Rains Punctuate a 'Perfect' California Vintage

Winegrape harvest nearly done in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties; remains active on Central Coast

by Paul Franson
vineyard harvest rain
Jon Ruel of Trefethen Family Vineyards said grapes were about "95% in" when rain started falling Oct. 21. The sun came out briefly (above) on Monday.
Napa, Calif.—Rains that started this weekend seemed to have little impact in California vineyards other than to create a rush to finish picking, placing a definite end to the 2012 harvest.

Most of the coastal county grapes were at optimum ripeness, though a few winemakers always like them to hang a bit longer for riper flavors.

Randy Ullom directs winemaking operations for Kendall-Jackson’s properties up and down coastal California. He reports, “In all, there wasn’t much impact except to put an end to harvest. And there was a rush over the weekend to get in the fruit. You could feel the energy in the air,” Ullom said, adding, “Everyone is dancing on a cloud. This has been a perfect year.”

Overall yields were a little higher than expected for North Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as Cabernet in Mendocino, while growers in Santa Barbara and Monterey said yields were normal.

“It barely rained in Santa Barbara,” Ullom noted. “There’s a lot of fruit hanging in Monterey including Chardonnay and Riesling, which have thin skins,” but they only received about a tenth of an inch.

In the North Coast, not much of K-J’s fruit was still hanging. “What’s left is mostly Cabernet, and it’s hardy.”

Napa Valley
Jon Ruel, president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers as well as director of operations for Trefethen Family Vineyards, said, “We were about 95% in before the rain. Just small bits of less-ripe Cab and Merlot stayed out. We got about 1.4 inches Sunday night, but not much since then. Those grapes will be fine and we’ll probably pick them all by early next week, before the next storm.”

He added that they’re pressing early lots of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Merlot and are thrilled with the quality. “Great color, solid phenolics and bright ripe fruit,” Ruel said. “2012 = great stuff.”

In Rutherford, Ted Hall of Long Meadow Ranch, which grows mountain fruit, said, “It’s too early to tell, to be honest. We have some red grapes still out there, but if the clear weather trends continue for the next 10 days, the grapes should be fine.”

He added, “This has been a fabulous vintage with the long, cool, dry growing season allowing full flavor development with good—but not excessive—yields. We are very excited about 2012. We have brought in truly beautiful fruit.”

Ernie Weir, the winemaker at Hagafen Cellars in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, was a little ambivalent. “Any unpicked white grapes will be happy to begin to rot now with the amount of rain and free moisture due to overcast conditions. Whether noble rot occurs is a matter of the presence of the inoculums and some beneficial drying winds to spread the fungus and help desiccate the berries.”

He added, “The same is true for red —though their skins are usually more resistant and rot may take a bit longer to occur. Basically it is time to pick, not wait longer in search of higher sugar since minimal, if any, photosynthesis is occurring now.”

Mendocino and Lake counties
David Beckstoffer, whose family grows more than 3,000 acres of grapes in Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, reported, “The rain has caused us to accelerate our harvests in all three counties in order to get mature fruit off of the vines before the rain. We were mostly concerned about the Chardonnay in Mendocino, which is more susceptible to rain associated damage but we were able to get it all off before the rains.

“Having thicker skins, the reds are able to take a little more rain, but we have still been rushing everything that is ready to the wineries. The fruit that remains is still in good shape but we are taking advantage of breaks in the weather to bring it in.”

He added, “Overall the crop appears to be of excellent quality, and wineries are very happy with what we are delivering.”

In Lake County, grower and vintner Clay Shannon had about 1 inch of rain. It’s not helping the Zin or Petite Sirah but fortunately, we don’t have much left to pick.“

Sonoma to the east
Nick Frey, chairman of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, said that the impact of the rain was limited at this point. “I think we have a chance of finishing most of harvest by Sunday and the next potential round of rain. Overall, the impact on the vintage will be negligible. There’s lots of good fruit in the wineries already.”

Over in Clarksburg and Sacramento, John Beckman, president of Clarksburg Wine Co. said Clarksburg had “ideal growing conditions for the best vintage of this century. A mild spring with no rain nor frost during bloom gave us a great fruit set, and then consistent warm weather provided exceptional fruit expression. The growing conditions gave us more flexibility to pick Chenin Blanc, the area’s signature variety, at a higher ripeness level, and we did not receive a single drop of rain this fall until all of our fruit was safely in the cellar—absolutely perfect timing.”

Livermore County
Karl Wente of Wente Vineyards in the Livermore Valley told Wines & Vines, “The rain didn’t really do much but give us a chance to catch up in the cellar—and on our sleep—after three very busy weeks. Almost all the grapes are in but Cab, Petit Verdot and Malbec, and they hang well. The Zin and Chard are off—they would be the problems.”

Santa Cruz County
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mary Lindsay of Muns Vineyard, who is also director of the Viticulture Association of the Santa Cruz Mountains, said, “The Pinot has all been brought in from the Santa Cruz Mountains, but the rain did encourage harvest of late ripening varieties, like Cabernet.”

She explained, “The Pinot harvest started early in September at some of the mid-elevation vineyards. At Muns Vineyard (the highest for Pinot at 2,600 feet), we started harvesting our Pinot in mid-September and finished toward the end of the month—right about the time Pinot started coming in from the coastal vineyards (around Corralitos.)”

Lindsay added, “We brought our Syrah in the first of October, just before that heat spell. I think that impending heat spell precipitated some vineyards to harvest if they were on the cusp of doing so around that time.

“The later ripening varieties like Cabernet are grown primarily on the Silicon Valley (warmer) side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I have heard that the rain encouraged harvest along the southern end of the region.

“Jerold O’Brien of Silver Mountain brings in Cab and Cab Franc from Bates Ranch, down near Mt. Madonna, which is a well-known and well-regarded vineyard and has been for a very long time. He said that the fruit was ripe, but they wanted to get it in before the rain, and if the rain were not a factor they would have let it hang a little longer.”

Lindsay added: “Crop loads and fruit quality this year are excellent. Everyone is excited by this vintage. Certainly the yield is a lot better than last year (which was way down), but from what I am hearing it is better than ‘normal.’ The weather this year has been near perfect—with cool nights and moderate, even days for flavor development and ripening.”

Alicia Ysais, winemaker for DFV’s HandCraft Artisan Collection, reports: “Overall, 2012 looks to be an incredible vintage. It’s one of those once-in-a-decade harvests with both quantity and quality. The recent rains have not caused any issues.”

She continued, “Our Clay Station Vineyard in the Borden Ranch AVA received about half an inch over three days. (It was) not a factor this year because everything but Cabernet was in, and it wasn’t enough rain to affect the grape’s thick skins. From the Mokelumne River AVA we get Petite Sirah from several growers and we picked it all seven-10 days ago, before the rain. It looks phenomenal."

Monterey County
In Monterey, “San Bernabe Vineyard avoided the first rains that came up from the south on Monday and the most recent front that came from the north left only .22 of an inch. Fortunately, the grapes were fully ripe and had reached optimal maturity levels, so the fruit was not adversely affected. We had to delay picking for a day to allow the canopies to dry out; that’s all.”

Also in Monterey County, Steve McIntyre of Monterey Pacific said, “Once again the Santa Lucia Mountain rain shadow has saved the day! We seldom get much out of these northern storms, and such was the case with this storm: a tenth of an inch was our highest reading. Actually, we were still running the water truck the following day for dust control.”

Andy Mitchell of Hahn Family Wines added, “The recent rains in Monterey County have been relatively light when compared to other parts of the state—both north and south of us. A few picks have had to be rescheduled as a direct result of rain, and the cooler temperatures associated with the storm systems have pushed back some scheduled harvests due to Brix levels dropping. But as far as any added pressure of botrytis caused by the rains, we are not finding this a problem.”

Central Coast
Stacie Jacob of Solterra Strategies, who works with many wineries in Paso Robles, said, “I’ve spoken to a few growers and checked with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and as you would expect it was a mad dash to get thin-skinned varieties off by Monday (Oct. 22). Others pretty much said that their Cab and Mourvede (and even some Roussanne) would continue to hang. Weather conditions following the rain event are not showing any sign of being adverse with the fruit still left hanging.”

“Actually, the main worry here was the early morning cold temperatures,” she added. “Because of the cold, mold is not being considered an issue, and the breezes are working to help ‘dry’ any fruit still hanging before the expected warm up. In essence, all is well. Fruit that could have been affected (depending on the vineyard and drainage, etc.) was pulled and stuff still hanging is OK.”

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