Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: 2009 Vintage Report

by Peter Wellington

Welcome old friend Peter Wellington of Wellington Vineyards back to the Woot blog for this look back at the 2009 vintage. Take it away, Peter!

Please accept my apology for the long delay in filing this report. My original intention was to write this in November (2009), but some unforeseen issues popped up and I’ve been behind schedule at work ever since then. There were three main topics that dominated local news stories about the wine industry last fall: unsold grapes, the European grapevine moth, and the big storm.

There have always been cycles of grape shortages and gluts, but during my almost 30 years in the wine biz I have never seen anything like the situation in 2009. Wineries were dropping grape contracts and commitments right and left over worries about inventory levels and cash flow. Almost every summer one will see listings for Lodi Cabernet sauvignon, Lake County Sauvignon blanc or Sonoma County Syrah grapes for sale, but this past year any and everything was available, usually at bargain prices. If you were looking for Dry Creek Zinfandel there were multiple choices. The same was true for Oakville Cabernet sauvignon, Russian River Pinot noir or anything else your heart desired. During crush I was offered “extra” grapes from several great vineyards at very low prices. The usual story was that a very prestigious winery had taken the amount stipulated by their contract but didn’t want / couldn’t afford to buy any excess grapes. I was tempted, but refrained from all these offers because of both budget and space constraints. Even behemoths such as Gallo and Constellation weren’t making their usual low-ball offers.

In October, toward the end of crush, the discovery of a “new” exotic pest in a Napa Valley vineyard was announced. The European grapevine moth (EGVM), Lobesia botrana, is the fourth new insect pest found in North Coast wine country in the past decade or so. So far none of them have caused significant losses for grapegrowers here. The first, and most serious, of the four was the glassy winged sharpshooter (GWSS), a very efficient vector for vine killing Pierce’s Disease (PD). Pierce’s Disease destroyed the Southern California wine industry in the 1880’s. PD was known as Anaheim Disease at the time, named for the utopian winegrowing colony founded in Orange County by German immigrants. It also devastated Temecula area vineyards in the 1990’s, after the introduction of GWSS. Quarantine and inspection of plant material (primarily nursery stock) from infested areas has been effective thus far in preventing GWSS from establishing a foothold in the North Coast. Near hysteria amongst growers has subsided into complacency, but a serious threat still exists. There are also quarantines in place for the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM), although it is likely more of a nuisance than a serious threat to vineyards. The Vine Mealybug probably falls in between the first two as far as the potential economic damage it could wreak. It can get inside grape clusters and cause bunch rot, and it is hard to kill because it burrows underneath the bark on grapevine trunks. Fortunately, unlike the GWSS and LBAM, it can’t fly, so it spreads very slowly unless moved by people and equipment.

From what I’ve read, EVGM is potentially more damaging than either LBAM or Vine Mealybug. In early April, when I wrote the rough draft for this blog, the only action being taken regarding EGVM was plans for a detection program. Because the discovery was made late in the 2009 season and EGVM is dormant in winter the extent of infestation was hard to determine.

A much more troubling situation has unfolded over the last three to four weeks (during April). The emergence of the first generation of adult moths since a widespread trapping program was instituted has revealed the extent of the infestation and how it may be spreading. Apparently the pest has been in the Oakville / Rutherford area of Napa Valley for at least two years (probably more), but was not identified because the USDA had neither specimens nor DNA in their database. Growers had found the moths, seen the damage, and brought specimens to the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, but no one could identify them. One of the USDA’s functions is to protect US agriculture from exotic pests; but how can you prevent a new pest from becoming established if you don’t know what it looks like? Shouldn’t they have a library of all significant pests that aren’t here yet?

Tens of thousands of moths were trapped in Napa Valley during April, and trapping there has been suspended so as not to overwhelm the state entomology lab. Eradication efforts are in full swing, with growers spraying pesticides (both “organic” and “synthetic”) on every vine in the infested area. Stray moths have been found in several other counties, and at least one small infestation exists outside of Napa, apparently introduced by a grape delivery from Napa. Quarantines are being formulated regarding shipment of grapes and handling of crush byproducts. We may have to build a hot compost for all our stems and skins this year to lower the risk of introducing the EGVM into our vineyard.

The third story of the 2009 crush is the one I care about most because it affected wine quality. Weather, of course, is the dominant (if not only) factor in vintage to vintage variation. Late August and September weather was quite typical for the North Coast. There were some intermittent heat waves, but nothing extreme, as in 1999 or 2002. My opinion is that the weather was better than in 2008, but nowhere near the ideal conditions of 2007. Quality should be good to very good for most whites, Pinot Noir, and everything else that ripened fully before the big storm. Our El Niño winter started with a bang on October 13th, when over five inches of rain fell here in one day. Everywhere in Sonoma and Napa got at least two inches, and cool weather with showers persisted for another couple of days. I don’t have the stats readily available, but I think this was more rain during harvest than in 1993, 1989, or even 1983.

The harvest pace was frenetic from Oct. 10th to the 12th, as growers and wineries tried to pull in everything that was ripe. We set a record for our biggest crush tonnage day ever on the 12th, processing over 25% of our red grapes in one day. I would never pick unripe grapes because of an impending storm, and we let several vineyards hang for more ripening. We did incur losses, both in tonnage and potential quality, but I think the resulting wine is still better than if we had picked those vineyards before the storm. Even before the storm, certain experts were predicting a below average quality vintage for Cabernet in Napa and Sonoma, based in part on analysis of the phenolic makeup of the ripening grapes. I personally am very happy with the Cabernet we brought in prior to the storm, and okay with what came in later, but it sounds as if it will go down as an uneven vintage overall.