Much of the “intel” we get on the wine grape crop in any given year is opportunistic. We learn much from winemakers and others who visit the shop to taste the latest releases as they come in. While we wrote recently about the 2019 vintage, which is in the middle of the growing year right now, we have updates from folks who have either recently visited wine country, or from winemakers.
Our own Steve Wilson, president of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce, was just in the shop last week and had been down to Napa and Sonoma for a visit. Steve had some good data on this year’s crop, but he also had some great information on how good wineries are at conserving water. We have all read of the drought in California over recent years. The drought which was officially broken over last winter and spring when the “Golden State” got doused with huge rainfalls and snowfalls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Steve explained how careful wineries are about recycling and preserving water. This is simply why droughts affect the wineries less than one might expect. They collect every drop that falls, even in light rainfall years, and together with their reclaiming efforts have plenty of water to make it through even the driest of years.
On to 2019. In talking to Steve we learned that he heard from many wineries that the 2019 crop did indeed get a late start due to heavy rains well into the spring. With this late start, the crop is smaller than recent vintages and with all of that water, the vines are putting up a larger than usual canopy. The canopy is the layer of leaves that hang over the grapes. Canopy management is a big deal. Cut it back too severely and the grapes can be overexposed to sun and the bunches can develop raisins. Don’t cut it back enough and the grapes won’t ripen enough or evenly. The canopy situation from all the rain will have to be watched carefully.
Another customer of ours who grows grapes in Napa but summers here in North Idaho was in last week. This family grows Cabernet and Zinfandel in the Rutherford Bench area. We learned that veraison, when the grapes turn from green to purple as they ripen, had just started. This is quite late for Northern California and further evidence of how late the crop is this year. It is consistent with what we are hearing from many of our contacts, lending great credibility to the information.
Brother-in-law and winemaker, John Lancaster, was just in town last weekend for some family events. John was one of the first to sound the alarm about the 2019 growing year. When the rains kept coming through the spring, John warned it would be a late harvest, easily 3 to 4 weeks later than recent years! Last weekend, John confirmed that is still the case and also spoke about the crop being lighter than usual. The risk with a late harvest is that if the fall rains start prior to harvest, much damage can be done to the crop at this crucial time. Time will tell, but suffice it to say, there are many winemakers and grape growers white-knuckling the crop this year with all the challenges.
The forecast here in the appellations of the Northwest is more sanguine than California. The late rains have not been as plentiful and the lack of fires burning is certainly welcome. Temperatures have been very moderate this year, though, which does pose a small challenge. The growing seasons here in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are shorter than California. Ripening is helped by the longer days and warmer temps. When we have a cooler than normal year like this year, growers start to get concerned about fully ripening the crop. While so far, we think the lack of heat will be overcome, it is a small area of concern.
In general, expect the 2019 crop to be smaller than normal, the harvest to be later than normal, and vineyard management to be more important than normal. We will keep our readers posted on the progress of the crop as harvest approaches. For all our wine industry friends — keep your fingers crossed for a better finish to the growing year than the start was.
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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.