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Nature's a mother!

Cold weather last spring impacts this season's harvest

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It’s another cold year in California wine country, and that means much lighter crops hanging in the vineyards. Although last year was also a cold growing season, this year was much worse for many wineries, going beyond frost to a freeze last April. I read that Napa Valley grapegrowers held a press conference about this year’s growing season, which is later, and crops are smaller than usual, but they’re expecting high-quality grapes. It’s the same here—as long as the weather gets warmer. Longer hang-time on the vines yields more intensely flavored grapes.

- EARLY MORNING :  Eric Johnson, winemaker for Talley Vineyards, and Osbaldo Corona sorted through freshly harvested Pinot Noir grapes before dawn at the vineyard on the outskirts of Arroyo Grande. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • EARLY MORNING : Eric Johnson, winemaker for Talley Vineyards, and Osbaldo Corona sorted through freshly harvested Pinot Noir grapes before dawn at the vineyard on the outskirts of Arroyo Grande.

A cool growing season reduces crop yields, but crops were further reduced by the April freeze that hit vineyards like Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. The freeze seemed to skip past Talley Vineyards to hit Toucan Wines in Arroyo Grande Valley and Curtis in Santa Ynez Valley where it wreaked havoc. I called these vintners/winemakers, some with decades of experience behind them, to get their take on this year’s weather and its effect on their vineyards. While their crop yields are much lower, the good news is that there’s no reason to write off the vintage yet.

Gary Eberle in Paso Robles, who made his first wines at U.C. Davis 40 years ago in 1971, said they brought in their first five tons of Viognier on Sept. 23: “It was a late harvest, but last year it started Sept. 28. From 1974 through ’97 the latest we ever harvested grapes was Sept. 6, usually around Labor Day weekend.”

He explained that this year’s freeze hit low-lying vineyards in Paso hardest, particularly those without frost protection. Eberle has overhead sprinklers on 40 acres of his estate vineyard, so his loss was minimal compared to wineries that lost their entire crop.

“This year I anticipate better-than-average quality in the wines,” Eberle concluded. “But until you get halfway through fermentation (around two weeks), you can’t really tell. Reds are easier; you can tell within the first week.”

Although Talley started harvesting their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on Aug. 26, vintner Brian Talley said they came to a standstill because early September cooled down so much. They’re celebrating the winery’s 25th anniversary since its first wine was produced in 1986. Talley said the freeze hit them too, but they had frost protection, so the effects were minimal.

“All of the rain and inclement weather in spring meant a poor crop this year. We’re always estimating the crop and thought we could be below our goals by 25 to 30 percent,” Talley recalled. “But it wasn’t as bad as we thought, and everything is coming along well.”

They started bringing in their first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the estate Aug. 26 through Sept. 16, then the cold spell slowed everything else down. While the Pinot Noir was down 10 percent, the Chardonnay was close to normal. Talley added: “The Chardonnay is traditionally more consistent.”

At Toucan Wines, only nine miles southeast from Talley, winemaker Doug Timewell was still waiting for the grapes to ripen. He noted that it’s the latest they’ve harvested in their eight years of production. Unfortunately, it’s also the smallest crop for this winery that normally produces seven tons annually, and will only have five tons this year. It’s much harder on Toucan, which only grows Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.

“The grape clusters are substantially smaller, and the berries, but the flavors are intense. I’m surprised the sugars are so low,” Timewell said candidly. “They’re so flavorful they have the potential to produce amazing wines, especially in SLO County.

“This year’s early frost damaged 60 percent of our Petite Sirah and 25 percent of our Zinfandel,” Timewell explained. “But last year we lost all of our Zinfandel so we’ll only have Petite Sirah and our dessert wine available.”

Still, he’s had a better growing season this year because their vineyard received more sun to ripen the grapes.

“Last year was colder, so the fruit doesn’t ripen as beautifully as it would in a warmer year,” he said. “Interestingly, at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard, one mile away as the crow flies, there was no damage.”

Winemaker Chuck Carlson at Curtis has seen the whims of Mother Nature put a huge hurt on Santa Barbara wine country, or bestow the vineyards with perfect weather. This year, Mother wasn’t happy.

“The freeze last April hit us pretty hard. There are some blocks I’m not farming. We lost 100 percent of the crop and that’s tragic,” Carlson admitted. “In some vineyard blocks, we thought we lost 50 percent of the crop but it was much lower.”

During the cool growing season of 2010, Curtis produced 50 percent less than in previous years. This year, Carlson said they’ll be 60 percent below normal.

   “It’s certainly site specific. We’re not 100 percent frost protected, and those who farm with wind-machines found them ineffective during the freeze,” he noted. “There was no inversion layer of warmer air, which would allow
the fans to mix the layers. It was too cold.”

   This can work out well for the wineries cellaring past vintages, which Carlson noted would help them get caught up. It also strengthens prices of wines sold in the bulk-wine market.

   Like his peers, this pragmatic winemaker, who started his career 30 years ago at Zaca Mesa, isn’t writing off the vintage yet. After harvesting his first Sauvignon Blanc from the Happy Canyon appellation, and the estate-grown Chardonnay fermenting in his winery, he added: “I think what we’ve tasted so far is pretty good.”

 

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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