California’s Late Harvest

As you read this, California’s grape harvest is still not completed. Less than half the crop has been picked in some areas, and only a fraction of the grapes have been harvested in a few places.

This is an extraordinary circumstance. California typically has a warm, Mediterranean climate, which has grown even warmer during this era of climate change. In past years, harvest has normally begun in early September, and it hasn’t been unusual for some regions to pick toward the end of August. This reversal of pattern has many vintners worrying about their fortunes, while others hope for the best.

It has been a rough few years in the Golden State. Demand for high-end Cabernet has declined as a result of the soft economy. It’s true that wine sales have increased across the board, but most of the boost has come on the inexpensive end of the spectrum; while retailers have noticed some improvement, they still report that the “dead zone” is between $50-100 per bottle, the area where the California wine industry saw the most growth in recent years.

Winemakers generally hope for a hot, dry summer with a minimum amount of rain as they approach the harvest. In most growing regions this year, a cool, moist spring was followed by an equally cool summer. Within the past few weeks, temperatures have spiked well above 100 degrees. The results have been a mixed bag. Some grapes have responded positively, registering a jump in sugar levels. Others have been scorched and raisined. There is more bunch rot than usual, and all indications point toward a smaller crop.

This might not be a bad thing. A small, high-quality harvest might be just what the California wine industry needs right now. The distribution pipeline is clogged with wine, and much of it is being sold at discount prices. The oversupply should clear out within the next year, as the economy gradually improves and levels of disposable income return to ‘normal” (whatever that is). When the 2010 California Cabernets hit the market, quality should be high and supply should be low, hopefully creating a situation wineries have not seen for quite some time: consumer demand.

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