Yin & Yang* in Wine Country

Yin & Yang* in Wine Country helicopter-napa-vineyards-Cakebread2.jpg Yin & Yang* in Wine Country Yin__Yang-GRAPES-Final.jpg Yin & Yang* in Wine Country grapes_bins_lake_county_vineyards.jpg

Vineyard owners know that Mother Nature can challenge the best agriculturalist. In 2011 it was a “perfect storm” of strong winds, hail, devastating frosts, thunder-storms, cool summer temperatures, heat spikes and then September rain.  A tough year in the vineyard also challenges, but sometimes rewards, winemakers.

Most of the grapes have been picked in California.  With the late rains this year some vineyards were harvested early at lower sugar levels.  Many waited it out and hoped the sun would warm and sweeten up the fruit. 

Gary Gibson, owner of Shadow Canyon Cellars, in Paso Robles feels fortunate, “We received less rain than Napa, and so the weather did not have the same impact here as up north. We are just VERY LUCKY we are having a warm, rain free period that is going to allow the fruit to ripen.”

Not all growers had the same luck.

The Yin - Here are comments culled from a few growers in the state.

- This year has been the most challenging year since our beginning back in 1994.
- It has been alternating dry, cold, rainy, hot and then humid conditions confusing vines and us vintners alike.
- After the late rains the berries bloated up, cracked and almost exploded in my hand.
- I think everyone was challenged this year with the early season freeze and cool summer. - Mother Nature threw us some curveballs this year.

Wine grapes are harvested in late summer and early fall after when their sugar levels have reached an optimum point, usually around 22-25 Brix. (Brix refers to the sugar content and other components in juice.) A cool summer will delay the harvest, and rain in September and October can cause all kinds of mischief.

This year in Oregon, Washington and California most vineyards got a large dose of wet weather. In early October over one inch of rain fell in the Central Coast. Over two inches soaked Sonoma County with more in some of the higher elevations in Napa & Lake Counties.  The Willamette Valley in Oregon received even higher levels and Washington State also got soaked.

Winemakers reported that some grapes got so bloated by the ground moisture that the skins were cracking open. This can cause organisms, including yeast, to enter the grape and quickly cause havoc.  Wet grapes can also lead to bunch rot and molds.  To dry the grapes vineyard owners have even gone so far as to enlist the aid of helicopters to fly low and blow-dry their crop.

The Yang – Winemakers see bright quality and opportunity.

Winemakers know that it often takes an unusual year to produce wines of exceptional merit.  With lower grape quantities this year and fruit with lower sugars, the 2011 vintage will likely produce wines with lower alcohols and less overreaching fruitiness.  As Gibson said, “Mother Nature has thrown us some curveballs this year, but is providing a last moment reprieve with excellent fruit.”

With the extended growing season the fruit stays on the vine longer. Long “hang time” can add greater complexity to the fruit and can result in some remarkable wines.  This is an opportunity for winemakers to create elegant restrained wines with a balance of flavor, acids, alcohol, oak and varietal nuance.

Winemakers will be making less wine this year due to an estimated 9% drop in yields from last year. With plenty of inventory from prior years, the lower quantity is tough for growers, but may be a relief to wineries.  It is a balance of nature after all.

*The ancient Chinese subscribe to a concept called Yin Yang which is a belief that there exist two complementary forces in the universe. One is Yang which represents everything positive or masculine and the other is Yin which is characterized as negative or feminine. One is not better than the other. Instead they are both necessary and a balance of both is highly desirable.