Three California Winemakers Discuss the Difficult, Possibly Disastrous 2010 Vintage

Picture this, but nearly all day every day for months, and that's been this summer.
Picture this, but nearly all day every day for months, and that’s been this summer. Photo: iStock Photo

It’s been a rough year for grape growing in California, and depending on September’s weather and the skill of winemakers, 2010 could end up being one of those vintages wine snobs will disparage for decades. With the coldest summer in 50 years hitting Northern California, and parts of Southern California also experiencing below-average temperatures, this translates to a lot of hand-wringing for makers of Pinot Noir. The notoriously delicate and finicky grape can be hard to babysit and slow to ripen in odd years like this, resulting in wines that aren’t as mature or complex in the bottle. Grub Street talked to several winemakers who specialize in Pinot Noir to see what they’re doing to salvage the wine in the face of weird weather.

“I think we’re going to skip right to 2011… I’m kidding,” says Jim Klein, winemaker at Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino County. “We joke we’ll just pick the grapes in January.” The grape harvest, across all types of wineries, has been set back several weeks by the colder than average temperatures and the excess of fog. Pinot growers like Klein are now looking at picking grapes in the second week of October unless things warm up significantly over the next month. The danger of a late harvest is running up against the rains that start hitting Northern California by mid-October. Call it climate change or call it an aberration, but a cold summer and early fall rain can slow the ripening process and open the door to rot, and if it gets too cold with those rains you’ll have unripe grapes and a vintage no one wants to drink.

In the warmer climes of Napa and Santa Barbara, where it’s still been a very cool season, 2010 wines may be just fine, but as Napa-based winemaker Jeff Dawson tells us, “I wouldn’t want to be on the Sonoma Coast this year.”

“It’s definitely the coldest year I’ve ever had to deal with,” says Andy Peay, winemaker at Peay Vineyards in Sonoma. “And the wettest spring. If we have a whole month of weather like we’ve had yesterday and today [warm and sunny], we might make up a week. But we’re looking at harvesting our Syrah in mid-November. And that can get hairy.”

Chad Melville, winemaker at Melville Vineyards in Lompoc says that Southern California wineries got about twice the amount of rain this spring that they usually get. “Even down here in the Santa Rita Hills it’s been cooler than normal, and we’re a couple of weeks behind,” says Melville. “I was down in Laguna Beach a couple weeks ago and the ocean was freezing. 64 degrees. Ten degrees colder than it should be.”

An abnormally long and slow growing season isn’t always a bad thing, and a conscientious wine grower can end up producing unusual and terrific wines if they play their cards right. More time on the vine can result in more nuanced flavors, and slower-to-ripe fruit results in lower-alcohol wine, which for Pinot Noir is usually the goal anyway. “We’re kind of gamblers at heart. Any farmer is,” says Klein.

Says Peay, “2005 was an odd year like this with a late harvest, but it was kind of a lesson to winemakers. People who were used to making these big, bold, high-alcohol wines ended up producing some of the most elegant, balanced, beautiful wines they’d ever made. You just have to take care.”

“Some vintages, by November you taste it and you already know it’s great,” says Klein. “But I’m always really surprised — usually it’s sometime in February that I taste things and go ‘Wow - so this is how it’s going to be.’”

“If you talked to me six years ago I’d be freaking out and pulling my hair,” says Peay. “But now I’m like well, there it is, not much we can really do about it. Some of our best vintages came out of years like this.”

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Three California Winemakers Discuss the Difficult, Possibly Disastrous 2010