The Consequences of Our Cold Wave in Wine Country

Napasummer It's overcast in the town of Napa at 8:00am. It will be overcast in the town of Napa at 9:00am. And probably 10:00am too. Later in the afternoon, the temperature spring northward to somewhere around 79 or 80 degrees. When the sun starts to go down around 5:30pm to 7pm, the fog will come back to certain areas and the wind will kick up. This evening the temperature will fall down into the 50s.

This was the weather story last week. This is what the weather will be like this week. And by all educated accounts, next week the most we can expect in Napa Valley is a high of around 85 degrees—in the northern part of the Valley.

What does this survey of the recent meteorological trends mean? What's the upshot of Northern California experiencing the summer that wasn't? It means grape growers (and winemakers) are starting to get a little worried. Strike that. A lot worried.

I spoke with one Napa winemaker who (and I checked) hadn't made a Cabernet Sauvignon in ten years that came in at less than 14.7% alcohol. I asked them about the weather. There response was spinalicious:

"I'm not too concerned. I'll just deal with what Mother Nature gives us and make the best wine possible. We've seen this kind of cooling trend before. I'm not worried."

The problem this kind of weather poses to grape growers in this neck of the woods is not that the grapes won't get ripe. They will get ripe. It's just that they won't get REALLY ripe, a condition upon which so many wineries have staked the reputation of their Cabernets, Syrahs and Pinot Noirs. In fact, if this weather keeps up, its entirely likely that some winemakers are going to have to learn how to make good Napa or Sonoma Cabernet with an alcohol content of (brace yourself)…12.5%.

Many Northern California Pinot Noir producers are going to have learn to live with a 13% alcohol content instead of 14.5%.

Of course the other problem that comes this kind of Republican weather pattern (cynics have come to call cold weather "Republican" in honor of their frequent dismissals of global warming) is the potential to see the grape crop rained upon as growers leave their grapes on the vine well into November hoping to pull out as much ripening as possibly form the dwindling hours of sunshine.

Clearly 2010 is looking to be a better vintage for early ripening grapes like Pinot Noir. But even the Pinots are likely to suffer a diminishing alcohol content. The question is this: is that a bad thing? I think it might be for many winemakers, particularly those that tend to produce big, fat, huge unctuous Pinots with high alcohol content. However, this will be the year you want to be sure to seek out the wines from vintners that make a habit of using or growing grapes in areas that are on the edge; who regularly make delicious wines in the 13% to 14% alcohol range due to the cool location of the grapes used to make those wine. You know the folks I'm thinking of.

But who knows what's going to happen after next week? It could brighten up, lots of sunshine will come, summer will arrive, grapes will ripen and the old adage that "every year is a vintage year in California" will be true once again.

Or, it might get even colder. Napa Valley restaurants will either shut down their outdoor eating areas altogetehr or invest in more heaters. Vineyard workers will wear coats and sweaters to keep the chill off instead of bandannas to keep the sweat out of their eyes. Visitors will simply think, "this sucks!"

I'm just saying…It's pretty cold here in Wine Country and there's no sign of relief.

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21 Responses

  1. MIke Murphy - August 9, 2010

    We spent a week up in Napa (Oak Knoll) last week, and only saw about 30 – 40 % of grapes in veraison. One grower I talked to estimated that that they were 200 degree days behind normal. Everyone I talked to was assuming a late October/ early November (best case) harvest for CS and Merlot.

  2. JohnLopresti - August 9, 2010

    At elevations in excess of 1500′ above sea level bordering the Alexander Valley transition zone to Yorkville Highlands AVA this season is progressing much warmer than what valley floor vineyards have experienced, with early fog burn-off and vigorously warm afternoons 80s-90 degrees. It is possible some vineyardists at altitude are going to see increased demand for fruit at harvest because of these more normal factors.

  3. fredric koeppel - August 9, 2010

    oh sob, oh woe, cabernets at 12.5 to 13.5 percent alcohol???? how will Napa Valley ever get over the blow to its reputation for making high octane red wines?

  4. Thomas Pellechia - August 9, 2010

    Tom,
    Over here in the cool growing region of the country, grapes are about two or three weeks ahead of the usual schedule (veraison has set in) and temperatures are the most consistently hottest since I’ve lived here–1984. Unheard of to have weeks of continuous upper 80s and into the 90s, with only shots of down-pouring rain instead of soft, rainy days.
    Imagining that there might be a Finger Lakes Pinot Noir at 15% alcohol–yuck. I’ll move West if this starts a trend…
    So, rather than a Republican summer, are we having a Communist summer?

  5. Tom Wark - August 9, 2010

    Tom:
    I think you are having a “Chicken Little Summer”.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - August 9, 2010

    Well, the sky does fall every few days–a tank car full per inch.

  7. James Link - August 9, 2010

    Those darn wholesale liquor distributors caused this!

  8. Tom Wark - August 9, 2010

    James:
    That was gonna be tomorrow’s post!

  9. Jon - August 9, 2010

    Presuming the weather stays cool, this will be fun to watch. Reeling in the use of New French oak to match the more balanced Fruit could lead to a classic Bordeaux-lovers vintage in Napa. I’ll be keeping my eyes open!

  10. Flip - August 9, 2010

    It’s time for the young winemakers to “man up”. Back in the day of balanced and elegant Napa wines that were the equal of Bordeux we often had to deal with cool temps and rain. Ask an oldtimer about 1962. That was a problem. Anybody still growing Napa Gamay?

  11. Sonoma William - August 9, 2010

    noooooo wine below 14.5% đŸ˜¡

  12. Robjob - August 10, 2010

    Don’t worry. In a couple of week the temp will shoot up and everyone will be scrambling for tank space cause all of the fruit will ripen at the same time.

  13. Nova C. - August 10, 2010

    Tom,
    I wrote about the weather in the Alexander Valley on my winemaking blog last week giving my predictions for the harvest.
    http://www.novacadamatre.com/?p=108
    Feel free to check it out. I see several people have come to similar conclusions as myself now.

  14. Richard - August 10, 2010

    I think similar things happen every year in Wine Country – panic ensues, things level out, panic ensues again. And, the comments on high alcohol, low alcohol – who cares? I make a small amount of wine and it doesn’t matter to me as long as the wine tastes good – if my wine is 13% alcohol this year because of growing conditions – I don’t care – as long as it tastes good – if it doesn’t, I’ll give it away and won’t sell it.
    But, again, think this may be much ado about nothing – I hope so – if it’s a cold summer followed by an early winter, well, you may see quite a few “restrained” Cabernets. With Zinfandel – well, that may be an issue, but, we’ll try to make do…
    Meanwhile, people should enjoy the cool weather – though again, if one views the weather patterns – one will see that the ‘cool’ this year is not significantly off the normal high or normal low…

  15. bruce nichols - August 10, 2010

    OMG – California wine @ 13%-14%! You mean I’ll actually be able to drink more than a glass without my face landing in my pasta? That I won’t fret all the way home from the restaurant, worried about a DUI because I chanced a second glass of that 15% monster?
    Seriously, I hate to say it, because I have some dear winemaker friends, but if this weather pattern means they “have” to make lower alc wines, bring it on!
    Wine consumer may surprise them and buy, drink, and enjoy, more of their wines.

  16. Lisa Mattson - August 10, 2010

    I agree with Fredric and William.
    I would love to find more wines above 14% that were enjoyable with food. But in my experience, it just doesn’t happen. My favorite food and wine pairings seem to always be with wines from 12-13.5% alcohol.

  17. Tom - August 10, 2010

    Hmmmmm….well here in Ohio the situation is the reverse. Veraison is 2-3 weeks early and the crop that didn’t get frosted down here in the southern river valley in the spring will be a large one. A banner year here if anyone besides myself cares! As far as CA goes, it will still out produce Ohio and every other state. Interesting that stories of weather take the headline versus wineries and vineyards going bust.

  18. Charlie Olken - August 10, 2010

    We had similar lateness in 1998 and 1999. Anybody remember the Thanksgiving harvest of 1998 that caused more than one swami to write off 1998 as a vintage only to find later on that many, many elegant wines were made.
    In 1999, we thought we were headed to the same fate when things warmed up on Oct 15 and the late fruit ripened into a very fine vintage.
    It will surprise me if we see a batch of 12% wines–maybe 13.5% but 12?? No need in Pinot, it will just hang out there, and because it is early-ripening, it can be picked a month late and still be in mid-Oct or so. Cabs in cool climates are the big concern, because, no matter how you slice it, 12% Cabs are likely to be thin and green.
    Rain is the big kicker in all this. We have not had a really wet harvest in years. The Zin will simply rot because of its tight bunches, but Cab handles weather pretty well. Otherwise, it would not have survived in Bordeaux all these years.
    Cause to be concerned. Sure. Cause to panic. Not yet. It would not take much to catch up two of the four weeks we are behind, and two weeks late is probably a good thing.
    One other comment on alcohol levels. The notion that 13.5% alcohol is markedly different from 14.5% when it comes to how much one drink is patent nonsense. It amounts to one ounce in half a bottle. And if you are drinking more than half a bottle nightly, well, that is a different conversation.

  19. 1WineDude - August 11, 2010

    I’m with my dad (Charlie) on this – some of the wines from 98 are now drnking beautifully (and I got them CHEAP! WOOT! đŸ™‚
    Not one of the Napa and Sonoma producers I spoke with about the late start were worried. I’m looking forward to seeing what these wines taste like.

  20. Charlie Olken - August 11, 2010

    Now, son, let Dad give you a word of caution. Never ever believe anything a winemaker tells about the harvest when it is still two months away. These people are optimists by nature. They have to be or they could not sleep at night worrying about sun, wind, fog, rain, locusts, Pierce’s Disease and acts of war.
    When they say they aren’t worried, they mean it, and they have history on their sides–at least recent history. Whether it is global warming or good luck, these guys have not seen a disaster vintage in years–about twenty-one years to be precise. Only a few of them were around in ’89, and only guys like your Dad are old enough to have lived through ’72, ’77 and ’79.
    We get plenty of vintage variation out here, but few disasters. Even the optimists know in their heart of hearts that the law of averages is going to catch up with them.
    Rumor has it that regular heat (not searing, shut down the vines heat) is on its way this weekend. If the vines catch up even by a couple of weeks, the odds shift in their favor. But more of this eternal winter we have been suffering this summer, and I am willing to be bet that some of those optimists are going to lose it. Your Dad speaks the truth–or at least a reasonable facsimile of it.

  21. wino - August 15, 2010

    Godd on Ya, Charlie,
    Glad to see that you’re still out there dispensing your fine wine-soaked logic, born of years (decades really) of unmatched experience.
    How could we EVER deal with balanced wines inbstead of the monstrocities we regularly see?
    I, for one, would welcome some classically styled wines with a bit of natural acidity. I don’t need all my drinks to burn with a blue flame! And my liver agreees!


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