A former colleague of ours used to say after the Labor Day holiday, “It’s time to put away your flip flops and surfboards and get back to work.” Even though Labor Day symbolizes the end of summer for most of us, the warm sunny days continue for a spell even here in North Idaho. The transition of summer into fall also brings the start of the wine grape harvest across the appellations of the Western U.S. We have received word from friends across the wine industry that the harvest has indeed commenced.
The words from California are “big and late.” The harvest of white wine grapes and grapes used in the production of sparkling wine has begun. Late season warmth in the golden state spurred ripening and got the grape crop back on track from our last report a bit over a month ago. While the harvest is late by recent historical standards, the crop looks to be of excellent quality. While the cool start to the growing year in California and the moderate temperatures throughout the summer has slowed the crop significantly, it is also resulting in a very large crop. As one winemaker friend of ours said “there will be a lot of juice on the market from this year.”
The only challenge for California now is whether or not growers and winemakers will be able to get the grapes picked and in the fermenters before the fall rains move in. Barring rain or a bad heat spike, we are looking at a very good 2019 vintage as the grapes gain much needed hang-time over the next month or so. Hang-time, once ripening is complete, is what gives the grapes character and depth. It is a dangerous game, though, as fall rains approach. Waiting too long can be catastrophic, so all will be carefully watching the skies and the weather forecast.
The crop in Washington, Oregon and Idaho appears to be similarly structured. The moderate summer has pushed harvest back a bit from recent vintages, but is also yielding great quality in the grapes. While there will be plenty of grapes for the industry this year, growers are “dropping” grapes aggressively in Washington to limit the crop size due to much wine hanging around from previous years. Washington specifically continues to be plagued by an over-supply of wine. It is and has been our contention that many Washington wineries are in this situation from raising prices to levels that are not sustainable, and are effectively pricing much of their wine out of markets across the U.S. While Washington makes great wine, the bottlings have not yet developed the reputation to win the battle over more respected growing areas, like Napa and Sonoma, in the major U.S. markets.
Put another way, if a wine buyer at a restaurant in Chicago or New York is faced with two wines, one from Napa and one from Walla Walla, that are of similar quality and similar price, they think “which one will likely sell better?” In that situation, Napa will likely get the vote.
One update on an important past vintage. We all remember the devastating fires that consumed Northern California wine country at harvest in 2017. 2017 Red wines are now starting to be released, and we are beginning to get news of what to expect for reserve reds that are still a year or two out. The wines from 2017 that we have tasted to date were clearly harvested before the fires started as we have found no smoke tainted wines. For the late ripening varietals that were still “hanging” when the fires started, the news is dire. We have talked to a number of winery professionals on both the production and sales side of the business who have said universally that unharvested grapes at the time of the fires were unusable and severely smoke tainted.
For those wineries that did bother to harvest and ferment the grapes they have bulked the wine out to private label purveyors. This would suggest due caution is in order for wine buyers of private labeled reds from 2017 at big box stores. The most responsible wineries simply dropped the fruit rather than even putting it into the market. We spoke to one ultra-premium winery this past week that told us their highest end reserve bottling will be half its normal size for the 2017 vintage! A staggering but responsible result.
We are entering the month or so long stretch of the wine grape season that tests the nerves of growers and winemakers alike. Much can go right to result in a stellar 2019 vintage, but risks are also high. We will keep you posted on every step of the harvest, or stop by the shop for the most recent updates.
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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.