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2000: A Scary Harvest

October 25, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Autumn afternoons are fragrant in California's wine country. The cool air along Russian River back roads is permeated with the scents of ripe apples and fermenting wine. The golden light plays magically on a sea of vines where the season's last grapes ripen to perfection, purple-black Cabernet Sauvignon and yellow Chardonnay.

Wait a minute. Chardonnay? That ain't right.

At this time of year, it's normal to see some Cabernet still on the vine, developing those last little nuances of ripe flavor and soft tannin. But all the Chardonnay should have been harvested at least a month ago.

That's the story of vintage 2000, especially in California's cooler coastal areas: disorderly ripening and barely enough heat to get the job done. For many growers, the last vintage of the 20th century will be remembered as the season that ran out of gas.

For the first time in living memory, the question is not how good the wines will be, but how many tons of grapes won't make it over the finish line.

For producers who got their grapes in while the weather was still warm, though, it looks to be a good vintage. Great? Probably not, except perhaps for Cabernet Sauvignon from low-yielding vineyards in the Napa Valley (which always does well in cool years).

But time will tell, and I'm looking forward to tasting the young wines in a few months. Certainly, anyone who buys bottles from vintage 2000 just for the magic number will coincidentally get some pretty good wines in the bargain.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot look to be excellent in a Bordeaux-type way, with solid California power but also the promise of cool-year elegance. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir look good, too, along with Chardonnay from relatively warm areas in the Russian River and Anderson valleys, Carneros and Santa Barbara County.

The only mystery is the Mystery Grape itself. Zinfandel seems to have performed erratically this year. "Zin is always odd, but this year it's even odder," says a weary Phyllis Zouzounis at Mazzocco Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley.

"Before all of the grapes were finished turning color, we were already getting some raisining. Some of the berries were becoming dehydrated, and the sugar was going higher. But in the same clusters fruit was just beginning to ripen. Lots of sugar but low pH and high acids. Way out of balance. That happens in Zin, but this year seemed more intense."

Why? She shrugs. "My only guess is the early spring and two big heat waves. Zin is so much more affected by heat than other varieties. The summer began really hot, in the high 90s with no cool nights for two or three weeks. That rattles the plants, throws them off their cycle. They think it's time to ripen."

The proof is in the wine, of course, and normally it's not worth the trouble to taste until spring, after primary and malolactic fermentations are complete and the new wine has coalesced to some degree.

But there are indications of quality and character for those who know where to look. Experienced growers usually have a sense of general quality by August, when the grapes turn from hard green marbles into juicy, succulent berries showing true varietal color. Winemakers who venture into the vineyards (as all the best ones do these days) also form an impression of fruit quality that their experience translates into prognosis for the wines.

*

The 2000 vintage started out with an early, wet spring. By the time the vines were beginning to leaf out, the ground throughout California was fully saturated. Moderate weather through late spring allowed the vines to set the largest crop since the bumper vintage of '97.

Then fierce heat during the second week of June put everything slightly off-kilter and raised the possibility of an early harvest. The summer that followed was moderate, though, with temperatures well on the cool side, especially in normally warm locations like the Napa, Alexander and Dry Creek valleys.

By veraison (when the grapes change color and begin the final push toward ripeness), things appeared to be going along swimmingly. Then another heat spike in early September again put picking crews on notice.

In October everything changed yet again. The high-pressure cell that normally sits off the California coast all summer began to cave in, allowing the North Pacific to begin asserting its more dynamic winter persona early. The mercury nose-dived. Prudent wine producers recalled a similar pattern from the '98 and '99 vintages and saw the potential for trouble in a long, cool season. Many reduced their crops for timely ripening and got the fruit in as soon as they could.

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