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IN SEASON

Condemned to Quality

October 14, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Winemakers love to talk about how small crops mean high quality. The problem is that small crops also usually mean lower profits. When it gets right down to it, winemakers find it hard to say no to making just a little more wine that's just a little less great.

This year, it seems, nature has taken that decision out of their hands. After a full summer of weird weather, the chorus one hears from winemakers across the state is "low quantity, high quality."

"The best description of this year I've heard so far came from my winemaker," says Carneros Pinot Noir specialist Robert Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards. "He calls it El Nino Noir. We have had everything to excess: excessive rain, excessive heat, excessive cold, and now we're getting very tiny berries with excessive extract. The color is just incredible, and so is the flavor."

Farther up, at the north edge of the Sonoma Valley, Bob Sessions of Hanzell Vineyards tells the same story. His Pinot Noir crop, he says, is down 20% from normal: "We've got a bit of a light crop, but we're seeing very good quality. We've had no problems getting sugar and ripeness. It tastes good. We're happy with it."

In most areas of the state, Pinot Noir is the first major grape to be harvested, and the picking is almost over. Chardonnay and Merlot are being picked right now, depending on the location, with the Merlot crop coming in as much as 50% smaller than last year's.

Cabernet Sauvignon will be harvested later, almost certainly in November. That's as much as a month later than the harvest usually runs, meaning a greatly increased risk of rain, which can dilute the juice. Too much rain can also cause problems with rot.

In Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley, Bryan Babcock of Babcock Vineyards says his Pinot Noir harvest will be only about 30% the usual size. Still, he says, things are turning out better than he'd feared.

"Ten days ago it was very cloudy and drizzly, and a lot of rot got started," he says. "People were thinking this could be a disaster. Fortunately, with the turnaround in the weather, we're going to get there."

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Farmers' Market Report

At the Sunday farmers market on Monterey Avenue in Alhambra, you could find everything from exotic Asian vegetables to California-grown chestnuts. Family Farm from near Fresno had round green eggplants the size of eggs, Daikon radishes big as baseball bats, Thai chiles, Chinese broccoli, a couple of kinds of bok choy, long beans, a scattering of different kinds of shoots, winter melon, opo gourd and lemon grass. A couple of stands away, Nick Liao sold Chinese mustard greens, bok choy, loofah, broccoli and winter melon that he grows in his nearby backyard.

Harry Nicholas from Orange Cove in Fresno County had pomegrantates, Ya Li Asian pears and chesnuts. Kirksey Farm from Exeter had Hosui Asian pears, jujubes and pomegranates. Briarpatch from Kingsburg had Ya Li, Hosui and Suri Asian pears. Kosmo Farms from near Cuyama had apples: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious (still a little green), Granny Smith, Jonagold, Braeburn, Gala and Fuji.

Fetzer Farms from near Perris had winter squash (kabocha and butternut), garlic, shallots, figs, potatoes and peppers as well as four kinds of sweet potatoes: a pale-peeled, white-fleshed variety they say is sweet and dry; Jewel and Garnet yams (both are sweet and moist, Garnet being dark inside and a little stringier) and Satsuma Iru, a Japanese variety they describe as sweet and dry with a chestnut-like flavor.

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