Last summer during the growing and harvesting seasons for grapes, the weather was all over the place. June and July were overcast, foggy, and downright cold, and we never really got to have a summer season. Colder weather makes for a longer growing season, and a wetter growing season can be good for some varieties and not so good for others.
Throughout the season, we had a lot of cold, wet weather, but also some heat spikes and dry periods as well. Growers were frustrated to say the least, although from most reports, were optimistic about the harvest, at least in terms of the quality of the fruit. The tricky part was judging when to pick grapes, and how exactly to decide when the fruit should come off the vine.
The cool ocean fog that comes in through the Santa Ynez Mountains and blankets the vineyards almost every morning provides excellent growing conditions for pinot noir grapes. Santa Barbara wineries are well-known for pinot, although not everyone grows pinot and not all wines in the area are pinots. Many of our local area winemakers purchase grapes from other growers, both in the area and from outside the area as well. In fact, a quick trip up to Santa Ynez and visits to any number of our local wineries can offer access to just about any variety of wine imaginable with the exception of sparkling wines.
Given the strange and volatile weather last season, what should we expect in terms of the quality, availability, and pricing of wines this coming year? The wine futures events and Vintner’s Festival (April 15th through 17th) are coming up next month, and I plan to attend some of the tastings and events both here in town and up in the valley.
According to the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, today, there are over 21,000 acres of vineyards planted in Santa Barbara County, many of those smaller, family owned properties. Oftentimes you’ll find estate wines that may even be crafted on the property, but just as often you are bound to find a vineyard designation on wines from many different producers. This all contributes to the tapestry of diversity and quality that makes our wine growing region so unique. The old adage that “the wine is made in the vineyard” holds true here, with vineyards being meticulously farmed by owners and vineyard managers and carefully assessed by a community of talented winemakers.
The unique nature of Santa Barbara County, with its microclimates and soils, provides local winemakers with grapes of the highest quality and widest selection. Many specialize in a varietal – the famous Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs of the County, as well as boutique lots of unique wines like Albariño, Tocai Friulano, Mourvedre, Grenache Blanc, Nebbiolo and Dornfelder, as well as many blends. The extreme changes in weather, and overall unseasonably cold and wet conditions last growing season, are sure to have a dramatic impact on yields, quality, taste, and availability of wines.
According to Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery, who was voted one of the ten best winemakers of the year and most courageous winemaker of the year by the LA Times, the key issue with the wetness was more specific to the fog, which tended to linger all day, rather than rain. “June gloom turned into a very cold and wet July, and then into ‘Fogust.’ Mildew was a big concern, as well as fungus. Then, in September, we had a heat wave that actually destroyed some of the crop, depending on the vine orientation. Then we got rain.”
Pinot grapes were ripe before the heat wave, so most growers picked their pinot grapes before the rain. “Once it’s ripe, you don’t want rain,” stated Babcock.
The fog wasn’t wet enough to provide the additional moisture that could be a positive for pinot grapes. Babcock still had to irrigate to provide consistent and appropriate levels of moisture. Babcock probably lost one-third of his crop, and his expenses were much higher to maintain the canopy, so with a lower yield, the higher expenses translated to costs per ton at about twice normal levels. “Pinot likes a cooler climate, especially through the beginning of summer, but the extra moisture causing mildew and rot was a big negative for us,” said Babcock.
By the middle of September most growers had already made any adjustments to try and open the canopy to get more sunlight, etc. The heat wave with 100 degree-plus temperatures was unexpected and devastating for grapes still on the vine. The fruit is moistly water so that heat sucks the fruit dry, dehydrating it to the point where there is nothing left to pick.
The effects on Chardonnay were probably about the same, according to Babcock, except the rot was perhaps a bit worse. In the Santa Rita Hills, we have a pretty cool climate, whereas further inland we get more heat. So, even when the sun comes out, the Santa Rita Hills really doesn’t warm-up. Weather problems were very location-specific, says Babcock, and its impact on the crop had a lot to do with the grower’s experience.
Babcock relates that the market is very saturated with product, plus the recession’s impact is still being felt. “We have higher costs, including fuel, with downward pressure on wine prices.”
California’s overall crop was down only by about 3% over the previous year, and Santa Barbara yields were down somewhat, but not by a huge amount. Premium, higher priced wines are still holding up well, but they are more expensive and difficult to make and sell.
There were still good wines that came out of 2010. Babcock’s 2010 “Naughty Little Hillsides” Pinot Gris came out very well, according to Babcock, although there is not much available. It may be a little more difficult to find really good wines this futures season, and some vintners may not have some of their best wines available for tastings, unless you are a wine club member – all the more reason to join some new wine clubs and do a little more intense tasting this year!
Comparing our conditions with those up in Napa Valley and Sonoma, it appears that the strange weather we experienced locally was also plaguing growers and winemakers in those markets. Steve Heimoff, well-known wine expert and writer in the Napa market states; “I think the main things are: some wines, especially reds, got blasted by sunburn after vintners tore off canopies, in an effort to hasten ripening because the growing season had been so cold, and canopy management was very important, but there could be some stunning wines, especially Pinot Noir. It's going to be very site specific.”
It seems clear that the challenging weather conditions had a meaningful impact on the grapes and the wines from our local market. One way to look at it is that the extreme weather conditions will separate the men from the boys so to speak, or the great winemakers from the also-rans. With the surplus wine on the market, especially in the lower price points, the really exceptional wines will likely come in the higher price-points. We may also want to look at the boutique wines coming from small growing areas with very specific weather conditions for the hidden gems of the season.
If you love wine, hopefully you will see the strange weather conditions and difficult growing season as a welcome challenge – a treasure hunt to find the true standouts from winemakers that have met the challenge and overcome adversity to produce some wonderful and exceptional local wines this year.