Friday, November 12, 2010

Harvest 2010: Year of the Big, Cold, Dark, Wet

No, I didn't leave a word off the end of the title. It describes this year to a tee. To say it was a tough yr to ripen fruit, is a monumental understatement. As of this writing, Nov. 12, there is still some westside Paso fruit being picked. In many areas it has weathered the storm, literally, or truly, TWO storms...the first was a 60 hour rain, or more properly a London drizzle that left 3 inches of rain. Then the fog descended, the heat evaporated, and within ten days, another good soaking rain. Yes, it warmed up a bit, but here in the mountains on Paso's westside, our cold valley lows were in the high 30's every day this summer, except for a brief five day spell of 110- 112 degree wilters. Those days the valley vineyard hovered in the mid 40's at nite. So, looking at the title, let's review the year's highpoints.

2006 thru 2009, we had increasingly drier years, going from 20 inches in 2006 to barely 10 inches in 2009. 2010 was a huge year for rains, and altho some folks hinted we might be having an el Nino year, nobody ever stated so for certain. Well, they should have and we did...have an el Nino. It rained, it was cold, and it was a bitter winter. It paid off this yr to have had 110 bales of hay hand strewn on our exceedingly steep hillsides in blocs 2 and 5...both Cab Sauv blocs. Rain cascaded down our steep slopes and headed toward the Salinas River...happily, it did not carry much, if any Cerro Prieto topsoil. The downside of this is that we had put out hay every yr before, and it was wasted in the dry yrs of 2006 thru 2009. Put another way, we planned for a big wet yr, and got a drought. No big deal, except it costs $1000 for the hay, and another $2500 to put it out by hand on colossally steep slopes. 2010 hay paid us all back, I suppose. Had we not had the soil retention measures in place we would have easily lost hundreds of feet of vineyard rows...all washed down river(actually northwards into Monterey Bay). So we done least that's what my old time farming friends from yr's back would have said.

Okay, so it rained. Then came the cold...surprising, too, in that on Jan 3- 15, we had high 80 degree weather off our back deck, overlooking the vineyard. But that was ephmeral. Winter returned with a vengenance, and with dark forbidding days, lite rains followed by blowing, billowing fog, this place looked like downtown London, many days with less than 100 feet of visibility. Fog attended much of that cold, and it stayed and then stayed some more. First day of spring came, and our vines were still mostly asleep. It was cold, dark, wet and miserable. Bud break got delayed 2-3 weeks, (depending on elevation in vineyard), and then we followed that up with a late bloom, closer to 3 weeks later than normal. By June, we had had maybe a couple nice days of spring, but that was tops. Most days were blowing fog, no sun, big blowing winds, and a coldness that soaked not only us, but also our vines to the core.

About that time I began thinking of no spring, a cold summer had started, and we were way behind maturation-wise, maybe as much as a month...or more. Whereas we are an extremely low yield vineyard, 2-2.5 tons/ acre, it is that way intentionally, from severe pruning at the get-go. But the absence of any summer bothered me enough, that we went out and took off another half ton of clusters/ acre. And then, miraculously, summer appeared in mid June, beautiful 100 degree days that made us all come alive...vines, too. And suddenly I wondered if I had pulled the trigger on that fruit drop just a mite early. Which was followed 6 days later by an eternal winter...which this time really stayed. Sure we got some sunshine, but it was cold, virtually all June, save that one 5 day spell. Remainder of summer I don't recall, because it was fall, and we were still waiting for summer.

To summarize, cold wet winter, cold wet spring, no summer except for a handful of days, and then fall. Finally we got 3 weeks of lovely sun and warmth, but by now we were some 32+ days behind on the heat/light calendar. All of a sudden, I began thinking, "did I drop enough fruit to ripen in these arctic-like conditions?" Well, fall provided enough heat and light to get an ultra low yield vineyard like us over the hump, but it was certain to be Bordeaux like, in the 22 to 24 Brix range for grape sugars---this in an area famous for its high sugar grapes/high alcohol wines. This year was going thru the motions just as if we actually were in Bordeaux. When we finally harvested, our fruit developed flavors of blueberry, plum, raspberry, some strawberry, and dark cherry. Not surprisingly, the wines once thru primary fermentation, had all the characteristics that we had tasted in the field.

In summary, the yr of the big, dark, cold, wet, was a tough one to grow and ripen grapes...especially if you harvested on flavor. But harvest on flavor we did, and for us, this may very well be a signature a yr when all growers up and down the coast struggled to ripen most varietals. Low yield. Low yield. Sure we got terroir galore, but in the end, it was our ultra low yields that allowed us to have such a remarkably high quality crop. Whether others did the same as we did, remains to be seen. But talking with growers up and down the California coast, it is apparent that many (maybe even most) growers got caught with more grapes on the vine than they could ripen. I got caught like that in 2005, another wet, cold, dank, year...and I was hanging only 3.5 tons/ acre. Problem was, in weather like Bordeaux, you have to plan for a Bordeaux harvest. And the only way to do that is to cut your crop load to the bone. I am afraid I have many friends here and both north and south of us who did not do that, and paid a severe price quality-wise for it.

If I had to guess on the majority of California grapes and wines this year, I would guess they will be substandard. Low yields saved our bacon. Again. I hope I am wrong in this, but I am afraid California wines are going to struggle in 2010. Except for Syrah, that is. For our Syrah, it was a golden year, and many others noted the same. But for Bordeaux varietals, unh unh. A vintner never knows that what goes in isn't necessarily what is coming out. But my fear is most vintners are fearful of a very subpar yr, quality wise. If you find that to be the case at your favorite wineries some two and a half yrs down the road, stop by Cerro Prieto. We will have some dandy wines for you to try. Good news is, they match up with our '06s, '07's, '08s, and our '09s.

Location, location, location. Terroir, terroir, terroir. But unquestionably, biggest factor this yr for us was guessing right in June, dropping fruit early on, and planning for a Bordeaux harvest...which we all got. For us...low yield was perfect.

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