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Wednesday Warblings
A Big Harvest—It’s Not All Good

By Charles Olken

If you ask a winemaker on the record about the harvest of 2013 now in full swing, you are going to get glowing reports about clean grapes, high yields, a comfortably long growing season without much in the way of hiccups such as rain at the wrong time in the Spring or heat spikes that knock the acid out of the grapes just before picking.

And, they will not be exaggerating. In 2013, so far at least, and we are halfway through the picking cycle albeit with most reds still hanging, the obvious signs are all good, and the winemakers need not tell tall tales about what they see coming into their crush pads.

It is clear that 2013 is the best year on record since, oh, maybe 2012, which may have actually been one of those years in which it was harder to make bad wine than to make good wine. 2007 was such a year and 2009 has come close.

But, what do the winemakers really think about 2013. We have had the occasion to talk to many of them lately off the record. And what we are hearing is that 2013 is good, but has presented them with perils so far and with more to come.

Here are the issues that are keeping the winemakers up at night.

A large harvest threatens to overwhelm them, especially when the reds arrive. Wineries are like any other business. They are built to have a certain capacity for crush, for fermentation, for storage. When overly large yields occur, as looks like it will be the case in 2013 before all is said and done, they run out of capacity and something has to give. Grape deliveries get delayed. Fermentations are heated up in order to get them to finish quickly so the fermenters can be used again and again. Wines that are finished fermenting may not have a desirable place in the winery to go. Aging tanks and barrels have a finite capacity. You cannot put two tons of grapes into a one-ton fermenter and you cannot simply go out and rent a batch of fermenters at the last moment.

We have seen this story before. Wine is, after all, an agricultural commodity and like most things that grow annually, can have swings in crop size owing to nothing more than Mother Nature’s whimsy. It is true that wineries can exercise strategies in the vineyards to limit the size of the harvest. They tend to do this fairly routinely at the top producers, especially in vineyards they own or control by contract. But not every winery gets its right.

Here is the tale of one winemaker speaking about 2013 to us, and lapsing back into inside tales about 2012 by way of proof. “Our top Zinfandel last year was horribly overcropped. The grower is an honorable man, but he let the health of the vines convince him to leave a larger crop load in 2012, and the result is a ripe but thin wine that we cannot bottle on its own. It was an expensive mistake.”

Okay, anecdotal evidence is never universal in its ability to prove a point, but any harvest is made up of thousands of points of data, and the data for 2013 are not entirely convincing. Here is another story we heard recently. “Most of our 2013 fruit looks pretty good. We have a long way to go, of course, because we have not yet crushed any of our reds, and at this point, we have to keep our fingers crossed that we have a smooth end to the harvest. Late rains will hurt the varieties like Zinfandel with its tight and often uneven clusters. By the same token, a massive heat spike will bring all the late fruit to ripeness at the same time and we won’t be able to handle it all in a timely manner. Harvests like that, and there are many in California, produce too many too ripe wines.”

Here is yet another anecdote. “You would not believe it. Our own fruit is the most overcropped of any that we are receiving. I am worried that our Chardonnay will lack the concentration and depth for which it has become known. It won’t be awful. The grapes are too good for that, but, in a vintage that ought to have been perfect, I know that we have batches that simply are not”. Again, anecdotes are nothing more than single data points. But several of them all looking alike do at least raise warning flags about a less than consistent vintage among the grapes already in.

But, let’s end with this bit of hope. One winemaker, employed by a large winery to pay the bills, makes a bit of wine on his own. For the last few years, he has been making small amounts of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon because market conditions for grapes have allowed him to buy at reasonable prices and not threaten his lifestyle with big bills. But he had planned to avoid Napa in 2013. “Too expensive”, he tells me.

Well, that was his story until the other day when he admitted that the large harvest was likely to leave some growers with grapes that wineries simply would not take because they did not have the capacity to do so. It is, as we have surmised above, the “large yield” story all over again, and it has our respondent out beating the bushes for grapes from good vineyards that simply will not have a home.

It is too early for him to know, of course, because Mother Nature may have more surprises in store. But if she does not throw him, and the industry a late-breaking curve, then our friend is going to find good grapes that he can afford.

Clean, bountiful harvests are not to be looked down upon in general. But remember the data point issue. This is a harvest that comes with the well-known perils of such years, and it is predictable, even now, that there will be plenty of less than perfect stories to be told before all the data is in.


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Other Side
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:9/18/2013 10:20:36 PM

And for my beloved little growers and farmers in France, shaping up to be one of the worst vintages in 40 years. Heartbreaking....

Big Harvest
by Roger King
Posted on:9/19/2013 10:06:26 AM

While overcropping is not a solution, the bottom line is well summed up by David Freed on actual grape access going forward.  There fundamentally is no further supply coming from the high tier areas and low tier areas have much better crop economics in other crops.  Do we have more and more winemakers coming into the system each year to match grapes in system?

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