Why this wet, cool vintage reminds many North Coast vintners of 2011

Some 2011 vintage wines have faced criticism for lacking the colors, flavors or acidity characteristic of North Coast red wines in the past 30 years.|

This year’s wet winter in California followed by a mostly cool spring and summer is reminding more than a few North Coast vintners and growers of a particularly vexing vintage a dozen years ago.

Those recollections fit with the data from this year and 2011, according to National Weather Service forecaster Brian Garcia.

“When you pull back from the data for each year and blur your eyes at changes in temperature, you can see a similar feel in temperature trends remaining typically below normal and early-morning lows below normal,” Garcia said.

This year and 2011 had a lot of rain for the region: about 40 inches in each year, Garcia said.

A common agriculture metric for comparing temperatures between growing regions and seasons points to how chilly this season has been compared to 2011 or even 2010, a similarly cool year, according to Dana Grande. She is head of grower relations for Jordan Vineyards & Winery, sourcing cab mostly from Alexander Valley and chardonnay all from Russian River Valley.

“By heat units — degree-days — we’re below both of those (2010 and 2011),” Grande said. “We’ve not caught up to 2011.”

She is referring to accumulated growing degree days, a common measure of how long the temperature was warm enough to spur plant development, which in the case of grape vines is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Grande compared heat unit accumulation figures this year from Healdsburg weather station data with those from other key cool, wet years in the past four decades: 2010, 1989 and 1982.

“Early in June, it was cooler than in 1982,” Grande said.

Some 2011 vintage wines have faced criticism for lacking the colors, flavors or acidity characteristic of North Coast red wines in the past 30 years. But the vintage also has its advocates.

“We made wonderful wines,” said Theresa Heredia, now winemaker at Gary Farrell Winery in Healdsburg. But at the time, she had called for picking of Sonoma Coast grapes at lower sugar levels to escape looming mid-October 2011 rains.

“We have to stay open and flexible.”

To Marc Zaccaria, winemaker at Napa Valley’s Rutherford Ranch winery, the 2011 vintage reminds him of an early approach to North Coast wine.

“I think it is going to hearken back to a kind of an Old World, old Napa Valley style of some really well-balanced wines that are going to be acid- and fruit-driven,” Zaccaria said.

“They're gonna be more balanced and not the stereotypical overripe style that I think has been seen in the valley. Winemakers are going to be able to make some delicious, beautiful wines that could be lower in alcohol and have some really nice natural acidity that winemakers love to make and love to drink. I'm really looking forward to that in ’23.”

The year 2010 also was mostly a cool season, but it had a blazing finish. The damp, cooler days led some growers to remove more vine leaves to get more air circulation around the clusters to reduce mildew issues and kick-start grape maturation.

But then came a two-day heat wave in late August 2010, and the hot sun destroyed a number of unshaded grapes.

“We lost 40% of our zin in 2010,” said Lance Blakeley, head of vineyard operations for Pedroncelli Winery in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley.

While the grape-killing heat of 2010 didn’t come during harvest the following year, early heavy rains did, and that led to cool-season viticulture tactics that are being employed this year, Grande said.

“We’re working with our growers to as much as we can help ripening and flavor uniformity, and make it easier to do a harvest call when it’s time,” he said. That means cautiously removing some leaves.

“We’re not going to open up both sides of the (vine leaf) canopy like we did in 2010,” he said. “That’s not going to happen again.”

But because of the cool weather during spring vine flower blooming and fertilization, resulting in uneven grape development in some clusters, Grande is being cautious about calling for growers to cut off, or “drop,” unwanted clusters.

“For fruit and flavor uniformity, we’re holding off on any (fruit) thinning,” he said.

“Even though it seems like a lot of clusters out there, I do not feel confident enough to request crop-adjustment passes, even though it’s a later and cooler year.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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