canopies, were toasted and did not recover,” says Graves. Just to finish things off, the heat was followed by a severe rainstorm in late October that dramatically dropped temperatures.

Despite the challenges, winemakers say wine quality is promising, as long as wineries dropped or sorted out the damaged or unripe fruit. “The wines overall have good acidity and fine aromatic qualities, reflecting the overall cool season,” says Graves. “The early verdict: Anxiety rewarded by an elegant vintage, at least as it appears so far. Quantities are modest but quality is very high indeed."

—T.F.

California: Napa Valley

The 2010 growing season in Napa Valley began cool and wet, and by early summer winemakers knew harvest would be late by as much as three weeks. Many thinned their crops and leaves to focus on ripening the grapes they had, but that backfired when a late August heat wave sent the temperatures from the mid-70s to 110 or higher in some spots.

"This blast of heat caused major sunburn and shriveling [of exposed clusters],” says Celia Welch of Corra and Scarecrow. Showket winemaker Nicholas Morlet reports that 80 percent of the Cabernet crop was lost.

Zinfandel vineyards were hard hit, too. “The one-two punch of a cold summer followed by the sudden August heat spike led to some premature raisining of Zinfandel, and the unusual situation where there were heat damaged and dry clusters among the good fruit on the same vine,” says Dave Pramuk of Biale.

Once harvest began, vintners were selective about what they picked, usually making multiple passes through vineyards, and then turned to sorting tables to remove sunburned or raisined grapes. Some vineyards went unpicked.

Was this a brilliant year or a disastrous one? “Everything depends on the vineyard and the vineyard manager,” says Welch. “Vineyards with self-limiting soils and naturally low-producing vines hardly felt the effects of the wet spring, whereas vineyards with deep soils and primarily south- or southwest-facing exposures were compromised by both the rains and the heat.” Growers who had free rein to thin the crop were able to mitigate the cooler temperatures, she adds, which may not have been the case with vineyards seeking to sell large amounts to prospective buyers.

It's unclear how some of the very late picked crop will develop as wine. As of now, it’s still too early to say, winemakers say. “We picked around the rain, sorted out the raisins, and what Napa Cab we have in the winery (about 60 percent of expected) is very, very nice, with huge color and great balance, though at somewhat lower alcohols than normal—not necessarily a bad thing,” says David Ramey of Ramey. “So, a challenging but potentially good year for wineries; a very tough year for growers.”

“The personality of the growing season revealed itself early in the year,” Welch says. “In the winery I’m seeing fruit with slightly higher-than-normal natural acidity and much darker color, both the natural results of a slower, cooler growing season. Seeds and skins seemed to be riper at lower sugars this year, so I would speculate that the best vineyards will likely show fully developed wines with very slightly less alcohol."

For Biale, which makes Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah, “Most of the new wines have deep and dark aromas and well-shaped tannins,” says Pramuk. “Right now, the acidic crunch to the wines is not typical of recent vintages, and we just have to wait for malolactic fermentations to finish and have faith the wines become more texturally supple.

Chuck Wagner of Caymus waited through a wet period of October to pick much of his Cabernet, which comes from vineyards throughout the valley. On Oct. 14 Caymus “probably” processed more Cabernet than at any other time in its 38-year history, Wagner says. “For those of us who had done our homework, we have good ripeness in most areas. It is too early to tell if the last, coolest areas of the valley will make good wine, as we have not started fermentations."

“There will be poor and ordinary wines,” he says, adding, “2010 will provide less great wines, but great wines have been made.”

—James Laube

California: Paso Robles

While all of California had a difficult 2010 growing season, Paso Robles producers are among the most optimistic about their wines. “2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom in California—quite the contrary,” says Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch Cellars.

Like most of the Golden State, Paso Robles had a cool season that delayed growth. Harvest was postponed as vintners waited for ripening. The area was hit by two heat waves, one at the end of August and another in the last week of September. But the heat spikes were less severe than in other parts of the state. Likewise, harvest rains were less damaging.

“We largely missed the rain," says Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard. "We are shielded by the Santa Lucia Mountains, which meant that we had cool sun while more coastal regions had fog. And the heat wave in September was milder in Paso Robles than in the North Coast so we didn’t have the sunburn and dehydration issues that I’m hearing about. I think that Paso Robles has the chance to be the standout California region in 2010."

Haas called harvest “episodic,” with periods of intense effort, followed by weeks of being patient. “It was late, started slow, and then came in a rush with a late-September heat wave,” said Haas. For many, harvest was still going on into the second and even third week of November.

Yields are reported to be about average. Vintners are pleased with the quality of the grapes they have picked, citing acidity and alcohol in balance, great color and wonderful aromatics. Alcohol levels are lower and acidity is vibrant, typical of a cool year.

Fiorentini says that there weren’t any baked fruit flavors. “There isn’t the normal concentration due to dehydration, but there are a lot of flavors to work with since we hung longer and were able to polymerize tannins and maintain fresh fruit quality.”

—MaryAnn Worobiec

California: Santa Barbara

This was a strange and difficult harvest for Santa Barbara vintners, with unusually cool temperatures and an extremely compressed picking, especially for Pinot Noir producers. “To me the 2010 harvest was kind of like waiting for a high-speed train that was running behind schedule,” says Steve Fennell, winemaker at Pinot Noir specialist Sanford winery. "It seemed like we waited forever, and then it came at us at 300 kilometers per hour."

While early-ripening Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the west side of Santa Barbara were mostly picked suddenly and quickly, for later-ripening Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, harvest dragged on much longer, with some vintners picking into the third week of November.

The challenges started at the beginning of the growing season. A cool spring with above average rainfall meant the season was off to a late start from the onset. Most grape varieties had good set, with some reports of mildew and small clusters for Pinot Noir. As cool as the growing season was, it was punctuated by two dramatic heat spells at harvest followed by autumn rain. “It was cool, stupidly hot, then rain, heat, rain, heat, rain and now, hopefully more heat since we are not done yet," says vintner Doug Margerum.

The heat seemed to cause the most problems. Larry Schaffer, who has his own label, Tercero Wines, and is assistant winemaker for Fess Parker, says the record heat decimated several acres of grapes, especially Pinot Noir. "Those vines that did not have large enough crop levels were reduced to raisins within 24 hours."

The good news is that the cool season meant extra hang time for the grapes, which usually equates to more vibrant colors, intense flavors and good acidity.

—M.W.

California: Sierra Foothills

For vintners in the Sierra Foothills, sunburn and frost were hallmarks of the 2010 vintage, yet winemakers are optimistic about the flavors of their wines. “This is one of the more interesting vintages I have had the opportunity to experience,” says Bill Easton, who founded Domaine de la Terre Rouge in 1984.

A cool spring gave way to a late frost in May, which damaged vineyards in the coolest spots. Like the rest of California, the Foothills were about three weeks behind all season. Winemaker Marco Cappelli, who consults for several brands in the area, hoped that average rainfall after two years of below average precipitation paired with warm weather would allow them to catch up during the late spring and summer. “But the temps never really got up high enough for long enough to get us back on a normal schedule,” he says.

High temperatures became a problem later in the season, with a late August heat spike. “The vines had not acclimated to the hot weather, and many varieties suffered from sunburn, particularly Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” says Cappelli.

Yields were about average, except for vineyards damaged by the spring frost or late summer sunburn. The resulting wines appear to be lower in alcohol than in previous vintages. “Flavors and balance of sugar, acid, tannin levels are excellent this year,” says Easton. “The reds will be more elegant, with good staying power.”

—M.W.

California: Sonoma

“I’d like to forget about 2010,” says Russian River grower and vintner John Balletto, recalling a growing season that many in Sonoma County consider the most challenging in generations.

“Mother Nature,” says Pete Seghesio, “wasn't fair.”

The season started with record-breaking low temperatures in the spring, which led to a late budbreak. May brought 20 days of rain (double the historic average), and with many vineyards in the midst of bloom it led to a stunted crop and clusters that matured unevenly. Summer was cool, with plenty of fog and cloud cover. “It was the second coldest July in 50 years,” says winemaker David Ramey.

Mildew and botrytis were a threat all season because of the chill. Many growers, already worried the grapes weren’t ripening, dropped crop and pulled leaves, opening up the canopy for sun exposure and better airflow to make sprays more effective.

In late August, the sun and heat finally arrived with a vengeance. Temperatures sizzled above 100° F for days on end, breaking records around Northern California. Other heat waves followed during harvest but much of the damage was done by the first blast. Many grapes were sunburned, but even bunches covered by leaves withered. “The extreme heat literally cooked the clusters,” says Bob Cabral of Williams Selyem.

Zinfandel took the hardest hit, particularly old vineyards that lacked irrigation that might have fended off dehydration. Nowhere was that more prevalent than in Russian River Valley. Some vineyards, including Papera, which sells grapes to Carlisle, Williams Selyem and Novy, were a total loss. Others lost 40 or 50 percent of the crop. “The destruction on old-vine Zinfandel was unprecedented,” says Mike Officer of Carlisle. “No one alive today farming in Sonoma County has ever witnessed anything like it.”

A week before Halloween, a major storm dumped 4 inches of rain. By the end of harvest, growers and vintners were shell-shocked. “It was the most challenging and difficult harvest that I've encountered in a long, long time,” says veteran winemaker and grower Mark Lyon of Sebastiani.

Yields on all varieties were down, but despite the headaches, winemakers say quality is surprisingly good as long as wineries were aggressive in dropping damaged fruit in the vineyard or sorting it out at the winery. That’s particularly true with white grapes such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that were largely harvested before the October rains. Reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were more variable, depending on whether they ripened before the storm.

“The newly fermented wines taste great—a little lower alcohol levels, but not meager—with very nice texture and balance," says Ramey. "What shows up in the bottle should be really good. There’s just not as much of it.”

—T.F.

New York: Finger Lakes

Growers in the Finger Lakes were ecstatic about an excellent growing season in 2010 that was both warm and dry. Some late-season rains tempered the outlook somewhat, but nonetheless, the 2010 harvest should easily better 2008 or 2009 for consistency and quality.

The growing season got off to an early start and ran two weeks ahead of schedule all season long, thanks to conditions that were warmer and drier than usual. Many growers harvested their whites and some reds in mid-September. “We harvested Pinot Noir in mid-September—that’s still summer,” says Marti Macinski, owner and winemaker at Standing Stone, located on Seneca Lake. “We had never brought in Pinot before October.”

Riesling, the region’s lead grape, was able to hang well into October, shrugging off the remnants of tropical storm Nicole, which dumped several inches of rain overnight on Sept. 30. Warm, sunny weather retuned by mid-October, allowing vintners to pick their Riesling, as well as late-ripening Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, without any disease pressures.

The season did bring lower-than-normal yields, however. “Riesling tonnage is down quite a bit from last year, but the grapes looked super coming into the winery,” says Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run vineyards on Seneca Lake.

—J.M.

New York: Long Island

The East End of Long Island enjoyed one of its warmest, driest summers in 2010, but vintners knew better than to breathe easy until the last fruit was picked. "As a winemaker, you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop," says Richard Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars, who has made wine on Long Island for 30 years. "And as a Met fan, I'm doubly used to it." Thankfully, this year looks like a playoff-caliber vintage.

A warm April brought an early bud break and healthy flowering, and as the season progressed, the vines continued to be two to three weeks ahead of schedule. This was a big contrast from 2009, when the summer was cool and gray, and growers had to leave fruit on the vine late, past Thanksgiving in a few cases, to have any hope of full ripeness.

In fact, Long Island faced a more Californian challenge this year. "Some people had to be careful not to jump the gun on picking," says Olsen-Harbich. Sugars got high quickly, before the grapes achieved phenolic ripeness.

Humidity was also under control, with just enough rain to keep the vines from getting too thirsty. Most wineries began picking whites in early September, and went back for red grapes in early October. "September and October had wonderful cool nights that helped to keep wonderful acidity and provided a slow but steady finish," says Roman Roth, winemaker at Wölffer Estate, Roanoke Vineyards and his own label, The Grapes of Roth. The wines in the tank are promising beautifully ripe, balanced flavors.

—Mitch Frank

Oregon

Don’t make any bird jokes around Oregon vintners this year. You are more likely to get a scowl than a laugh. Hungry birds reduced a crop that was already small thanks to cool summer weather. Many winemakers had already thinned further to bring the grapevines into balance so they could ripen the remaining fruit.

“There were times that it looked like a scene straight out of a Hitchcock movie, with the birds flocking from one block to the next as the [noise] cannons blew,” says Naseem Momtazi, whose family makes Maysara wines from its Momtazi Vineyard in the McMinnville AVA. “They were vicious and it seemed as if nothing scared them.” Summer temperatures were extremely cool, delaying the harvest by two weeks. Then came the threat of rain, not an unusual occurrence in eastern Oregon, where the prime Willamette Valley Pinot Noir vineyards are. The birds just added insult to injury. “Birds were a problem,” sighs Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, “and no matter how hard we applied all tactics available to growers, many of our two-ton-per-acre sites became one-ton-per-acre sites.”

Lower yields and the extra-long hang time did produce better flavors. “As we walked and sampled the vineyards this year we noticed that the flavors were developing at a much quicker pace then the sugars," says Penner-Ash. As a result, the fermented wines from well-farmed vineyards are showing no green or underripe fruit characteristics, despite low alcohol levels.

“We were 30 percent down from the ’09 vintage," says Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, who buys grapes from all the sub-AVAs in Willamette Valley. “As we pressed off the lots we were frankly blown away at the dense color, deep black cherry-driven aromatic profiles and beautifully clean flavors and textures—110 to 115 days of hang time certainly helped with aroma and flavor development.”

Wright and other Oregon veterans see similarities with 1991, a cool vintage that aged well thanks to sleek, elegant structure. “I do not recall the ’91s being this aromatic or having color this healthy, though,” he says.

“Compared to ’08, the only year with almost as much hang time as 2010, we will have lower alcohol but very flavorful wines,” says Dick Shea of Shea Vineyard. “Frankly the combination is almost unique in my 22 years of experience here. I think there is a great deal of excitement among the winemakers.”

Other than bird damage, the vintage will be remembered for looming rainstorms. Several expected storms in late September and early October passed with little rain. But a big storm arrived Oct. 23 and hammered the area for several days. No one has much good to say about vineyards that were not ready to pick before Oct. 23. Those who picked before that storm are happy with what they have in barrels today. “We got everything in before the rain,” Shea says. "Our last pick was on the morning of the 23rd.”

A spring frost reduced the crop in southern Oregon, a source of Rhône varieties to several of the state’s big-name wineries. “Our Viognier and Syrah came in at 50 percent of prior years,” says Penner-Ash. “We had to supplement with some nice fruit from the Columbia River Gorge area, on the Oregon side.”

—Harvey Steiman

Virginia

The warm and dry conditions that marked New York’s growing season also dominated the weather in Virginia as well, where most growers had harvested everything before tropical storm Nicole rolled through.

“My reds went into barrel on Oct. 3,” says Stephen Barnard, winemaker at Keswick Vineyards near Charlottesville. “We had elevated sugar levels across the board, seeing 27 Brix in Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but we struggled to get the fruit [phenols] ripe as seeds and skins were still rather green. The trick was to try and manage some pretty harsh and green tannins.”

With warmth and drought persisting, growers had to pick early to avoid acid deficient grapes and so gentle vinifications will be needed to avoid exacerbating any astringent tannins. Luckily, cool nights returned in September, helping the vines to balance out after the warm summer evenings that ran from June through August.

“We essentially had to throw most conventional wisdom of Virginia viticulture out the window,” says Andy Reagan, winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards. “Overcropping, less leaf pulling, less spraying. The overcropping was more in terms of cluster counts as opposed to actual weights as it aided in slowing down the sugar development to wait for the phenolic maturation to catch up.”

Yields were lower, with growers reporting 30 to 60 percent decreases due to the smaller cluster sizes caused by the drought conditions.

—J.M.

Washington

Vintners in Washington have to think back to 1999 for a vintage as cool as 2010. That’s cool as in not-hot weather through the growing season, resulting in even more crisp acidity levels and bright fruit flavors than a typical Washington vintage. But also cool as in wines with more individuality and personality than usual.

“We saw early flavor and color development in the fruit in advance of lab numbers,” says Marty Clubb, owner and winemaker of L’Ecole No. 41, which sources grapes from Columbia Valley and closer to home in Walla Walla. “That’s a good sign, allowing us to pick at [sugar] levels slightly lower than normal.” The results should be lower alcohol levels in the finished wines.

“Mother Nature really cooperated with us, or it would have been grim,” says Doug Gore, chief winemaker for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which harvests more than half the vineyards in the state. “We had a decent summer, warm, not too hot. We were worried that things would not get ripe enough, but the last week of September and first week of October we had 10 days of 80 to 85 degree temperatures.”

“Vineyards that didn't drop fruit aren't getting the maturation, I've heard,” says Hugh Shiels, whose DuBrul Vineyard in Yakima Valley sells to Owen Roe and other top wineries. “This year most of all will show the quality sites and management teams.” Overall, yields in individual vineyards are down over 2009, but the state’s total looks like it might be up slightly thanks to new plantings coming into production.

There were several rainstorms during harvest, which almost never happens in Washington. “We did have some rot and botrytis in the Chardonnay,” Gore says, “but it’s a good-size crop even after we dropped [some bunches].”

By variety, Gore is especially excited about Merlot. “I haven’t tasted one lot I don’t like,” he says. “Syrahs are also looking very fresh and fruity, with good balance. They’re classic, not the big fruit bombs you can get in a hot year.”

Although many vintners are reporting higher-than-usual acidity levels, much of that increase seems to be in the malic component. As a result, fresh and aromatic varieties such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon should be crisp and vibrant. Oak-aged whites such as Chardonnay, and most of the reds, should come into relatively normal balance after malolactic fermentations complete over the winter.

“I notice more distinction and definition by variety and vineyard,” says Bob Betz of Betz Family Cellar. “Not everything was ultraripe. That can sometimes happen in really warm vintages. I think we’ll see real definition, and distinction, in the final wines. Blending should be exciting.”

—H.S.

David Weisfeld
Kihei, Hawaii, USA —  April 22, 2012 8:20am ET
Why have you not given a rating to the vintage charts for this year?

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