Harvest, Weeks of September 26th and October 3rd: Things Ramp Up and then Pause for Rain
Harvest, Weeks of October 10th and 17th: Full Speed Ahead as Frosty Weather Looms

Why Paso Robles will make California's best wines in 2011

Last Thursday, as I was driving down to a couple of events in Los Angeles, I received an email (clearly addressed to a larger distribution list) from Tim Fish of the Wine Spectator. Tim was soliciting photos of inundated vineyards, rotted grape clusters or other signs of damage from the previous week's rains.  Given that the rainstorm was a relative non-issue for us (we resumed harvesting less than a week later and haven't seen any rot) I have been worrying ever since about the potential collateral damage to us from the perception that 2011 has been a poor harvest in California. It's easier for the trade to assimilate one message for a region than for them to understand a complex picture.  And for all the progress the Central Coast has made I still think that, to a large extent, what happens in Napa and Sonoma determines the perception of the quality of a vintage in California.

But California is a big place.  Paso Robles is further from Napa than Avignon (the heart of the southern Rhone) is from Beaune (the heart of Burgundy).  And while most of California has been cooler and wetter than average, there have been important regional variations in how much and when the moisture has arrived and surprising differences in how both cool and hot temperatures have been distributed.  Here are several reasons why I think that Paso Robles is uniquely positioned within California for an outstanding vintage:

  • The vines started healthy after a rainy winter.  Paso Robles is not unique in this, but droughts are one issue that we have to deal with more often than our neighbors to the north.  This year, we had the advantage of our second consecutive winter well over 30 inches of rain, and the vineyards have thrived.  Varieties like Roussanne and Mourvedre that typically look ragged at this time of year are still green and healthy.
  • Paso Robles is not a valley that opens to the Pacific.  Thank you, Santa Lucia Mountains!  The relatively deep marine layer that has been in place most of the summer has meant that many areas more open to the Pacific have been cool and damp while we were warm and sunny, shielded by our range of mountains.  The result has been remarkably consistent ripening weather; after a cool spring that lasted roughly until June 15th, the weather has been ideal.  Nearly every day since has been in the 80's or low 90's. 
  • The recent heat wave that affected southern California spared Paso.  When I was driving down last week, it was hotter (96) in Santa Barbara than it was (91) at Tablas Creek.  I'm not sure I ever remember that.  And places like the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande all saw temperatures well over 100 for several days.
  • The rain that we got two weeks ago was followed immediately by wind and sun.  We got 1.5 inches of rain early in the morning of October 5th.  I posted a video that afternoon in which you can hear the wind whipping through the vines and see the abundant sunshine.  The rain we received was actually good for the vines, who were reinvigorated by the moisture.  The same was not true in much of the North Coast, where vineyards already stressed by the cool, damp summer stayed overcast after the storm and created outbreaks of botrytis.
  • Our April frosts provided natural control over yields.  Not that I would wish a frost on anyone, but in a cool year, having less fruit on the vines makes your chances of getting that fruit ripe better.  It sounded like many North Coast producers waited a long time to decide to drop fruit in the hopes of ripening.  Starting with lower yields from the beginning gives better ripening early.

Will this year be a great one for the Paso Robles area?  I don't know.  There are some vineyards that were so badly hit by the frosts that their crops are negligible and may be out of balance.  And there were significant mildew pressures here (like in much of California) from the wet winter, the cool spring and the fact that it hardly ever got above 95 degrees.  Some vineyards we know lost large portions of their crops to mildew outbreaks.

Yet, from what we're seeing, and from the other local wineries we're talking to, the fruit that is coming into the cellars here is intense and yet balanced, with good acids, thick skins, dark color and excellent complexity.  The numbers (Brix, pH, acids) are textbook.  And the forecast for at least the next 10 days is excellent, with warm days, cool nights, and no rain on the horizon.  We're at this point expecting to harvest more or less continuously until things are done, and we don't expect any vineyard blocks to be unharvestable.

Will 2011 go down in history as a "bad" vintage for California?  I hope not.  But if it does, I feel comfortable saying that you will be able to feel safe turning to Paso Robles as an exception to that rule.