We need water. We REALLY NEED it very bad! During the whole of last year we only saw around 6 inches of rain when average is around 40 inches or so. San Francisco got just over 5 inches which is getting into desert-type conditions. So far this year, the picture has not improved much. We had a sprinkle of rain (0.01 inch) a few weeks ago but that was it.
The culprit is a high pressure system that has been parked off of the Pacific coast for several months redirecting the rain we usually see down to Mexico. Time magazine recently announced they believe we are moving into an El Niño year meaning a super warm year for the west coast. While they are the only people proclaiming this so far, that on top of a drought year could mean an extremely challenging vintage for grape growers.
1) Low rain and warmer than average winter means early bud break.
2) Early bud break plus extremely dry conditions means a nasty frost season.
3) A bad frost season and low water supplies means that those growers that rely on overhead sprinklers for frost protection have to chose to protect the crop now and risk not having enough water to irrigate later when the summer comes.
4) Low water resources and a warm year means increased irrigation needs further stressing already stressed water supplies.
5) Further stress on already stressed water supplies means agriculture and urban water needs are put at odds once again. That battle is usually won by the urbanites.
6) Reduction of water for agriculture means less crops over all. Lower yields for wine grapes and food crops alike.
7) Lower yields for crops equals higher food prices to the end consumer.
When I say “we need water” I don’t just mean those of us who make our living in Agriculture. I mean ALL of us, collectively.
In all seriousness, start praying for rain. We REALLY need it!
In case you haven’t heard we’re going to have a weather event this next week. Now, being from the south, I love the way the western weathermen talk about precipitation. I hear “weather event”, “Major trough”, and my personal favorite “heavy drizzle”. In the south, weathermen would usually say “It’s going to rain!” and then go on to tell you when and how much. Rain is a four letter word out here and I suppose that comes from the fact that it only rains during the wintertime thus has the same connotation that snow or ice does in other parts of the country accustomed to the normal condition of rain being a possibility year round.
Anyway, it’s going to rain. No doubt about it!
So this past week will be known for this harvest as the week before the rain, otherwise known as the panic week. There are a few varieties that can handle a bit of wet weather such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, varieties with thinner skins like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir don’t hold up with really wet conditions. Best case scenario the fruit is diluted a bit and the sugar drops however in the worst case the berries start to rot or fall apart. In a year of already low tonnage because of the rain during flowering, there were few winemakers who wanted to take the chance on these more susceptible varieties. This week we’ve seen a LOT of Chardonnay; Sonoma County, Solano, and Mendocino making the bulk of it. Wine growers were rushing to get fruit to the wineries before the deluge comes. Much of this fruit is below what Californians would consider normal sugars however the majority is above 22 Brix. Make no mistake; this will not be a normal winemaking vintage for California. Like 2010, we’ve seen cooler weather than normal prevail over much of the state. Many of the white varieties that we’ve already harvested have come in under what would be considered normal Brix and the quality is very nice. I’ve only had to add Tartaric to one lot so far this year and that is next to nothing compared to what we normally add. Acids are beautiful this year! Sugars are not as dismal as everyone would like to believe and so far the flavors have been really nice. Even the natural nitrogen in the fruit is higher than it has been for the past two vintages which make the yeast very happy! When the yeast are happy everyone is happy.
Thus Week 9 brings us to the beginning of the end. Now that rain is going to be starting its only a matter of time before the harvest comes to a close. Generally Halloween is a good end date and whatever hasn’t been picked by then is in serious danger of not making whatever quality level it was intended for. The next four weeks can make or break the vintage when it comes to red varieties. We’ll see where we end up.
At this point we’re halfway through the harvest season. In another 8 weeks it will all be wrapped up. Wine will be tucked away in barrels or tanks either going through ML, extended maceration, and sur lee aging. Between now and then is the most complex time during the harvest. This is when the bulk of our North coast fruit comes in. NorthCoast is made up of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake Counties. Next week we’ll be inundated with Sonoma County Chardonnay as well as seeing our first Cabernets come in from Lake County. This week has seriously warmed up with temperatures between 95 and 100 degrees. Hot but not hot enough to really do damage like we had last year. Just hot enough to kick the harvest into gear. A ton of the reds are sitting around 22 Brix and as I heard someone put it for this harvest “22 is the new 24”. I’m very excited about that prospect! Chardonnay on the Central Coast is also coming in steadily this week. My vineyards for Emma Pearl have ripened nicely and are now being received to begin the process of primary fermentation. The Viognier that I use as 10% of the blend (give or take depending on the year) is already almost finished and ready to be sulfured. Acids have been amazing and the flavors are already showing very well. One of my earliest lots, a Gewurztraminer, is finished with primary, has had SO2 added and was clarified. At this point I’m just trying to figure out in what blend will the beautiful spicy aroma fit.
I’m also trying to work on my MW studies during this crazy time although it does tend to get put to the back burner this time of year. Since my disappointing results that I wrote about at the beginning of the month I’ve been able to rally through the support of many of my fellow students, colleagues, friends, and of course family. I feel like I have a much better plan than I did at this time last year (when I was still in shock and moping about). This week I cut up the last 11 years of theory exam reports and filed them in folders based on the theory paper the questions and commentary came from. My goal for the weekend is to get them sorted in to question buckets to try to see if I can discern a common theme (outside of the obvious themes of the papers) among the similar questions. In November, I will be traveling to Bordeaux and Burgundy thanks to a scholarship sponsored by AXA Millésimes with five of my fellow MW students from around the world. I’m very excited and love the fact that I’ll be touring in Burgundy, the classic home of my favorite red variety, Pinot Noir! I’ve resurrected my essay question basket and am seriously considering re writing all the essays that I’ve done running up to the exam this past year. I also would like to finish my World Wine File, an excel file distilling all the pertinent information about regions and countries of the world including climate, soils, laws, varieties, and general descriptors. Perhaps one day I’ll put it up on this site as a paid subscription information source. Heck, maybe it will be a book eventually. Who knows, but right now I want to get that massive database finished! These are huge goals but I’m going to try. After all achieving the MW is a huge goal as well and if one is going to dream why not dream big?
First, I have to get all the grapes put to bed… Bring on the 2nd half!