SAN FRANCISCO — The 2011 California winegrape harvest was lighter and later than normal with flavors developing at lower sugar levels, giving winemakers the opportunity to make flavorful, elegant wines. A wet winter and spring delayed bloom and hindered fruit set, resulting in shatter in some regions, which decreased the overall crop load. A generally cool summer prolonged the growing season and harvest started very late in most areas. Early autumn rains prompted growers and wineries to pick many varieties at lower Brix. “We walked blocks carefully early on and started picking when fruit reached an early ripeness, which we felt was the correct expression of this vintage,” said Michael Silacci, Winemaker at Opus One in Napa Valley. “We are really excited about this year’s vintage.”
The crop is estimated at 3.3 million tons, down 9 percent from last year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture crop forecast published in mid-October. This is in keeping with the 5-year average, which is also 3.3 million tons.
“In most areas of Sonoma County, yields were slightly lower, which benefited ripening and flavor concentration,” reported Corey Beck, Geyserville General Manager at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. “Most of the Zinfandels, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs were picked before our first rain that occurred the week of October 3. The wines are elegant, balanced and loaded with flavor. Most of our red Bordeaux varieties sat through the first rains of the season, but they’re built for this. We are seeing balanced wines at lower alcohol levels.”
In Lodi, Owner/Winemaker David Lucas of The Lucas Winery has been growing grapes and making wine for 40 years. “To us, this is the fourth ‘vintage of the decade’ for Lodi in the last 10 years. This is the fourth year in a row where we have had cooler than normal weather in the Lodi appellation. There were only a few days that broke 95 degrees this summer. We did have some shatter due to rain during bloom, resulting in yields on the light side. Most of the Lodi Zinfandel was harvested before the rain in early October. At The Lucas Winery, we waited for ripeness to develop and picked two days before the rain. The wines are showcasing deep color, dark fruit aromas and blueberry, boysenberry and raspberry fruit flavors.”
“At Treasury Wine Estates, we are very pleased with the 2011 harvest across all regions and wineries. We experienced a very cool growing season across the state, which has delivered good flavor and concentration at lower sugar levels than usual. Like every harvest, there are challenges. The October rains did impact the North Coast in particular, but thankfully, the majority of our vineyards from growers and our company had been harvested, with the remainder experiencing an outstanding weather pattern that enabled harvest to be completed without too many concerns. We are very optimistic about the overall quality, with all wines having great balance, flavor and texture. Wines from the interior valleys are tasting outstanding at this point,” said Michael Kluczko, Senior Vice President of Production, Treasury Wine Estates Americas.
David Hopkins, Winemaker at Bridlewood Estate Winery, located in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, makes wine from grapes grown throughout the Central Coast. “After much trepidation and handwringing, the harvest came off without any major mishaps. Yields were down approximately 40 to 60 percent. This was due to several spring frost episodes, windy weather during set and a long cool summer. Harvest rain was compounded by an absence of a typically warm October that ultimately stretched out harvest,” he said.
“Wines from the Santa Rita Hills have lovely perfume and are deeply colored with exuberant structure. At our Bridlewood Estate vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, the fruit is showing dark berry and licorice aromatics and good tannins. Edna Valley escaped most of the early-season weather challenges and is looking to be an outstanding harvest with the wines showing soft tannins with higher acidities. All wines from the 2011 harvest have incredible color and moderate tannins from the small berry size characteristic of this year. Chardonnay grapes from both Santa Barbara County and the Santa Lucia Highlands are showing great forward fruit and are beautifully balanced with exciting acidity.”
Monterey County’s John Clark, Head Winemaker at Cupcake Vineyards, also found the vintage to be challenging. “Late spring frosts and very cool summer temperatures adversely affected yields. Harvest started late and the window was narrow because of the rain and a cold snap in October. Though Chardonnay yield was down, our quality in Monterey looks good. The high acidity made malolactic fermentation essential.”
In Santa Barbara, Brook Williams, President/CEO and Winegrower at Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards said, “2011 has not been without its challenges in Santa Barbara County. The April freeze quite severely impacted crop size in many areas, and cool summer temperatures delayed ripening and caused vineyard managers additional work with canopy management and mildew control. Cluster weights tend to be light, berry size petite and overall crop yields much smaller than average.” Due diligence was key according to Zaca Mesa Winemaker Eric Mohseni. “It’s true we had obstacles during the growing season. Mother Nature reduced our yields, and gave us a mild growing season and long hang times. I’m seeing great flavors at lower sugars and higher acids. While the yields are some of the lowest we have seen on our ranch, the quality is tremendous.”
“Although 2011 has been a demanding vintage for both California growers and winemakers, the wines promise to be of exceptional quality,” said Robert P. (Bobby) Koch, President and CEO of Wine Institute. “Consumers throughout the U.S. and worldwide will be able to enjoy the outstanding wines of California’s 2011 vintage.”
Matt Hughes, Winemaker, Six Sigma Ranch
The Lake County vintage has been a tale of two vintages separated by the mid-harvest rainstorm. Our earlier varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc, were affected by rain during bloom. Yields were lower than normal and the fruit ripened quickly, allowing us to pick early September with perfect weather. The resulting wines are showing classic Lake County flavors of tropical fruit interlaced with crisp citrus qualities. We also picked our Tempranillo and Pinot Noir before the rain, and they are ripe and concentrated. The rains slowed the development of later varietals, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon. The mildly warm weeks that followed the rains provided just enough heat to ripen the remaining fruit without pushing sugar levels too high. The location and elevation of our vineyards gave us enough protection from this cold and wet season that we are predicting this will be a fantastic vintage. This year was good for the grapes but hard on the nerves.
Earl Ault, Owner, Cedar Mountain Winery
The 2011 harvest is like growing grapes in Europe. It’s been a cool summer. The grapes look great, but everything is late this year. Welcome to European conditions.>
Steven Mirassou, Owner/Winemaker, Steven Kent Winery
Overall, yields are down for most varieties in the Livermore Valley. Our Steven Kent estate vineyard is down about 20 percent, and our Sauvignon Blanc was down to an even greater extent. Due to the rain during harvest, we did see Botrytis conditions in some of the white grapes. We are extremely happy with the quality of our Bordeaux varieties, which are producing rich, dark wines. This year’s Cabernet Sauvignon performance equals that of the 2009 vintage.
David Phillips, Co-owner, Michael David Winery
Overall, we got very lucky in Lodi, as 75 percent of the region’s grapes were picked before the first big rain in early October. We may have some of the best quality wines in the state in 2011. We had a cooler than average summer but had a small crop set, which helped to ripen the grapes. In general, yields were down about 20 percent around the region, which allowed the Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Syrah all to be off before the storm. We did have challenges with Petite Sirah, as it needed more time to ripen. The Cabernet Sauvignon also came off later, but withstood the rain with no problems. All the wines are showing nice quality with good flavors and colors.
Darin Peterson, Assistant Winemaker/Vineyard Manager, Quady Winery
The growing season of 2011 can be defined by one word, challenging. Generous late winter and early spring rains and a bud break at a near normal date had most growers in Madera ready for a banner year. However, intermittent bouts of cool, wet weather drastically affected fruit set and made mildew management unusually difficult. Veraison in Quady’s Muscat vineyards occurred at the latest date ever. To top off a rough growing season, we got more cool wet weather later while waiting for red varieties to ripen. Many area growers reported a 25-40 percent drop in yields over last year. Our wines are as solid and as tasty as ever, but we will gladly welcome a smoother season next year.
Milla Handley, Owner/Winemaker, Handley Cellars
At Handley Cellars in Anderson Valley, cool, wet weather is a factor almost every vintage so we are used to being more aggressive about dropping fruit early to help assure that our grapes will mature before any rains. Harvest started two weeks late with our Pinot Noir in Boonville on Sept.16 and ended with our Riesling from the Mendocino Ridge on Nov. 1. The majority of our grapes were picked before the early October rain, however due to our “deep end” northern Anderson Valley location, our estate grapes were picked in mid-October. We were very proactive about dropping fruit affected by the rain. When we picked, one crew went first, dropping even more fruit, and a second crew picked the remaining grapes. Quality is good across the board, and we are seeing nice mature flavors and good balance at lower sugar levels.
Owen Smith, Director of Winemaking, Weibel Family Vineyards
In Mendocino and Lake Counties, the 2011 vintage was ever changing and eventful, at least for those of us in custom crush. We started late and slow, with high quality and normal sugars throughout September. October rains accelerated disease pressure in susceptible varieties and put harvest into overdrive. The surprising element was that even at low sugar, color was fantastic and few green or vegetal flavors emerged. Fortunately, the remainder of October was cooperative for the reds. Tasting through the wines now reveals a vintage of well-balanced, varietal wines with great color and well-proportioned tannins. Overall, 2011 was a challenging vintage, but a rewarding one.
Kurt Gollnick, Chief Operating Officer, Scheid Vineyards
It was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride here in Monterey County. Soon after spring bud break, a storm system passed through the region causing overnight low temperatures to drop well below freezing in many south county vineyards. The freeze damaged tender shoots on many thousands of acres, reducing crop potential by up to 60 percent in these vineyards. Growing conditions generally were cooler than historical average temperatures, which decreased fruit-set in the early blooming varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The production from these varieties is down as much as 50 percent compared to average production in most local vineyards. Late blooming varieties such as Merlot and Petite Sirah caught good weather and set above- average crops.
The cool growing season delayed the onset of harvest by three weeks and many Monterey growers were wrapping up harvest in mid-November. Several rainstorms threatened the vintage during harvest, but rainfall timing and amounts caused little trouble. Color extraction from the red varieties is exceptionally good this year, which we attribute to the extra hang time required to ripen the fruit. Although the 2011 crop was late ripening and generally lighter, early indications are that the wines are rich and extracted and we are confident that when poured from a bottle, this will be remembered as an excellent vintage.
Paula Kornell, General Manager, Oakville Ranch Winery
2011 was a challenging and as well as what I am calling ‘an educational vintage,’ the third in a row. What we found in this vintage were flavors that developed at lower Brix, giving us an opportunity to make truly elegant wines at lower alcohol levels.
Bruce Cakebread, Winemaker, Cakebread Cellars
The consumer doesn’t care that the tonnage is down over one year or another. The consumer only cares about quality and the 2011 crops is looking phenomenal across the board. I’m really excited.
Ralf Holdenreid, Winemaker, William Hill Estate Winery
After a growing season with challenges including rain followed by high humidity and overall cool temperatures, I think we had a good harvest. Our Chardonnay was largely unaffected by this weather and we think the finished wine will be extremely exciting. For our estate vineyard red wines, we had very loose clusters and significantly less crop. As a result, the rains during bloom affected us less because clusters were quite loose and allowed the moisture to drain well. Dry, sunny weather provided ideal ripening and picking conditions on the Silverado Bench. Because of the late, great weather, wines of this harvest will see excellent color and elegant flavors, making this vintage quite memorable.
Justin Baldwin, Founder, Justin Vineyards & Winery
It’s turning out to be a very interesting harvest for us. It was very late, very light, yet we are seeing good fruit maturity and good development. Like everyone else, we harvested round the clock to get the last of the grapes off before the rain in mid-November. Overall, we are seeing good quality with a later and lighter harvest.
Louis Lucas, Owner/Viticulturist, Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards
It’s been a year dominated by different kinds of weather. We had a cool growing season with a spring frost, and minimal rain mid-harvest. At Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards, the frost damage was limited to a small amount of Chardonnay on one vineyard. Light moisture in early October was followed by good drying conditions with sunny, breezy weather, and there was very little damage. Overall, we had good harvest weather and picked at the peak of what we want to see in sugar, acid and grape maturity, with a close to normal crop. The red wines are showing great color and good flavors. I think this will be an outstanding vintage.
SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
David S. Gates, Jr., Vice President, Vineyard Operations, Ridge Vineyards, Inc.
Nothing about the late 2011 harvest was easy. We had a lot of tough decisions to make and actions to take throughout the year. Our tonnage was slightly above average overall, with Cabernet Sauvignon leading the way. The June rain hurt Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay yields, and we lost a bit of our Chardonnay from the early October rain. Despite all of the trials and tribulations of 2011, we find that quality is high, with deep, complex, well- structured wines.
Pamela Miller, Owner, Single Leaf Vineyards & Winery
This was a cold, long, wet vintage in El Dorado County, where many wineries are located at 2,400 feet to 3,000 feet in elevation. The rain in June affected the set of several varieties. In August, due to the coolness of the summer, many wineries completed proactive fieldwork solutions to cut crop. Due to the continued cold weather and fall rainstorms, a lot of fruit did not ripen and was left on the vine. At Single Leaf, we brought in about one half of the crop we normally harvest, and that was with a lot of proactive activity in the vineyard. The quality of the wines made from the grapes that were harvested appears, at this early stage, to be excellent, but the quantity is small.
Kerry Damskey, Winemaker, Dutcher Crossing Winery
In Sonoma County, there was the 2011 vintage before the storm and the vintage after the storm. Harvest started the third week in September, three weeks later than normal. The early ripening varieties—Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—and some of the Zinfandel were picked before the rain in early October. These varieties turned out well, with long hang time, good acidity and a lot of flavor. The Zinfandel is more fruit forward, elegant and spicy with lower-than- normal alcohol levels. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and all red Bordeaux varieties were not ripe before the early storm but their thicker skins withstood the rains. Across the board, yields were down 30-40 percent.
Jim Collins, Chief Viticulturist, Frei Brothers Winery
Harvest in Sonoma County was definitely more challenging this year than in the past. The wetter than average winter and spring delayed bud break and gave way to even more rain until about late June. These unusual conditions challenged us to be more creative with our growing and harvesting techniques and take extra care when selecting our picks. I view this as an overall positive because it means that the fruit selected will be of the best quality, which translates into the best wines.
Mark Schabel, Winemaker, Ponte Family Estate
With the exception of a cool spring with inopportune rains that inhibited fruit set, the vintage had ideal weather. Our resulting yields were on average 30 percent below the previous year. Harvest began on August 11 for our sparkling programs and ended on November 3 with a late ripening variety, Montepulciano, which was picked two weeks later than Late Harvest program varieties. We chose not to fruit thin on 80 percent of our blocks and yet we produced outstanding reds.