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Wine Notes

Good Vintages Are Expected From the Exceptional Harvests of '89

September 07, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

The 1989 harvest in California's North Coast counties started later than usual as cool days kept grapes on the vine longer than normal.

Meanwhile, in France, the harvest began earlier than normal because of warmer-than-usual weather. Growers were pleased with a high degree of ripeness and no threat of rain through the end of the harvest.

In California, Champagne grapes, which normally are harvested weeks ahead of other varieties used for still wine, were picked Aug. 14. Some growers then noted that sugar levels were slightly shy of what they had hoped for, and harvesting of sparkling wine grapes slowed down and continued for three more weeks.

Maturity of other varieties also appeared delayed by the cooler weather. Morning fog (not untypical for Northern California) didn't burn off until past noon most days. Meanwhile, overnight temperatures remained lower than normal.

The cooler temperatures pleased most growers, who saw grapes develop slower, giving them more predictability.

For most varieties, crop yields were expected to be up 10% to 15% over last year's short crop. The harvest of still wine grapes was expected to begin about Sept. 1.

Those interested in an up-to-the-minute report on weather and harvest conditions in the Napa Valley can call the Napa Valley's Harvest Hotline, (707) 963-1112, for a report. In Sonoma, a harvest report can be heard on Chateau St. Jean's hot line, (800) 332-9463.

The French wine harvest started so early it caught a few producers on vacation. There were even reports that those who waited to get harvesting equipment repaired were scurrying to get everything in shape.

It was the earliest start of the harvest in the last two centuries, except for one curious year, 1893, when harvesting began Aug. 14. Otherwise, almost never do the French pick grapes for table wine before Sept. 1.

Yet Chateau Haut-Brion picked grapes for its white wine Aug. 29.

Moreover, the weather forecast was for blue skies for at least the next 10 days, meaning that rain should not interrupt the orderly crush.

Growers say the quality of the fruit in 1989 is exceptional, one of the best vintages on record.

In his third major deal in two years, San Francisco attorney Jess Jackson, owner of Kendall-Jackson Winery in Lake County, has acquired the Stephen Zellerbach Winery in Sonoma County.

The deal, valued at more than $3 million, closed Aug. 9 and gives Jackson three wineries in three different counties. The Zellerbach property, which has a 50,000 case capacity, made no wine last year, when the property was controlled by William Baccala. A sale of the property was pending at the time.

Baccala, a San Diego insurance man, retains the rights to the Stephen Zellerbach brand and is producing Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot at another facility. Jackson said the Zellerbach winery will be renamed.

The Zellerbach property has 160 acres of land, 65 planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Steve Test, formerly wine maker with Domaine Laurier, is wine maker for the property. He will produce about 10,000 cases in 1989.

Jackson, who bought Edmeades Vineyards in Mendocino County within the last year with the aim of making sparkling wine, acquired the Zellerbach winery as head of an investment group.

Jackson also is the owner of about 1,000 acres of Santa Barbara County vineyard land. That acreage helps produce the Kendall-Jackson wines in addition to some wines under Jackson's other brand, Cambria.

As for the Stephen Zellerbach brand, it is still owned by Baccala. The wines now out from under that label are excellent, notably the 1988 Chardonnay, which offers rich, complex, butter and tropical fruit flavors at a price ($8) well below what I feel it could sell for.

The key to the Zellerbach line is that the wines are offered direct to retailers and restaurants from the producer without a discount, but at a lower price because one layer of the typical three-tier marketing system has been eliminated.

The 1988 Zellerbach Sauvignon Blanc ($5) is a fine non-grassy wine with a hint of melon.

Napa Valley grape growers say the average price for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes should rise 46% over 1988, to $1,800 per ton--and if one uses the standard measure equating grape price to bottle price, this means that the average bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet should sell for $18.

The Napa Valley Grape Growers Assn., in its annual recommendation of grape pricing, said it suggested an $1,800 per ton price as an average for Cabernet grapes sold in 1989. Association president Volker Eisele said the recommendation was reasonable, "considering the temperamental nature of Cabernet Sauvignon."

Wine industry analysts usually say the price of a bottle of wine is approximately equal to 1% of the price of a ton of grapes of that variety. This means that Cabernet selling for $1,800 per ton should produce a wine that sells at retail for $18.

In 1988, the average price paid for Napa Valley Cabernet grapes was $1,236.

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