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Weather on the Wine

Santa Barbara Winemakers Wade Through a Frustrating Yet Possibly Fantastic Harvest


While we Santa Barbara civilians have complained about bad beach weather during the chilliest summer of the century, a severe lack of air conditioning on the hottest day in Los Angeles history, and wild thunderstorms catching our palm trees on fire (okay, maybe those were cool), the wine world has a much less mundane perspective of the recent weather.

For vineyard workers, managers, and vintners, the roller-coaster climate means a lot more than minor lifestyle changes: It means rearranging everything they’ve planned for over the past year, down to how they cut the vine’s leaves, giving the fruit a “canopy” from the sun to achieve ideal exposure.

Everyone seems reluctant to say anything too specific about the 2010 wine harvest so far, other than that it has been crazy, challenging, and, “to sum it up in one word,” said Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards, “frustrating.”

Michael Larner
Click to enlarge photo

Michael Larner

Indeed, while winemakers know how to deal with cold years (what most expected this year to be), smoldering ones, wet ones, and dry ones — and can even make the most out of each — these past few months of extremes have presented the wine industry with all of the above. As growers planned for a long growing season with cool weather, their fruit sizzled under the heat spike. And then the rain came, preventing them from picking the fruit before the next heat wave. The chilly storms have since thrown the fruit into turmoil.

“We’re kind of waiting for the locusts,” joked Nicholas Miller, scion of the world-famous Bien Nacido Vineyard. “You don’t see all that weather in one year.”

The climate worries Larner, who called it a “dead end.” With less sunlight and higher chances of rain around the corner, “our window of opportunity to pick is getting smaller and smaller by the day,” he said.

Nicholas Miller
Click to enlarge photo

Chris Leshinsky

Nicholas Miller

In order to maintain the high-quality wines, vintners are embracing an out-of-order harvest routine, from picking certain grape varietals earlier and some later than normal, to throwing out tons of fruit altogether. While Larner will unusually pick grenache before syrah this year, winemaker Ken Brown may not pick his syrah at all.

“That’s the challenge of winemaking, I guess,” said Marilyn Honea, owner of the small Honea Vineyard, who at least enjoys seeing the fruit sit on the vines longer this season for aesthetic reasons. She speculated, “It’s going to test all of the winemakers’ skills.”

One of those skills, suggested Larner, will have to do with trusting their palates more than ever. “I think winemakers are getting the hint that they can’t sit there and wait for a magic number, like say 25 brix [a measure of sugar levels], to pick.” Instead, winemakers will be better off tasting the grapes directly from the vine to judge their readiness, he said, explaining, “We’ve been kind of shying away from numbers and just tasting, which is, I think, one of the greatest ways to make wine.”

Because the weather impeded picking at normal times, the character of wine from the 2010 vintage will depend on whether the winemaker chose to pick early or not — for instance, the resulting wines will carry particularly high or low alcohol levels. But surprisingly, everyone seems extremely hopeful — if not downright enthusiastic — about this vintage.

In fact, Brown said the pinot noir grapes he has picked are potentially the best he’s ever seen, calling it the “OMG vintage.” “I can’t believe we went through this crazy ride … and now we end up with this dark, rich, lush [fruit] … It’s like, ‘Oh my god, is this what it takes?’” He added, “We might have to rewrite the book on what it takes to make a great pinot noir vintage.”

On the other side of the valley, Larner has noticed some extraordinarily deep colors and flavors on his grapes, too. Meanwhile, Miller said that the possibility of botrytis cinerea (also called “noble rot,” a fungus that gives fruit a sweet flavor and is actually deliberately cultivated in France’s Sauternes region) developing on the whites may add character — though they still prefer to keep it to a minimum.

Brooke Carhartt, winemaker and co-owner of Carhartt Vineyards reported that, while it’s the craziest harvest weather she’s seen in her 14 years as a vintner, the general feeling among winemakers remains remarkably positive. “Winemakers are all, in a sense, a little crazy,” she quipped. “We’re all crazily optimistic, almost a little off.” Carhartt explains how being at the constant whim of nature keeps her “on her toes,” and able to deal with unpredictability.

So while we can’t expect uniformity from 2010 wines or stability from the weather, a harvest like this shows the unflagging devotion, admirable versatility, and quintessential camaraderie that makes the people in the Santa Barbara vineyards and wineries so extraordinary.

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