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California's late grape harvest of 2010: What it could mean

The cool summer delayed winemakers, but payoffs could come in a rush.

September 30, 2010|By Patrick Comiskey, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Days after record-breaking, triple-digit temperatures across much of the state, the 2010 wine grape harvest has officially lurched into gear, weeks later than normal, kicking off the final acts of one of the strangest California vintages in recent memory.

Just a little more than a week ago, the day before the autumnal equinox, Sonoma winemaker Merry Edwards had her harvest staff stuffing envelopes for a fall mailing and once again taking a mop to the floors of her barely used crushpad. Morgan Twain-Peterson, winemaker for Sonoma's Bedrock Wine Co., wondered on his Facebook page about whether he should attend a late-afternoon yoga class. And in Napa Valley, Frogs Leap winemaker John Williams was whiling away the hours at a long lunch meeting with the sales team of his Japanese distributor.

Needless to say, not one of these winemakers was doing what she or he almost always is doing in the third week of September: picking grapes. Across the state, winemakers were eager for harvest, but the grapes weren't ready to pick.

Even with the latest heat spell, most red grapes (and quite a few white grapes, Chardonnay especially) remain on the vine statewide, anywhere from 10 days to three weeks later than last year. Late-ripening varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot, have been so far behind in some places that producers were worried they'd be lost to bad fall weather: rain, a cold snap or both.

"We've had late harvests before," says Chris Carpenter, who makes Cabernets and blends for Cardinale and Lokoya wineries in the Napa Valley, "but never in my career have I seen it this late."

While this inevitably is going to make 2010 more of a nail-biter than previous vintages, it also could prove to be one of the state's finest harvests in years — delivering wines with lower-than-average alcohol, more vibrant flavors, plenty of color and more balance. Winemakers' well-earned gray hairs would be a small price to pay.

When you look at the temperature charts, the numbers are dramatic. Most wine regions use "degree days," a heat index that is a measure of accumulated degrees above 50 degrees during the summer season. A typical reading this late in the season for Oakville, the heart of Napa Valley, is about 2,700. This year, until the recent heat wave, it was at 2,300. In Paso Robles, typical is about 3,000; this year, it's 2,200. Both areas are two to four weeks behind what's considered normal.

In the mountains above Napa, in Sonoma's outer coast growing region and in other coastal areas of Northern California, grapes that in past years would already be in a fermenter were just completing their coloring phase, called veraison. "We've picked this early in the past, the third week of September," Nick Peay of Peay Vineyards on the outer coast of Sonoma said last week. "But our Syrah is still going through veraison, which is frightening."

By all reports, 2010 has followed a classic La Niña weather pattern, only this year the pattern is more pronounced than people had bargained for. La Niña years typically follow El Niño years; both patterns are linked to ocean currents and the resulting water temperatures, which affect coastal weather patterns. In an El Niño year, water temperatures are higher, resulting in warm dry weather on the Pacific Coast. La Niña, though, is yang to El Niño's yin: the ocean currents are cooler, resulting in lower coastal temperatures and a stronger-than-normal marine inversion pattern.

This year, bud break, the starting gate for any vintage, arrived late in most parts of the state. But the first part of spring was warm and sunny, and led to a strong early spurt — abundant winter rains had prompted lots of canopy growth — the green stuff that's the engine for growing fruit. April and May, however, were unseasonably cool.

"This is a normal cyclical pattern for La Niña," says Peter Cargasacchi of Cargasacchi Winery in the Santa Rita Hills. "If you were aware of that, you could incorporate farming practices based on the historical patterns of the weather." For Cargasacchi, that meant leaving a cover crop between vine rows to suck up excess winter rainwater, then deficit irrigation to stimulate the vines into ripening — "to give them a sense of urgency," he says.

But in June the Golden State experienced not only cooler temperatures but a stubborn coastal cloud layer that seemed never to break up. "June gloom" lasted well into July, and even into early August, causing the vineyard growth cycle to dawdle. "There were weeks when it didn't get above 60 degrees before noon," Cargasacchi says.

Persistent coastal fog can also lead to another cool weather hazard, mildew. To combat this, many growers, especially in the north coast region, thinned their leafy canopies to facilitate air circulation. A side benefit of this thinning is that the fruit is also exposed to what little sun there is, which can advance flavor and color development, especially in red wine grapes.

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