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California: A Late and Light Harvest

Daniel Sogg
Posted: February 3, 2000

James Laube reports on 1996 California Cabernet.

California Chardonnay has yet another excellent year in 1997.

Search our tasting notes database for more wines from California.

For more about the 1999 harvest, see our Harvest Diaries feature.

Back to Harvest 1999 main page.

California: A Late and Light Harvest

By Daniel Sogg

For the second consecutive year, California winemakers were hampered by an abnormally cool spring and summer -- attributed to climate conditions caused by La Niña -- that delayed the ripening of the grapes. Most wineries reported that their crops were late and light, with yields ranging from average to 50 percent below normal. Quality should be high, if not as consistently superb as some other vintages of the 1990s.

"I see Cabs with phenomenal tannins, very soft, with great color," said Nick Goldschmidt, winemaker at Simi Winery in Sonoma County. "But we'll have to see if they've got enough guts to make outstanding wine."

As in 1998, patience was essential. While heat spells in September and October boosted sugar levels in the grapes, the flavors often lagged behind. Consequently, producers who picked solely by the numbers (such as Brix, a measure of sugar in the grapes) might not have the desired intensity and richness in their wines.

"We decided early on to set aside sugar levels as a picking criterion," said Nick de Luca, winemaker at Fisher Vineyards, which produces Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay from Napa Valley and Sonoma County. "I think many people picked too early, so a lot of wines will taste green."

Ed Sbragia, winemaker at Beringer Vineyards, which owns more than 10,000 acres in Napa Valley and the Central Coast, was less concerned about quality than quantity. "The whites look great; the reds are very dark, though it's hard to know [this early] how the flavors will balance out," he said. "The only problem is the shortness of the crop."

The lower-than-average yields were attributed partly to the cool growing season and to the fall heat waves, which dehydrated the grapes. The Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance reported that yields were down as much as 30 percent in some vineyards. The Napa Valley Vintners Association estimated that overall Sauvignon Blanc was down about 25 percent; Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were about average; and Merlot varied from average to below average, depending on location.

Santa Barbara producers battled exceptionally cool weather, with yields down 25 to 50 percent, depending on the variety. "There was no sustained heat," said Bruno D'Alfonso, winemaker at Sanford Winery in Buellton. "This is the first year in 20 that I've rejected fruit." Though many grapes benefited from the extended hang time, late-ripening varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, got caught by a November 7 storm that dumped as much as 1.8 inches of rain throughout the area.

While some California growers picked through much of November, premium producers in Napa and Sonoma rode an Indian summer to a late October\/early November conclusion. "Winemakers who know what they're doing will make good wines," said Patrick Campbell, winemaker and owner of Laurel Glen Vineyard in Santa Rosa. "Those who just look at the numbers will make boring wines."

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