A startling thing is happening in California wine country: People are actually telling the truth.
The extremely late harvest finally began last week, and weather conditions were unfortunate. It was raining in Napa, causing some vintners to panic and bring in their entire crop earlier than usual, while others chose to gamble and leave the grapes on the vines to achieve more ripeness. The situation was far worse in Sonoma, where heavy rains cause a loss of between 15% and 50% of the crop; many wineries reported that rot had afflicted the remaining grapes.
The vagaries of Mother Nature are unavoidable, but we rarely heard about them until recently. Prior to the Great Recession, it seemed that every year in California was the Vintage of the Century. Beginning roughly one month before harvest, journalists were inundated with positive reports by the large public relations spin machine. Perhaps some wineries can’t afford their PR minions anymore, or maybe some producers have come to the conclusion that more demand and less supply might not be a bad thing (if you’re buying grapes on contract rather than harvesting your own vineyards, you still have this luxury).
Even the Wine Spectator—normally the house organ for the large California wineries—is reporting that rot is widespread. A recent article in the magazine quoted Fetzer winemaker Dennis Martin saying that “I’ve been in the business 36 years and this is one of the worst vintages I’ve ever seen.” The problem is not just the October rain, but that the unusually cool summer temperatures produced a small crop with a low ripeness level.
Some wineries are putting on a brave face and floating the idea of a “Bordeaux-like vintage.” By this, they mean lower levels of ripeness and alcohol, higher acidity and better balance, compared with the typically overblown style of much California Cabernet. A Bordeaux-style vintage might not be a bad thing, considering that there could be a market for it in Hong Kong.