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Harvest ‘07 from the Front Lines

Rain at harvest is always the bane of winegrowers. Continued moisture can lead to widespread grape rot along with swelling and cracked berries, not to mention muddy vineyards making grape picking a challenge. 2007 will be remembered both in Oregon and California as an uneventful, if not cool growing year, and quite promising until late September and early October rains intervened. Glenn McGourty of the UC Cooperative Extension summarized the vintage best when he told winesandvines.com, “This is going to go down as a good vintage with a European harvest.”

Oregon had a variable harvest with some areas forced to bring in the crop before the grapes were ripe. The vintage is being referred to as a “winemaker vintage,” as the skills of vintners will be challenged to deal in some cases with grapes with low to moderate sugars and tannins.

In California, harvest started early in most regions and crop yields for Pinot Noir were reportedly down 20-50% compared to the generous harvest of 2006. Generally, cluster weights were light but quality was very good.

I asked a number of winemakers and winegrowers throughout California and in the Willamette Valley of Oregon to comment on their harvest. Overall, they were bursting with optimism. God bless ’em, winegrowers always look for the positive.

Oregon: Willamette Valley

Sheila Nicholas doubles as owner of Anam Cara Cellars and Nicholas Communications in Newberg, Oregon. She has spoken to a number of northern Willamette Valley winemakers and vineyard managers. She hasn’t heard any “gloom and doom” stories. There was plenty of rain, but cool temperatures and gusty winds kept bunch rot at bay. The ground was also fairly dry, so it absorbed the rain water and logistically most were able to harvest when they wanted, rain or no rain. Most vineyards with options picked in stages, first by vine age/yield, clone and then by elevation. Overall, everyone kept the fruit hanging as long as possible as flavors progressed dramatically from week to week. At Anam Cara’s vineyard on the Chehalem Mountains, reserve rows (yield 1.5 tons/acre) were picked on the eve of the first rains. Young vineyards in the Willamette Valley also came in early. Older vine Pommard and Wädenswil held up well and were generally picked towards the end of the season. Thinnerskinned Dijon clones came in earlier or mid-season. Lower lying vineyards were harvested first and higher elevations, such as White Rose Vineyard at the top of the Dundee Hills at 850 feet and with older vines, were not even picked until October 20-21. Vineyards such as Black Family Estate (The Four Graces) which enjoy a progressive elevation from 300 to 600 feet, was picked in several stages, starting at the bottom of the hill and working upwards. There was no rush and no panic. Sheila pointed out that even though the summer was cool, the valley still had the 4th highest total of heat degree units on record. “This was one of those harvests that we live for up here!. It was an opportunity to put skill, experience and faith to the test. The consensus is that experience and teamwork between vineyard management and winemaking will pay huge dividends.”

Patrick Mahaney, Director of Vineyard Marketing for Premier Pacific Vineyards, told me that the Willamette Valley had “a fantastic growing season, although the winter and spring rainfall was closer to normal.” The days were beautiful and sunny with very little precipitation during the growing season. A significant amount of fruit was harvested from the Gran Moraine Vineyard in the Yamhill- Carlton District before the October rains hit. The Roserock, Zena Crown and Willakia sites in the Eola- Amity Hills AVA were not quite mature when the rains hit, so harvesting took place during breaks in the storms. Fortunately, there were enough breaks so the vines continued maturing their fruit and “we were able to harvest ripe, dry Pinot Noir that should deliver some great wines.” Importantly, botrytis was not an issue. This was most likely due to a combination of good farming practices and the fact that the storms originated in the Gulf of Alaska and therefore brought cooler temperatures along with the precipitation.

Joe Wright, winemaker at Belle Vallee Cellars located in the more southern portion of the Willamette Valley in Corvallis was very pleased with this year’s harvest. The last fruit came in on October 26. 60% of their best Pinot Noir for barrel aging came in from Stermer, Freedom Hill, Momtazi, Left Coast and Alpine vineyards by Friday, September 28th, beautifully ripe. The rain started that night and continued pretty much nonstop through the end of October. “Overall, I think this is a classic case of growing conditions on the edge of viticulture success. What was brought in before the rains already shows a wide range of blue and black fruit with great acid and a large proportion of malic acid should turn into plush velvet. Picks within short windows of fair weather show a broad range of red and blue fruit, more delicate and elegant, but complex and intense.”

California

Anderson Valley

Larry Londer of Londer Vineyards reported that harvest ended mid October in the Anderson Valley. The summer started out cool, then got into the mid 90s during mid-September. Many people picked by the 3rd week of September. It then turned cold and rained a few times which precipitated another round of picking. The weather became nice again during the first week of October and most picked during this week. “My last pick was on October 9th and it started raining that afternoon (heavy) which lasted for nine straight days.” In general, yields for Pinot Noir in Mendocino County were down 15- 20% from last year. Lucky for him, he predicted a light year and left an extra bud when he pruned. His yields were almost the same as last year as a result.

Russian River Valley

Pinot Noir harvest started the last week of August in warmer areas. The crop was light with yields of Pinot Noir down by 20-50%. Kent Humphrey of Eric Kent Wine Cellars said that 2007 seemed more like three or four harvests in one. The harvest season started out hot, much like 2004, then cooled off slowing the vine growth. Conditions remained cooler for a couple of weeks before warming up to moderate temperatures. Then the heat returned, followed by on and off rain for two weeks. At the end of it all, some Pinot Noir will be more like the 2004 vintage (bigger and incredibly fruit-driven), some more like the 2006 vintage (a touch more restraint and elegance, though not as much as a very cool vintage like 2005) and the latest vineyards harvested in the first week of October may offer the best of both. “I believe the 2007 vintage will produce some of our best wines yet.”

David Dain of Dain Wines reported that most of the harvest and crush was completed by October 14. “It is a year of small clusters, with small berries with high skin to juice ratio. The wines, which are just beginning MLF, appear to be dark and concentrated with good ripe flavors, healthy acidity, and reasonable alcohol levels.”

Sonoma Coast

As usual, harvest was not without challenges in this cool growing region of California. Barbara Drady of Sonoma Coast Vineyards notes that “quality is outstanding, but quantities are off substantially - some vineyards as much as 40%. Cluster count was fine but cluster size/weight was way off.” The only vineyard Barbara harvested that brought in more than expected was Balistreri which came in at just under a ton per acre. “The clusters are teeny - about 3 inches long!” As of October 23, she still had about 12 tons of Chardonnay on the vines. It was only 21 Brix before the rains hit. Some botrytis will occur for sure, but with the low sugars, it could make for a very special wine.

Don Baumhefner, winemaker for Ridgeway Vineyards in Petaluma, reported a great harvest for several reasons. First, the famed Petaluma Gap prolonged the season and picking didn’t start until October. Compared to the Russian River Valley, they had a full month of extra time for the grapes to gather flavor, 30% more hang time than they expected. The grapes were in great condition and harvest was finished on October 6. The Pommard clone has more flavor than he personally has experienced anywhere. “Dan Berwick at Paradise Ridge, where we are crushing this year, went totally gaga over the Pommard lot and said we should bottle it separately since it was soooooo good.”

Carneros

Jeff Stewart, winemaker at Buena Vista Carneros said he was very happy with the 2007 harvest. They started picking the younger blocks from the Ramal Vineyard on September 3 and finished the last blocks on October 1. The first week of September was warm helping to develop good fruit intensity, followed by slightly cooler than normal weather through the next two weeks which slowed things down, allowing tannins to develop nicely without high sugar accumulation. The Pinot Noir shows really nice flavors, fruit intensity and balance. “It should be a vintage that across the board gives us wines with great power and elegance.”

The comments from Jerome Cherry, winemaker at Saintsbury, were similar. “The nice growing season has allowed us to make very nice wines with great balance, color and concentration. I am very excited about the wine profile overall. I believe 2007 will be a great vintage.”

Marin County

Jonathan Pey of Scenic Root Winegrowers (Pey-Marin, Mt. Tamalpais, Textbook & Spicerack Vineyards) reported very small yields. Pinot Noir was brought in from the Pey-Marin block of Corda Vineyard on October 3, but the yield was less than ½ ton per acre. This was partially due to poor fruit set. Some bird damage occurred for the first time in eight years so he will be netting his block next year. Quality looks very good. He also obtained some Pinot Noir from Stewart Johnson’s Kendric Vineyard in mid-September which is very, very good. Across Marin, the rains were a non-issue and everything was picked before they showed up.

Mark Pasternak, who farms his own Devil’s Gulch Vineyard and manages many other vineyards in Marin County reported that “as always, outrageous quality, lousy quantity.” The joys of farming grapes on the edge. Dan Goldfield, winemaker at Dutton-Goldfield, who produces a Devil’s Gulch Vineyard Pinot Noir, says the 2007 Marin County fruit may be the best he has ever seen. Mark said, “As Dan was fondling the grapes upon delivery, he had a look on his face that can only be described in terms not acceptable around children.”

Sierra Foothills

Gideon Bienstock, proprietor and winemaker of Clos Saron, said “it was a growing season from hell.” It started out with the earliest bud break ever, followed by nearly three weeks of nightly frosts in April, continued with two severe hail storms in May, and ended with high humidity in August.” The result was mildew in some locations. He lost over a third of his crop, including 100% of the Texas Hill Road Vineyard he farms nearby and 50% of his Home Vineyard Pinot Noir. On top of the quantity losses, the quality was uneven. He does not know how others fared in the region, but frosts were widespread in the foothills.

Santa Lucia Highlands

Quantities were down by 50% compared to the last three to four years. Quality, however was terrific. Dan Lee of Morgan Winery and the Double L Vineyard reported in winesandvines.com that “Pinot Noir seeds are the darkest brown I’ve ever seen. I’m excited about quality, but I am crying about quantity.”

Santa Cruz Mountains

Jim Schultze reported in from Windy Oaks Winery and Vineyards in Corralitos. He pointed out that the harvest in 2007 demonstrates why it is difficult to think of the Santa Cruz Mountains as a single appellation. The Pinot Noir picked at vineyards at the summit and on the northeast side of the Santa Cruz Mountains was picked very early. Crop levels were below normal much like other regions of California. Picking began in late August or early September depending on location. Coastal Santa Cruz Mountains is a very different story. Pinot Noir harvests in Corralitos, for example, finished in mid October, except for Windy Oaks Estate. Jim said his harvest was just getting going on October 23 and should be completed by the end of October. The wines will not be in barrel until Thanksgiving! The fruit from Windy Oaks Vineyard has never looked better. Fruit set was unusually even and the clusters looked beautfiul. Despite two inches of rain early in October, he did not detect any botrytis or mold. “The seeds and stems are ripe and the numbers are as close as they get!”

Santa Maria Valley

Chris Hammell, Vineyard Manager at Bien Nacido Vineyards, complained, like most growers, about the weather. A cold, dry winter and was followed by a cool, windy spring. This caused vine stunting, low vigor and erratic fruit set. The summer, however, was beautiful. Mild nights, consistent low-tomid seventies daytime highs and gentle afternoon breezes were the norm. Heading into veraison, the vines were healthy and well-balanced. Harvest began the second week of September and the vintage could turn out to be outstanding.

Ste. Rita Hills

Deborah Hall of Gypsy Canyon Winery reported that 2007 was a light harvest for everyone. No one had any Pinot Noir for sale. The fruit is stellar, however, a smaller than expected crop with intensely flavored berries, really beautiful fruit. Deborah’s Mission grapes were still on the vine as of October 23, with harvest still three weeks away.

Stephen Russell of Prodigal wines said that the “killer” frost in February may have been a blessing in disguise, because it reduced the crop for just about all vineyards in the appellation, allowing the vines to concentrate everything into less fruit. “Colors and flavors are intense and just about everyone is predicting that it will be a very good year.”

Some reports indicate yields in Santa Barbara County in general are down 30%.

Dan Baumhefner had some interesting comments on the trend in grape harvests in California. He remembers when every year was a vintage year in California. That ended in 1974, when the first of that decade’s drought years was recorded. He notes that every year since then has been weird for one reason or another. After the drought years ended in the late seventies, the first El Nino floods arrived in the early eighties. “Since then, we seem to always havestrange weather, with the effects all over the spectrum from severe flooding to seemingly endless drought every year. Each year is totally different than the last. The effects change, but the cause remains the same.” Don’s nominee for the cause of all this is global warming. Prior to 1974, every year was very similar to every other year in California. Every New Years Day was sunny and warm in Pasadena. The harvest in the Russian River Valley always began on September 1 for sparkling wine grapes, September 15 for early ripening Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for table wine, and finished on Halloween with the last of the late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. All of the winemakers then took their kids out for trick or treat and life was good. Now we start harvesting in July and Chardonnay is a late ripening variety, being picked in October!
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