2010 Wine Harvest: Schizophrenic & Still Uncertain

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By Courtney Cochran

Depending on who you talk to, the 2010 harvest in wine country was anything from incredible to downright awful. Why such a disparity?  The year was, in the truest sense of the word, a rollercoaster of a vintage, one in which an unseasonably cool summer prefaced unruly late season rains, with a smattering of unexpected events further complicating matters in between (think sporadic triple-digit heat spikes).  The result was a harvest that fell two to four weeks behind schedule - leaving many a winemaker biting his nails in anticipation of when things might kick into gear - and culminated in a mad dash to harvest when things warmed up and rains loomed.  Amidst all this mayhem, some winegrowers came out on top, while others were just unlucky.    

Here's a closer look at the factors that drove this year's wacky harvest and the circumstances that led some to come out on top while others were left wishing that 2010 had never happened.
The timing of the harvest - when a grower decides to pick his fruit - is a crucial decision that was never more important than this year.  Winemaker Kenny Likitprakong - who makes wine under his cult-favorite Hobo label in Healdsburg and who I've featured here from time to time - picks early because he likes his wines high in acid.  Given this preference for a European-style profile in his wines, Likitprakong was able to avoid the late-season rains that pummeled other crops.

"This harvest, Mother Nature was in control," Likitprokong relates.  "As much as you wanted to take control of the situation, you had to let it play itself out."  Still, picking early allowed this Santa Rosa native to assert at least a measure of control over his destiny in 2010, with solid results.  Of course, picking early - whether it's to preserve the bright acid in your fruit or to avoid early autumn rains - can bring its own painful side effects.  On November 5, celebrated Santa Cruz Mountains winegrower Randall Grahm lamented to his 381,432 Twitter followers that "Last week's brilliant weather filled me with regret that I had harvested most of our grenache too soon. #elegancebutnointelligence."  (Props for the amusing hash tag!  Humor does take some of the sting out of regret.)

Picking time was driven as much by winemaker decision-making as by grape variety constraints.  Because whites, with the exception of Chardonnay, are largely early-ripening varieties, they're often among the first to come off of the vine.  Accordingly, winemakers typically vinify these varieties first and send them off to settle in tanks or barrels before the reds arrive, thus spreading their harvesting efforts and resources across weeks or even months.  But this year, cool weather caused everything - including whites - to ripen more slowly than usual, which pushed everything back from its usual schedule by at least two weeks, in some places still more.   As one Napa grower put it, during the early season "the sun never came out."

Alas, a series of super-hot late-season days ultimately accelerated the harvest, ripening whites along with some red varieties at the same time.  Wineries -accustomed to a measured influx of fruit - were flooded with copious amounts of grapes all at once, and only those who could react quickly were able to process it successfully.  In Napa, Realm Cellars' proprietor Juan Mercado hired new cellar hands at the last minute to manage the influx.  When I visited him November 18, his crew was still hard at work on the vintage.  

In some areas, the unusually cool weather was a boon.  To wit, many Lodi winegrowers buzzed about the year's brilliance throughout the season, as cooler-than-usual temps promised brighter acidity and elegant flavor profiles for this usually baking-hot area.  But in Northern California, the cool temperatures and abundant coastal fog led to worry of mildew, so growers cut back leaf and shoot growth around clusters to encourage air flow and enable better exposure to the sun.  When a late August heat spike caused temperatures to soar and a piercing sun penetrated vineyards, clusters proved dangerously vulnerable without their leaf cover and suffered sunburn.  Sunburn damaged many clusters beyond repair, and caused many growers to lose much of their crop.  

A return to cooler weather caused a collective sigh of relief.  Until another heat spike struck. 

And finally, some issues seen this year had nothing to do with weather, harvest timing, varietal constraints or location. In Mendocino, fruit was left hanging on the vine when buyers disappeared or simply never materialized for the 2010 vintage.  Why? With some two years of recession under our belts and many wineries facing daunting inventories of unsold wine, financial hardship caused particularly strapped vintners to back out of vineyard contracts, leaving growers with nowhere to sell their fruit.  For obvious reasons, this phenomenon was supremely disruptive to the harvest, as growers scrambled to sort out who was buying fruit, and in what quantities.  And in some instances, not buying at all.  

One thing is for sure: the year's schizophrenic weather patterns and awkward pace will not be soon forgotten. (When I touched down in New York's Hamptons winegrowing region in late August, the growing season was running behind, too, though not as severely as in California.)   Bright spots emerged as the season wore on, and depending on where growers were and how they managed the punches that came their way (e.g. fog, heat spikes, rain), many pulled through with moderately successful to even excellent results.  On the Central Coast, growers applauded the year's cool temps, saying that vineyards looked healthier than usual and benefited from the break in scorching heat.  Still, it's been the definition of a nail-biter.

Speaking at this year's Napa Valley Vintners' harvest roundup chat in San Francisco, Bruce Cakebread was moved to declare that "in over 150 years or so we've been growing, this decade is one of the most interesting."  No doubt 2010 will go down as one of the most interesting of all. 

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