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Rod Byers: Is news only good when it’s bad?

Jackson Starr of Sierra Starr Vineyards pauses while handling duties on this year's wine harvest.
Submitted by Rod Byers |

I remember, a few years ago, there was an unexpected rainy day just before the start of harvest.

As it happened, I had an appointment that day to meet with Phil Maddux, the owner and winemaker at Lone Buffalo in Placer County.

The day was cool, dreary and wet.



One more day in a line of beautiful days leading up to harvest isn’t a news story.

But a rainstorm creating potential havoc, now there’s something.




A Sacramento TV station quickly dispatched a crew in search of calamity.

They started calling wineries to see who they could find to film for the five o’clock news.

Phil Maddux answered the phone.

TV took precedence over me so I watched quietly.

It was all very interesting, but it was clear they would not have been there but for inclement weather. Disaster sells.

In spite of that old advertising slogan, “every year’s a vintage year in California,” there are considerable variations between harvests.

Going back over the last five or six years, a casual observer might have difficulty guessing which year was the most normal.

This year, the initial harvest report, across the state, was early and light.

It was early, as much as four weeks for some.

A mild winter led to early bud break and everything proceeded from there. Wineries across California, including Nevada County, had to prepare for crush weeks earlier than normal.

For many it was light as well.

Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Brokerage, a California grape brokerage company said “overall, yields in Napa and Sonoma counties this year are roughly 10 percent to 15 percent below normal, if there is such a thing as normal.”

Closer to home, depending on which growers you ask in Nevada County, that number ranges from above average, to normal, to well below normal.

While we are quick to think of drought as the culprit for a lighter crop, that mostly appears not to be the case.

Mark Henry, the owner/winemaker and grape grower at Montoliva in Chicago Park, explained, “If a local vineyard gets their water from NID irrigation allocation, then there is still really no effect from the state-wide drought, as NID has not instituted any reductions, voluntary or otherwise, on ag water.”

Wells are a different matter.

“I’m on a well that has slowed drastically during the last two summers,” Guy Lauterbach, the owner/winemaker and grape grower at Gray Pine Winery in Penn Valley, said, “so I have been rationing the water pretty severely.”

He explained that drought conditions and pretty severe under-irrigation throughout the summer resulted in smaller berry sizes and less juice.

For some growers, the problem was not lack of ground water, but rather when it fell from the skies in the form of rain, or worse.

Gary Smith of Smith Vineyards experienced a little of everything.

His Chardonnay was hammered by snow and an April freeze decimating most of that crop, while his Merlot was about average.

Just a few miles away, Sierra Starr might have been in a different galaxy.

Owner/winemaker Phil Starr thought it was their biggest crop in 20 years.

“We had no issues with crop loss at all,” Son Jackson Starr explained. “A lot of vineyards suffered from thundershowers during bloom but we had none here. A warm, dry spring created a bigger crop for us with longer time to ripen.”

One of the axioms of grape growing is that a reduced crop generates smaller berries with more intense flavor.

That is the song on everyone’s lips this year. Small is beautiful.

But premium growers often do that anyway.

Crop thinning reduces the size of the crop, leaving fewer but more flavorful berries as a result.

Teena Wilkens, owner/winemaker at Vina Castellano in north Auburn, remembered that her longtime vineyard manager Victor Brambila used to say, “we have to sacrifice some of the clusters and give their power to the others so they will be stronger”.

This year, her vineyard consultant alerted her to the likelihood of a lighter than normal crop and to do a more minimal thinning than usual.

“We did in fact thin,” Wilkens said, “but at a much lighter rate. If we had done things as we normally do, we would have had much less fruit.”

Hang time is another question.

For many, harvest started in a hurry with an explosive heat wave the third week of August, pushing some of the early whites to practically ripen overnight.

“An early harvest is not good if it is caused by excessive heat and drought, causing sugar ripening to occur before physiological ripeness,” Mark Henry said.

Letting the grapes hang on the vines longer allows the grapes to be both sugar-ripe and phenolically mature.

Fortunately, cooler weather, including some rain in the first week of September, slowed things down and pushed harvest to a more normal schedule.

“Our estate Sangiovese was harvested only a week earlier than it was in 2014 and 2013, so I’d call that really right on normal schedule,” Henry said.

His crop was down about 30 percent, which he attributed to frost in April.

It’s too early to tell about this year’s wine.

We’ll look forward to that in the spring, when the wines have been racked and settled.

But for the time being, everyone is pretty excited about what came in from the vineyards.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can find information about his Sierra College Wine Classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.


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