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Winemaker Blues

Jeff Morgan
Posted: February 3, 2000

Winemaker Blues
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor

Consumers can't get enough wine, and winemakers are getting rich off skyrocketing sales. Right? Perhaps, to a degree. But in the wine world, you can only relax for a vintage. 1997 might have been a bumper crop in California and a good one for the French and South Americans, but 1998 is already proving challenging, to say the least.

It's time for all of you budding vintners out there--and you know who you are, you doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers and home-winemakers all hell-bent on entering the big leagues of commercial wine--now is the time to think about what a big crapshoot it can be.

It's all about the weather, and El Nino seems to have kicked in an added element of chance this year, starting with the harvests in Chile and Argentina, where torrential rains (and hail, too) pounded vineyards with a vengeance.

Some of the jet-setting California winemakers (who prefer to remain anonymous) returned from their vineyard efforts in South America with comments like: "I wanted [the pickers] to leave the fruit out [on the vines] longer than they usually do ... just to get greater intensity. They listened to me, and now they all hate me ... . It may not have been the best year to do it." The rains provoked the kind of rot that few growers in normally dry South America have ever seen.

In France, the weather didn't even wait for the grapes to appear before dealing a devastating blow to growers in the Languedoc region. A chilling freeze nipped many of the little nascent grapes in the bud early this spring. Some vineyards in the region of Limoux were reporting 80 percent to 100 percent kills. That's a lot of crop to lose, even if the previous year was good one.

Here, in northern California, vintners are wandering around biting their fingernails and complaining about the unseasonably cool and rainy weather that has slowed the growing season by more than a month. At this rate, the harvest may stretch into November, and the grapes will be at risk from normally occurring seasonal storms.

But that's assuming there are many grapes left on the vines anyway. Grapes are self-pollinating; they flower in the spring. If pelted by rain or battered by cold, the flowering can be incomplete and lead to a condition called "shatter," when the little berries remain small and green. They simply don't turn into ripe grapes, and crop yields can be severely depleted. That's part of what everyone's worried about right now.

There's also a little problem known as mildew, a fungus that eats leaves and grapes, leaves a mess and can destroy a wine. Rainy and humid conditions favor mildew, which can be somewhat controlled by spraying sulfur and other fungicides.

But Californians tend to be a little lax about their fungicide spray schedules because the state is usually so dry. That's why a whole lot of growers got creamed last year when El Nino dumped unseasonable showers on the ripening grapes in mid-August. Many growers just weren't prepared, and they were hit with large amounts of rot.

This year, the same guys determined they weren't going to be caught with their pants down again. But this time, the spring rains came on so strongly that some growers couldn't get their tractors out in the muddy vineyards to spray at all. It's too early to tell just how much mildew is lurking out there. Life can be tough--particularly in agriculture.

So those of you who still want to become winegrowers should remember there's more to it than building a pretty winery and watching the sun set over the Mayacamas Mountains. Just about every year, the weather will throw you a curve ball. No matter how much money you've invested, or can spend, you'll probably be scuffling in the end--trying to patch up the holes left by Mother Nature.

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 West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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