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Family Business: Generations

Harvest, Week of September 28th: A Change in the Weather and Worries about Yields

If you've been following our 2009 harvest report, you'll know that we'd been hoping that the vintage would turn out to be a little more plentiful than the last two drought-reduced crops.  Perhaps this was wishful thinking, given our third-consecutive below-average rainfall winter.  But the distribution of the rainfall (lots of small doses of moisture) and the vigor of our vines and cover crops led us to believe that perhaps we had received enough "usable" rainfall, even if our total rainfall was just sixteen inches (about 60% of normal).

It does not seem that these hopes will be realized this year.  After another intense week of harvesting, we're now about half done with this year's crop.  And we've completed harvest on a few varietals, which allows us to compare with what we received last year.  The results do not paint a pretty picture on yields.  Of the four varietals we've completed harvesting, only Vermentino came in above last year's totals.  Syrah is down 20%, and Viognier and Marsanne more like 40%.  The specifics, in tons:

                    2009       2008       % Change
Viognier:       12.2         19.4        -37%
Marsanne:       5.3          9.8         -46%
Vermentino:    4.3          2.7         +59%
Syrah:           24.0        30.1         -20%
Totals:         45.8        62.0        -26%

I don't think that, when all is in the cellar, we're going to end up down 26%.  Whites (compared to reds) gave us a comparatively generous harvest in 2008.  And based on our best estimates, it looks like Grenache and Counoise have pretty good crops on them, likely at or even slightly above last year's numbers.  But I don't think it's unrealistic to expect us to be down 20% on whites and 10% on reds.  That's a lot less wine than we were expecting... something like 2000 cases fewer than we'd been hoping.  Having that much less wine (something in the neighborhood of 13,000 cases rather than 15,000 cases) will make for some tough choices about to whom to allocate the wine we have.

The good thing about low-yielding vintages is that their quality is almost always high.  And the fruit that we've seen come into the cellar has looked very good.  Intensity is excellent, sugars (particularly on the whites) are a bit lower than we've come to expect, and the pH levels are higher than normal.  We may have to do some fairly widespread acid adjustment for the first time in several years, but that's a fairly minor intervention.

Meanwhile, the weather has taken a decided turn cooler.  After two weeks of hot weather (accompanied by, for Paso Robles, unusually warm nights) the temperature plummeted early last week.  On Sunday, September 27th, the high at the weather station in the middle of the vineyard was 102, and the low 53.  The next day, the high dropped to 82, with a low of 50.  The following day, the high was 72, with a low of 38.  And we've now had a week of these unusually cool days, including three nights where temperatures dropped below freezing in at least a few lowest-lying sections of the vineyard.  We have run our frost-protection fans the last three nights, and will certainly need it again tonight, which is forecast to be the coldest yet.  It does look like we're supposed to revert to more seasonal temperatures later in the week and into next week, which will be good for ripening what's left in the vineyard.

These recent cooler temperatures were helpful after the weeks of hot because they really reduced the pressure on the cellar.  When you have extended hot temperatures in the middle of harvest, it's essential to bring fruit in as soon as you decide it's ripe.  Waiting even a couple of extra days can be disastrous.  (I'll have a blog post on some of the unpleasant consequences of dehydration in vineyards later this week.)  But these cooler temperatures have allowed us to pick in a more leisurely fashion.

Over the last week, we've picked more Grenache, our first batches of Mourvedre, several pickings of Roussanne, and most of the rest of our Grenache Blanc.  We're being very selective about what we pick, making sure the get clusters that are showing signs of starting to raisin even if the other clusters on the vine aren't ripe yet.  It seems to us that, moreso than in recent vintages, the amount of care that is taken in the vineyard is going to determine the quality of the end product.

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