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Monday Manifestos
Late Again—The Harvest Has Begun And So Has The Worrying

By Stephen Eliot

The harvest in California has begun, and it looks like another disaster. No, wait! It is going to be a great vintage; a small one, but an outstanding one. Take your pick.

Late is late, and disaster always looms just around the corner when the harvest is late. The world may be slowly heating up, but you would be hard pressed to prove it along the Northern California Coast, and we are looking at a comparatively cool season for the third year in a row—and really for the fourth year in the last five.

The annual guessing game about just how good or how bad the new crop will be has begun, and giddy excitement or depression is all a matter of whom you ask…again. So, what is the truth? It’s simply far too early to tell, and, to be honest, I have never much been interested in the practice of vintage predictions before crush is finished and grape juice has, in fact, become wine. I do not see the point other than to pass the time and sound important and insightful. Its like week-long predictions about which team will do what on Sunday’s gridiron and endless political crystal-ball gazing as to who will occupy this or that office some 16 months down the line. I guess it’s a way to pass time…there are no rewards for guessing right and most everyone winds up guessing wrong. It’s the same story, I think, in the vineyard.

What is “good” may well differ by dint of perspective. A very light crop, even if high quality, may not make winemakers deliriously happy, but we all know that lesser crop loads can mean more concentration and better stuff in the bottle…except when they don’t. We can talk about where we are now and how this particular late-September stacks up to others in the past, but there is still time to go folks, a goodly deal of it. Will rains stay away? Will nature hit the fast-forward button with significant Indian Summer warming and continue our current warm spell, or will things return to “slow” and thus make ripeness elusive? There are plenty of things that can go right or wrong in the weeks ahead, and, depending on your perspective, what is “right” and “wrong” can be open to debate. If things stay cool, the low-alcohol crusaders will have lots to like, but those whose revel in richness rather than acid-driven wines will not be as happy, and a sudden heat spike or five days of rains could change the playing field dramatically.

The current forecast is a good one—five days of unusual warmth but not excessive heat, and typical cool, autumnal evenings. The grapes will ripen and the acids will stay high. But only if the weatherman does not fool us again.

It is a truism that the ultimate quality factor in winemaking is the fruit that one starts with, but one small hill or valley that separates one vineyard from another can have profound differences, and competing viticultural ideas about just how things should be done can be of real consequence. And, while many dismiss the role of the winemaker as one of simple, hands-off custodianship, I happen to think that skilled winemaking is every bit as important as general vintage conditions. There are winemakers who have a touch, a practiced skill, an art as sure as any great chef…and conversely, there are those who seem to me to have been dropped on their heads as small children. It all makes valid broad vintage pronouncements more difficult yet. “Where” and “who” cannot be overlooked. It is why we taste finished wines, not those in barrel or still in fermentation. And, we most certainly do not taste “vintages”.

I confess to being a bit of a fatalist as vintages go, but not one bound by pessimism. What will be will be, and therein lies the fascination and beauty of reviewing wines for a living. It is what keeps me interested for these so many years. It is renewal. Every vintage is different. There will be great wines in the worst years and failures from the best. There are thousands of new wines available each year, and each has something to say. I will listen. Some will sing with poignant beauty, some will sweep me away and some will no doubt remind of fingernails slowly sliding across chalkboards. Some years will bring more pleasure than others, to be sure, but I will wait until the wines are made before jumping to judgment.


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"Ripe" is a relative term...
by Randy
Posted on:9/19/2011 1:03:59 PM

For those who harvest at sugar levels of the old world style, vintages like this are near perfect...  Slow ripening with the influence of the cool morning fog and warm (not hot) afternoons are desired when making elegant, flavorful wines that don't exhibit the full throttle nature of typical CA wines...  If you ask me, we are al blessed with these kind of weather patterns...  Maybe this is a sign that shriveled raisins should NOT be brought to the crushpad, however based on how much Pinot Noir is still hanging and considering the minor heat spell outside, the jet fuel crowd will get their way anyways...

Balance or Jet Fuel
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/19/2011 1:44:16 PM

Hi Randy--

Man was not meant to drink only high-acid wines. Richness also counts for something--just ask those Burgundians who make Corton-Charlemagne and Montrachet.

Even if we stay warm for the rest of the week, this will still be long and comfortable vintage with those who want early picked wines getting their wishes and those who want balanced wines with ripeness and acidity in harmony also getting theirs. It will be harder for overripe crowd to be totally happy, but their are lots of sheltered locations that will help out.

vintage 2011
by bunt
Posted on:9/20/2011 12:38:38 AM

as a winemaker, 2011 is so differnt from the disaster of 2010 tha you can't mention them in the same breath  yes, rainy june reduced  set, but since then it's been PERFECT   unless rain interferes with the late ripening varieties, it is the vintage of the century  certainly, pinot is in the bag  perfect plus!

2011 Vintage
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:9/20/2011 4:59:50 AM

As one with Pinot Noir still hanging (though with some in the house as well), I would say that this certainly isn't a year where you can generalize.  Some sections in some vineyards that are normally ahead are behind this year, while others that are normally behind are ahead. 

One thing that seems to be common is the level of high acid.  Not a problem, but in some cases requires some waiting.  Here are some of our recent numbers from the Santa Lucia Highlands:

Pisoni Big Block  25.4 brix, 3.06pH, 10.60TA

Garys Block 4    24.4 brix, 2.98pH, 11.90 TA

Soberanes     24.2 brix, 3.00pH, 11.80 TA

Numbers like these are why making broad stroke comments about "jet fuel" are pretty much useless except as an attempt at marketing.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:9/20/2011 7:42:16 AM

Adam, thanks for bringing the armchair pundits back to reality.  Well, many of them, it seems, never experienced the reality apart from their tasting tables. 

As always, vintage success will hinge upon details:  grower by grower, vineyard by vineyard, block by block, row by row and plant by plant.  Fair to middling wines will be made by indescriminate producers, great wines by the meticulous ones, and lots in between.  Yada yada, but that's the reality, as it is virtually every year.  Re 2010:  for such a "disaster," there sure were a lot of terrific wines made.

Charlie, thanks for making the distinction between "jet fuel" and so-called "balanced" wine.  Why would Americans want to make lean, acidic wines like they do in Europe, when in Europe the "great" vintages are considered those that produce the opposite?  I appreciate your defense of the smartly ripened style that even Europeans prefer, and would make more of if they could.

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