|This is the worst way to decide if grapes are ripe enough|
For the last fortnight hard rains hit northern California, and people who hadn't yet picked their grapes -- which included most makers of red wine -- are now dealing with water-bloated berries and botrytis. They're praying for hot dry weather so they can get their grapes ripe and concentrated. So they can make those 16% alcohol Cabernet Sauvignons we all know and love.
Many, perhaps most, will fail. They face unpleasant choices: Harvest and make a less-concentrated wine, or leave the grapes unharvested. The latter could be financially ruinous, so perhaps most will do the former.
That could be the best thing to happen to California wine in years.
It comes just at the right time, as the "balance backlash" has more sommeliers and regular people asking for wines that aren't overpowering blockbusters. The 2011 vintage could show Europhiles exactly how good the wines of California can be.
But that's not how most in the industry are currently seeing it. Take a look at this typically well-reported story by Wine Spectator. Tim Fish and Augustus Weed do a nice job of calling the right people and getting good quotes. But it's all written from the perspective of a magazine that consistently praises low-acid, high-alcohol California wines, and sees leaner, more age-worthy wines as failures.
A few highlights:
Whether or not to pick before the rains was a tough call for growers. "A lot of the Chardonnay, especially in Russian River, was just not ready," said Bill Knuttel, winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyards.
Many grape contracts between growers and wineries dictate a minimum level of Brix, which is a measurement of sugar content. A Brix level of 24 is a typical goal, but before the rain many of the vineyards were reading 22.5 or less, which would translate to about 12.5 percent alcohol.I want to drink those Chardonnays! I want to drink them waaaay more than I want to drink a bloated, low-acid bowl of pineapple, butter and vanilla.
Here are a few more excerpts:
"If we felt the fruit was within three or four days of being optimal, we picked before the rains hit," winemaker Brian Loring said.Hurray! Grapes are like aging ballplayers: better to move them too early than too late.
"The sugars are definitely going to be lower this year and we are going to see lower alcohol," said Anna Monticelli, winemaker at Piña Cellars.Hurray!
And here's the kicker, the final sentence, a quote from Saintsbury's David Graves:
"The big, ripe style of wine is going to be hard to find in 2011; I don't care how much concentrate you use."I feel sorry for growers and winemakers whose livelihoods are threatened; really I do. But that sentence fills me with joy.
In 1997, Parker and Spectator declared the vintage one of California's best ever. Those wines are mostly dead now; with no acid, they became undrinkable fast. The following year, 1998, was rainy and all major critics trashed the vintage (disclosure: a younger and stupider W. Blake Gray was on that bandwagon.) Some wineries actually made no '98s; the rest had to sell them for lower prices. Those wines are generally drinking beautifully now.
If 2011 is another 1998, I feel sorry for the business side of the industry. But there's a good chance that in 2025, those of us who don't feel the same way as the Spectator and the Advocate about what makes a good wine will still be celebrating the first "bad" California vintage of the 21st century.