Some California Winemakers Sad, Others Rest Easy, as 2010 Harvest Winds Down

A random vineyard in autumn, after a long hard harvest.
A random vineyard in autumn, after a long hard harvest. Photo: iStock Photo

The 2010 growing season was, as predicted, a hairy one for many California winemakers, with a late, wet spring, and a cold summer punctuated by a few hot spells that managed to thoroughly confuse the grapevines. One Sonoma wine consultant calls it the coldest overall season in 100 years, made worse by blasts of 100+ degree heat. “This was a year for professional growers, not amateurs, that’s for sure,” says winemaker Paul Hobbs. “Some people really suffered.” We earlier heard the anxiety of Pinot growers back in August, and now with the harvest complete for everything but a few Syrah vineyards, Grub Street spoke to several winemakers who specialize in Cabernet and Zinfandel to see how they and others fared, and whether the 2010 vintage promises to be worth a damn.

Last week, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat called 2010 “the worst grape harvest in recent memory” and zeroed in on Dry Creek Valley’s Zinfandel growers as being the hardest hit (they featured a photo of a sad looking Elias Torres, of Torres Vineyard Management, holding up a scorched and useless cluster of grapes). The biggest problem for many Sonoma growers, following the especially cool summer, was the two days of 105-degree heat in some locales at the end of August, which destroyed entire crops like the 30-acre vineyard belonging Limerick Lane in Healdsburg. “It became the perfect storm,” said Michael Collins, the winemaker at Limerick Lane. “It is the first year [since 1910] they will not be harvested,” he says, referring to the 100-year-old Zinfandel vines on the property. There were also reports going into the third week of October of panic among growers in the Russian River Valley and northern coast of Sonoma as storms approached and their grapes weren’t fully ripe yet (wet grapes tend to grow mildew within a few days, and that can spell disaster too).

But not everyone had it so bad, and we spoke to several winemakers who feel confident that they salvaged some unusually great wines from their stressed vines. “In the end it was outstanding, but it was a tough harvest,” says Paul Hobbs. “We wrapped up just before the first rain. These wines should have plenty of power and richness. There’s a good indication that they’re going to be beautiful.” But, he cautions, it will be hard to make any across-the-board generalizations about the year 2010 on wine lists a few years from now. “It’s going to be a very mixed vintage. Some brilliant wines, and then some of the greenest, most unripe wines you’ve ever tasted.”

Hobbs is referring to the fact that at many vineyards, especially on hillsides and at higher elevations, the problem was not the heat so much as the lack of it, with whole blocks of grapes that didn’t get enough sun before the first October rains to fully ripen. Wineries like Jordan, which specialize in lower-alcohol, French-style Cabernets, there’s reason to gloat a little. “Where our fruit comes from, around Geyserville and Alexander Valley, we were fine,” says Jordan winemaker Rob Davis, who also cautions that the Press-Democrat likes to sensationalize the hardest luck stories in the industry. “I’m just glowing as far the fruit quality and the quantity we got - this is the best quality vintage I’ve seen in 35 years. Really intense fruit.” And in Davis’s opinion, this could turn out to be an excellent year for Cabernets, with wineries forced to pick their fruit based on flavor rather aiming for a certain alcohol level. “Maybe we’ll have a return to some of those beautiful vintages of thirty years ago,” he says, referring to what he sees as the glory days of California winemaking, before Cabernets became so over-powering and alcoholic.

As for other varietals, Charlie Tsegeletos, winemaker at Cline, says, “Our Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Carignane and Petite Sirah all look excellent for 2010.” But many of Cline’s vineyards are in Oakley and Lodi, and he adds, “While these areas saw cooler temperatures than normal it worked really well for them because they are pretty warm regions to start with.”

So, for those keeping score when it comes time to purchase 2010 bottles: There will probably be a fair number of under-ripe Pinots out there, though a few vineyards probably got lucky. There won’t be much of any ZInfandel coming out of Dry Creek or Russian River, and what there is won’t likely be good. Cabernets will be less powerful but in some cases probably better, if you like that sort of thing. And Zins and other varietals from southern and eastern locales, which are typically very hot, will probably be better and more nuanced than usual.

For Many Growers - a Record Miserable Season [Press-Democrat]
Earlier: Hot Weather Spells Great News for 2010 Wines [Grub Street]
Three California Winemakers Discuss the Difficult, Possibly Disastrous 2010 Vintage [Grub Street]

Some California Winemakers Sad, Others Rest Easy, as 2010 Harvest Winds Down