I had a meeting with the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers yesterday, and while we were waiting for everyone to arrive we spent some time kicking around impressions of the recently concluded harvest. The general consensus was that all we were missing from our list of calamities was a plague of locusts. We'd had late spring frosts, major issues with shatter due to wind during flowering, weeks of smoky weather from Monterey County forest fires, a heat spike in August, a very unusual early October freeze, and rain at the end of the October. Still, most of the producers there were encouraged about how the wines in their cellar were looking and tasting, and felt surprisingly positive about the vintage's prospects.
And, everyone was happy that we hadn't had to deal with some of the additional issues that producers in Napa and Sonoma had faced, most notably a big rainstorm in early October that just sent some clouds as far south as Paso Robles.
Some things were clear. Yields were low (although not as much on Rhone varieties as on Bordeaux varieties or Zinfandel). Reds were impacted by these low yields more than whites -- in fact, most of the producers there, like us, saw increased yields on whites. Grapes came in very soft, but with relatively moderate sugars. Wineries who were not estate and had to meet a substantial number of cases struggled to find adequate sources of fruit.
It struck me that this is the sort of vintage where there will be a great temptation for writers looking to tell a simple story to dismiss the vintage as a bad one. Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel all struggled throughout California with erratic yields, shatter, and uneven, early ripening. Later-ripening varietals in the North Coast saw significant rain. Any producer who had to source fruit to match or grow their annual production was forced to get fruit from places that they would normally have rejected out of hand. These challenges were particularly severe for producers based in the North Coast.
Yet, for we Rhone producers in the Central Coast, the vintage has the potential to be a great one. Yields on most Rhone varietals were lower (concentrating character) but largely avoided the problems with shatter that affected Bordeaux varietals and Zinfandel. We dodged the early October rain that afflicted regions to our north. The late, cold spring probably saved us from the August heat wave, as the grapes were still sufficiently unripe that there was time to moderate the sugar accumulation and acids stayed high. The warm, sunny (perfect) weather for the last half of October allowed the vines time to recover from the cold snap earlier in the month and ripen without going flabby. Finally, the relatively light yields meant that we were all done before it rained last weekend. Some years, we have a significant amount of Mourvedre still out at the end of October.
I feel like one of those movie characters who after a gun fight looks around to see everything around him riddled with holes, but somehow emerges unscathed.
And I hope that writers, when it comes time to assess the 2008 vintage, will take the time to look at the unscathed combatant rather than at the carnage all around.