Wine-grape growing, like almost any farming enterprise, is one fraught with peril. It racks the nerves of even the most hearty of souls. Add in the pressure on non-grower winemakers to produce a consistent product, and every turn in the weather becomes more important and leads to collective hand-wringing across the wine industry. We calculated that it was a good time to review some recent goings-on across the Western US and how they are likely to affect recent vintages and the start of the 2019 growing year.
We tried our first bottle of Napa Cab from the 2017 vintage last weekend. Recalling the disastrous fires that lit off across Northern California wine country during the 2017 harvest brings back stark and frightening memories. While damage to wineries, housing and other real estate was devastating and locals are still working to get back to normal, the damage to the vines themselves was minor. It is hard to burn a grapevine; they just contain too much water. About 80 percent of the harvest was already completed when the fires started. That is why tasting a Cabernet from that devastating year carries so much weight. It was the late ripening varietals like Cabernet that would have still been “hanging” when the fires started. The 2017 Cabernet from 75 Wine Company and Tuck Beckstoffer was delicious. Clearly, the grapes were harvested prior to the fires.
We suspect this will be the case for most of the fuller bodied reds from 2017. If they were harvested prior to the fires they will be great. If they were picked after the fires, they will have smoke taint and the originating wineries will likely not bottle them. There is no way to get rid of smoke taint once it is in the wine, so premium wineries will bulk the smoke damaged “juice” out to big box purveyors of private label wines; that is the segment of the market to be careful with from 2017.
The 2019 growing year across California (but especially Northern California) is off to a slow and concerning start. This past winter shattered the drought in California. No one in the state is talking about a lack of water or snowpack. For wine-grape growers and winemakers alike, now, they just want to shut the water off! They have experienced frequent heavy rains and storms across appellations in California that has delayed bud break and flowering. In some cases, the wine has been heavy enough to cause shatter on some of the vines. Shatter occurs when heavy rain or hail dislodges part of the grape bundles leading to an uneven and damaged crop.
There are several winemakers we have talked to that are calling for the harvest to be up to a month late. This is a dire prediction considering it is coming so early in the season. The good news is we have had a great run of vintages with ample crop size so shortages of domestic wine is unlikely. The quality of the 2019 vintage for California is certainly in question at this point. Time will tell if ground can be made up for this year, but as of this writing, winemakers across California are praying for it to dry out and warm up.
For the appellations of the Northwest it has been a better start. Bud break and the flowering of the vines here is later than in California, so the spring rains didn’t cause the damage they did south of here. It has been a pretty average spring in the Northwest, so that is less of a worry. We are likely looking at a small crop for 2019 across Washington and Idaho though. The heavy, late winter snows and cold temperatures killed off a fair amount of vineyard. Vineyards that did not bury a cane, and those that were hit by the bitter cold temps and snow, likely lost quite a few producing vines.
When a vine freezes it has to be cut back to the ground and several years will pass prior to another grape crop being harvested. A cold snap like we experienced here in February with that much snow is enough to do it, depending on where the vineyard is located and the micro-climate conditions there.
We will keep you posted throughout the 2019 vintage on how the crop is coming along. You are always welcome to email questions or stop by the shop for an update.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.