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Decisive Action To Save a Vintage

James Laube
Posted: February 3, 2000

Decisive Action To Save a Vintage
By James Laube, senior editor

If the 1998 harvest in California yields some sumptuous wines--as it now appears it will--much of the credit is due to modern viticultural ingenuity.

As the last grapes came off the vines for "Harvest '98," California winemakers appeared to have averted a potential disaster. They can look back on 1998 as a year of floods, torrential winter rains, a damp, downright chilly spring and summer. About all that was missing were an earthquake and a hurricane.

For the longest time, some vintners faced the stark possibility that their grapes simply wouldn't ripen this year and that they might miss an entire vintage. "When you're not picking grapes in September, you really start to wonder," said Joseph Phelps Vineyards winemaker Craig Williams early that month. "Usually by mid-September we're halfway through the harvest, but this year nothing happened. Everyone's just hoping for the best."

Fortunately, things changed. After a long hiatus, the sun came out--and stayed out--long enough to ripen a large percentage of the crop. However, grapes were still hanging in November, and some of them may never get picked. And in difficult spots throughout the state, especially in cooler coastal climes, ordinary wines will be made if they're made at all. Indeed, the 1998 crop is very small in size, but the potential for high quality exists, thanks largely to steps taken by winemakers who recognized the perils of this way-late harvest.

"We got our grapes in just in time, and we've got some very good grapes--they're just not many," said Mark Bixler of Kistler Vineyards in Sonoma's Russian River Valley. "I had faith that the grapes would ripen, but a lot of people really had to be wondering what was going to happen. Those who overcropped their vines, well, it's tough to ripen in a year like this."

Early on, when it became apparent that 1998 would be a late harvest, growers began to thin their crops, a process called "green harvest." Growers hate to thin too much because they're cutting away their potential profits. But the most astute growers thinned early and often, knowing that their best chance of succeeding this year was with a very small crop. I talked with some vineyard managers who made two and three sweeps through the vineyards, removing immature grape clusters.

Ten years ago, 1998 might have ended up like 1988, a year when a poor spring grape set and irregular weather patterns led to widespread uneven ripening and a small crop. The whites that year were solid, even elegant, but the reds were spotty, light and uncomplicated. Then came 1989, when heavy rains at harvest hammered the huge crop, leading to diluted, earthy whites and, for the most part, similarly earthy, diluted reds. That year, too many vineyards were overcropped, and the late season didn't bring enough warmth for a more successful harvest. The difference between then and now: Growers know when and how to thin their crops. This year they acted decisively, earlier in the season, instead of waiting too long.

There's another factor, though, one that's not talked about much. The key to success in 1998 will be in the selection of the final wine blends. Because the crop is so small, many vintners will feel pressured to sell whatever wine they have. But too little wine can be just as much of a hazard as too much. We're already starting to taste wines from the 1997 vintage, the largest in history. This was a great year and a huge crop. But that doesn't mean all the wines were great. Some wineries doubled their production but ended up with lesser-quality wines because they weren't selective--they bottled it all under their primary label.

Good winemakers can make bad wines just like bad winemakers. But the best winemakers know how to select their finest wines for their primary labels and either sell off their mistakes or bottle them in secondary labels at lower prices.

You'll start to hear more about the late but great 1998 harvest. How good the quality is will be determined in the cellars, where hopefully the winemakers will act as decisively in making their final blends as the growers did in thinning their crops, which ensured at least a good chance of success.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column also appearing in the Dec. 31-Jan. 15 issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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