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In Calif, wine grapes good but in short supply

Imagine preparing a gourmet meal short of key ingredients and you'll understand California winemaker Jason Haas' dilemma this year.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Imagine preparing a gourmet meal short of key ingredients and you'll understand California winemaker Jason Haas' dilemma this year.

The one-two wallop of a late freeze and early rains have combined in this 2011 vintage year to create a dearth on the Central Coast of thin-skinned white grapes such as Viognier, Marsanne and Grenache blanc, critical ingredients in Haas' Tablas Creek Rhone-style blends.

"Our Viognier is down 80 percent," said Haas, adding the later-emerging red grapes fared better against the weather. "Usually when we're down, it's down uniformly across the board. It's going to be a challenge to do the blending this year."

Across the state yields are down in 2011 but quality is predicted to be exceptional, thanks to Mother Nature delivering a mild summer season. Without drastic temperature spikes that cause sugar levels to climb too quickly, clusters are spending more time developing flavor nuances on the vine.

While that could add up to a great vintage, some wines might be in short supply, especially lower-priced wines sold under store labels.

"The issue there is that there might not be as much wine left over to make $3.99 bottles," said Haas, past president of the Rhone Rangers Board of Directors. "There's always some left over that gets bought up cheap at the end. There may be less of that around."

Despite a reduction in quantity the prices of name brand bottles should remain stable, winemakers say, just as they are during gluts. Winemakers say that once prices are established on the market, it's hard to change with a fickle public. So 2011 is set to go down as the year in which California winemakers make less money than 2010, when the Golden State's wine sales reached $30 billion.

It also will be known as a crazy weather year for growers — or as the growers like to say "normal."

"You plan for normal, but you know that it's never going to be normal," said David Beckstoffer, who farms 3,000 acres in Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers' Association president said some yields are down as much as 50 percent, and his is coming in as much as 20 percent low, making it difficult to fulfill contract obligations.

A late cold front in June stunted development along the coast and covered newly emerging Sierra foothill grapes in snow. An early winter-like storm last week threatens bunch rot on unripened clusters in some vineyards, especially those with white grapes still hanging, though the chardonnay season is winding down.

In between growers enjoyed a mild summer that was ideal for grape development. The harvest of many reds, which often peaks in September, has not yet begun in some areas. If the forecast dry weather remains for a few weeks, growers say the recent rains will invigorate vines and help with the steady ripening.

"I'm feeling significantly more positive about the vintage than I was six weeks ago, thanks largely to the nearly perfect ripening conditions we had through August and September," Haas said.

Growers are faring better than their colleagues in Oregon, where the coolest growing season in 50 years threatens to keep some vineyards from reaching high enough sugar levels

Assessing the overall California vintage in such an unpredictable year is a vineyard-by-vineyard process, says Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association, where growers scrambled to harvest thin-skinned pinot noir grapes this week before rain could damage them.

"Or in some areas, it's a row by row situation," Fiolek said. "People are harvesting certain blocks and even certain rows two and three times because all of the fruit didn't ripen at the same time. It's a magnificent story of what makes Santa Barbara different."

The grape-growing valleys of Santa Barbara County are unique between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego in that they open directly to the Pacific Ocean, he said. The mild weather and cooling breezes allow the region to grow 60 varieties of grapes in the Santa Ynez Valley alone, but it also means the impacts of the weather affected everyone differently.

"In terms of harvest yields, there will be some shortages because of the frost and because of the weather we had during bloom set," he said. "There will be some shortages due to the rain in September, and some due to the rain we had in October. The thing is you can't cover the entire wine industry or region or even a vineyard sometimes with one description. That's what makes this so wonderful."