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Monday Manifestos
Be Careful What You Wish For

By Charles Olken

Halloween is over. The NFL season is half over. The World Series is four games over. And why is there baseball in November—not that I have much to complain about at this point. And the harvest is over, almost over or may never be over depending on whose reports and whose rumors one hears. Heavy rains north of San Francisco a week ago certainly spelled doom and gloom for everyone with grapes hanging, and it did not take much of an observer to find vineyard after vineyard along Highway 29 loaded with reds heavy on the vine. Much of what is out is Cabernet Sauvignon. One hears winery owners, winemakers and vintners of every stripe saying things like “the rains did not hurt the Cabernet” and “the quality of the tannins is a lot better after the rain”. It all sounds a little like wishful thinking to me. And it has become even more wishful after rains early in the weekend.

Still, we have seen November harvests before, most notably in 1998, and, despite early predictions of vinous disaster, that year produced more elegant wines than either of the more heralded 1997 and 1999 harvests. Of course, so much of what is reported and the ways in which vintages are judged have been focused on and measured by Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. And so much of what we hear now is similarly cast. But California is no longer a one-grape, one-appellation wine place. And if there are problems with some late varieties and some very cold places, there are lots of other combinations out there that will have come good in terms of long hang times and picking numbers. And there are even a fair number of Cabernet vineyards that will have been picked before the heavy rains.

Okay, so that’s the good news and the bad news. But, beware. Every time we have a vintage like this with longer maturations, higher acidities and lower sugars at picking (which translates into lower alcohol wines than normal), the cry of “European-style” vintage is heard. We heard it in 1975, we heard it again in 1985 and you can bet we are going to hear it again this year, especially for the early-ripening varieties and for all kinds of wines from south of the Bay where the year was cooler than normal but not so extraordinarily cool and the rains have not hit so hard as up north. We heard it also in 2007, a vintage with fewer extremes and almost no problems.

But this time, the results are not so assured, and partly because we know that cool harvests lead not only to wines of a more restrained style, but also sometimes to wines that are simply restrained. The much-praised harvest of 1985 was one such year in which too many wines matured with less “heart” than almost any prognosticator prognosticated. In 2007, the results were spectacularly more successful, and although the final chapters are far from being in for the late-to-market heavy reds, so far everything from Chardonnay to Cabernet has looked great. And, of course, the other reason why 2010 is different, at least in the North Coast, is that too many vines simply refused to ripen. There will ultimately be a lot of vineyards not picked, and there will be vineyards in less than optimal shape picked because some wine is better than none when a winery has a mortgage to pay off.

South of the Bay, things look almost normal by comparison. It is still too early to judge intensity, but well-managed vineyards should have been able to bring in balanced grapes without excessive ripeness. And wineries generally have issued good to excited reports. Yes, it is November, and November reports are notoriously optimistic. And reports of a wished-for “European vintage” may well come true. But before we all get too excited, please remember 1985 and 1975 and recall the old adage—“Be careful what you wish for”. Lighter vintages have not always worked out in the bottle the way we thought they would when the grapes were in the fermenter.


by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:11/1/2010 1:42:16 PM

Now does that mean there might be a Zinfandel or two that even I might be able to drink?

Be Careful What You Wish For
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/1/2010 1:46:23 PM

My Dear Samantha--

On your next visit to the Bay Area, where it is rumored that you will be evaluating grower Champers with an all-star cast of tasters, you might need to look out for the Zinfandel that gets served at dinner.

Just sayin'.

Alright but....
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:11/1/2010 3:32:49 PM

Dearest Charlie, the rumor is true and I am warning you ahead of time about my...."Zin face". It's kind of a cross between a, "Hey, you smell that?!" face and a, "I think I'm gonna hack up a hairball" face....just a warning.
by John Kelly
Posted on:11/5/2010 1:07:27 AM

Quick report on the view from inside the bubble: this vintage has presented conditions and challenges unprecedented in my 24 years. Guys at it longer than I have been are saying the same. Never have I experienced a year where sheer dumb luck has played more of a role in separating success from failure. I was lucky that our crop did not set to heavy, and that I had not thinned or pulled leaves when the sunburn hit. We were as careful as always about when we sulfured, but so were many of my friends and it's just dumb luck that we had no mildew and now have no rot in the fruit we still have out there. And it's just dumb luck that we have had indian summer in November (for crying out loud) and that it looks like we will get another rdge of high pressure for above normal temps and dry conditions next week.


As I've said before elsewhere, luck or no luck this year will separate the talented and prepared form the less so. There are some really GREAT wines being made, and some that are not so. Some of the latter are by choice. I spoke with a friend today who has a grower offering him some Grenache at a stoopid-low price. Well, it would be stoopid-low in a normal year but this stuff is not just et up with Botrytis but has a lot of Aspergillis and Pennicilium - harder to pick around ans sort out. So here's the plan: pick, ferment whole-cluster so you don't turn everything into mush right away, inoculate with a fast-starting yeast (where normally this guy would wait for a natural ferment), do minimal punchdowns, drain at the first negative Brix reading - do not press. Treat the wine wiht 30g/hL decolorizing carbon to pull out the bitterness and ochratoxin form the molds, then rack onto some sweet, dark Petite Sirah skins to claw back some color and character. I'm betting this turns out a tasty wine - and cheap too. Anyhoo - that's the kind of winemaking we are faced wiht at this point. Oh... wait... I'm not faced with that. Picking Mourvedre tomorrow and it is awesome - not going to make a "European-style" wine at all, any more than the Pinot, Syrah and Tannat I have picked so far will. Acids are lower and pH higher than anywone would have expected given the cool year. Go figure.

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