Hard Times: Harvest Report 2008

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By Courtney Cochran
Admittedly, California vintners have been through nothing if not the ringer this growing season. Starting with a devastating frost in late March - the worst on record in more than 30 years - that decimated as much as 30% of some vineyards' crop, 2008 has been a year that's tested the mettle of just about everyone close to winemaking in the Golden State, most of all those in hard-hit Northern California. To wit, on the heels of spring's frosts a series of devastating summer fires raged through wine country, causing winemakers to fret still more - this time about the potential impact the abundant smoke might have on their as-yet-unmade wines. Hard times, indeed.
Cabernet Comeback
Fortunately, things are looking up for winemakers all over the state. With fruit continuing to come in, many winemakers are breathing a collective sigh of relief in response to a number of indications that this vintage may in fact be better than many feared - and in the case of certain grape varieties, a whole lot better than anyone initially expected.

Nile Zacherle, winemaker at Napa's David Arthur Vineyards - where he makes the winery's cult popular Elevation 1147 Cabernet Sauvignon - said that 2008 is shaping up to be a very good year for Bordeaux varieties, whose thick skins withstood much of the brunt of a late-August heat wave. "Overall it's going to be a spectacular year for Cab and Bordeaux varieties [in Napa] because we have cool weather cycling now, with nights from 40-50 degrees and day temperatures ranging from the lower 70s to the mid 80s. It's just fabulous."

Pinot Peril
Zacherle went on to cast the spring frosts and their resulting crop loss in a positive light, noting that they can be seen as "a blessing in disguise" since they allowed vines to pour more of their valuable energy into fewer clusters later in the season. The flip side to this advantage, however, is what vintners are now experiencing with Pinot Noir throughout southern Napa and in much of Sonoma, where low crop loads resulting from spring frosts coupled with the heat wave in late August caused some fruit to mature too fast.

The Hobo Wine Company's Kenny Litikprakong, who makes wine from a number of grape varieties in Sonoma County, put it this way: "We didn't get the hang time [with Pinot] we wanted. After the heat spike, the harvest went fast and furious - we had too much fruit too quick. And what lots of people got was fruit with really high sugar levels without the flavor to back it up." Hang time is critical for flavor development in Pinot Noir, which usually sits on the vines through much of September, during which sugar levels rise more or less in lock step along with flavor development. But this year's combination of lower crop load, vine stress from a second year of lower-than-average rainfall and the August heat spike spelled disaster for some producers.

Zacherle compared the phenomenon with the problem of having a big engine in a small car: "Somehow, it's just not tuned quite right," he lamented.

Mixed Results
Ultimately, in spite of the unseasonably early Pinot harvest, Likitprakong still expects that some good wines will be made in Sonoma this year. "It doesn't mean there won't be some good wines and even some great wines produced," he insisted, particularly when it comes to grapes like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, whose thick skins withstood much of the heat spike's intensity. "Still," he hedged, in no doubt alluding to Pinot, "they're not all going to be good this year."

Similarly, white wine reports are mixed. Kenneth Rochford, General Manager of Medlock Ames winery in Sonoma's Alexander Valley, reports that although the winery's Sauvignon Blanc - just picked last week - was plentiful and evenly ripened, he has heard talk of extremely distressed Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay fruit being harvested elsewhere. "2008 was really tricky," he conceded, adding, "though there will still be some good wines made, just fewer of them [than in more even vintages]."

Damage from smoke taint, on the up side, is shaping up to be less of a serious concern for growers than was initially suspected. While early lab tests from the 2008 harvest are indeed showing some traces of smoke compounds in wine, vintners reporting as much are few and far between in the Napa/Sonoma area. Growers in Mendocino County - the winegrowing region most severely impacted by smoke - may be a different story, however. And while preliminary lab tests indeed show evidence of smoke taint in many Mendo grapes, whether or not the taint translates to "off" flavors in the region's finished wines remains to be seen.

In the mean time, all we can do is sit tight and wait. What a year, 2008.

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