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Will California Grapes Rot on the Vine?

Stormy days for California winemakers as heavy rains pound an already late vintage

Tim Fish, Augustus Weed
Posted: October 14, 2011

The sun has returned for now to California wine country, but following a series of rainstorms that swept through the state in the past two weeks, growers and winemakers are scrambling to salvage what was once a promising vintage. "This really sucks," said Fetzer winemaker Dennis Martin. "I've been in the business for 36 years and this is one of the worst vintages I've ever seen."

Veteran winemaker David Graves of Saintsbury agreed that 2011 is one of the most challenging of his career. "It's not a vintage for the faint of heart," he said.

After a late start in the spring and generally moderate summer weather—temperatures rarely rose above 90° F in Northern California, for example—winemakers had been biting their nails since Labor Day. Storms played havoc with harvest in 2009 and 2010, but if the rain held out and warm weather persisted into November, then 2011 looked to be a promising season.

Northern California bore the brunt of the storms, which arrived Oct. 5 and continued on and off for a week. Sonoma County received 2-plus inches of rain, while Paso Robles along the Central Coast received a little more than an inch.

One of the hardest-hit regions is Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. "Chardonnay is not looking pretty right now," Martin said. "There's a lot of botrytis." Botrytis is a mold that dehydrates the grapes, leaving them shriveled and raisinlike—good for Sauternes, not good for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Ulises Valdez, who runs a vineyard management company and makes wine under the Valdez Family label, said Zinfandel and Syrah in Russian River and Dry Creek valleys took a hit from mold and rot. "Twenty-three tons of my Zinfandel are gone," Valdez said.

Whether or not to pick before the rains was a tough call for growers. "A lot of the Chardonnay, especially in Russian River, was just not ready," said Bill Knuttel, winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyards.

Many grape contracts between growers and wineries dictate a minimum level of Brix, which is a measurement of sugar content. A Brix level of 24 is a typical goal, but before the rain many of the vineyards were reading 22.5 or less, which would translate to about 12.5 percent alcohol, low by current California standards. Growers who saved their grapes from the rain by picking at low ripeness may have to sell their crop at a steep discount, often hundreds of dollars a ton less than they expected.

Regions such as Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Barbara had significantly less rain, but they were racing the same clock. "If we felt the fruit was within three or four days of being optimal, we picked before the rains hit," winemaker Brian Loring said. Loring decided that many of his vineyards in Sonoma simply weren't ready and risked the rain. "I still think it was the right call, since ripe fruit with some mold is better than unripe fruit that's pristine."

In Paso Robles, Linne Calodo winemaker Matt Trevisan said the vines seem to have minimal disease problems. "There is nothing that needs to be pulled immediately," Trevisan said. Acid levels remain too high to pick, so he's waiting. "It's better to harvest a few grapes that are great as opposed to a lot of grapes that are so-so," he said.

In Napa Valley, Genevieve Janssens, director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery, reported that their Cabernet Sauvignon survived the rain relatively unscathed. "The sugars are definitely going to be lower this year and we are going to see lower alcohol," said Anna Monticelli, winemaker at Piña Cellars. Like Cabernet, later-ripening grapes such as Syrah and, to some degree Merlot, were able to weather the rain. In Carneros, Graves was able to bring in most of his fruit before the storm and will finish picking Chardonnay and Pinot by this weekend, several weeks behind the norm.

Walking through the vineyards in some regions, winemakers report that even typically hearty grapes like Cabernet are so bloated by the rain that the skins are cracking open. "They just burst open in your hand," Knuttel said.

The full impact of mold and rot problems is still being assessed since it often takes a full week before problems surface. For now, winemakers are sorting through the grapes as they arrive and removing diseased fruit as best they can. That will leave even less fruit, and the size of the 2011 crop was already considered tiny.

In many European regions, vintners can chaptalize—adding sugar to underripe grapes, which is not legal in California. Instead winemakers like Martin will use fruit concentrate to boost the sugar levels for some of the value Fetzer labels. "It helps fill out the body," Martin said.

Is it already too late to fully ripen Cabernet and Syrah? Days are growing shorter, Knuttel noted, and even if temperatures reach the upper 80s, those temperatures are sustained only for a few hours this time of the season. "Even if you wish for warmer weather than we're having now, you're just not gonna get there from here," said Graves, who predicted that many of the 2011 reds will be similar to the 1998s. "The big, ripe style of wine is going to be hard to find in 2011; I don't care how much concentrate you use."

Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  October 14, 2011 8:46am ET
that sure is a bummer, but i am confident these wines will still be very good. the '98s that were so trashed on release are drinking brilliantly right now, compared to the '97s that are flabby and past prime.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 14, 2011 10:34am ET
Tim/Augustus, are any of the smaller players worried that this will knock them out of business?
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  October 18, 2011 10:46am ET
Were the grapes phenolics ripe or simply low in sugar?
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 18, 2011 10:55am ET

I haven't heard that it will be that extreme, but many wineries and growers are facing financial challenges and this can't help. One thing is fairly clear, with a small vintage in 2011, that should clear the pipeline of access/bulk juice.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 18, 2011 3:58pm ET

It's a mixed bag, depending on the region and varietal. Some winemakers report the flavors are there, others say no. Ironically, a few winemakers are saying the acid levels are low AND the flavors aren't there, a side effect of the rain and rot in some vineyards.

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