Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: 2010 Vintage Report

by Peter Wellington

We're always glad to welcome Peter Wellington of Wellington Vineyards back to the Wine.Woot blog. Here's his report on the 2010 growing season.

The Year They Cancelled Summer

I used to jokingly refer to 1980 as the year they cancelled summer. It was an exceptionally cool and foggy summer in Sonoma Valley, but the harvest went well when we had a protracted “Indian Summer” in September and October. The 2010 growing season started with a very wet El Niño winter and spring. We had over 60 inches of rain here in Glen Ellen, a figure we have reached only one other time (1998) in the 24 years since we bought the vineyard. After some nice warm days in late February and early March the temperatures were substantially cooler than typical all the way into the latter part of August. Daily highs only in the 60’s much of April and May were followed by highs in the 70’s through June and July, when we usually experience 80’s and 90’s. To my memory, we had only two or three days when it even got to 90º...

Budbreak was at the normal time, but bloom came two to three weeks later than average, and so did veraison (the advent of the final phase of ripening, when grapes change color, soften and start to rapidly accumulate sugar). It was obvious that harvest would start late as well, which is a mixed blessing. Everything else taken equally, a late harvest bodes well for quality, particularly for earlier ripening locations and early varieties. It also means increased risks of rain damage and insufficient heat to ripen late vineyards and varieties.

Anyone Order Fried Grapes? (Sonoma Index-Tribune story heading, Aug. 31, 2010)

On Saturday, August 21st it was 59 and foggy at 11:30 AM, and reached a high of only 73º. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat that morning said the first 2010 grapes to be picked in either Sonoma or Napa counties were scheduled for the following Monday, one small press load of Pinot Noir for sparkling wine. Grapes for sparkling wine are harvested at much lower ripeness than grapes for still wine; the base wine is usually around 10% alcohol with a very high level of acid.

Sunday the 22nd was markedly warmer, hitting the mid 80’s, and Monday warmer yet, approaching 100º. Tuesday, August 24th Sonoma and Napa readings ranged from 105 to over 110. I had been irrigating that day, and on my way back from closing some valves at around 4:30 PM I was heading northeast, with the sun at my back. The sight in front of my eyes was shocking; every grape I could see from that direction was caramel colored rather than either deep purple or green. We suffer a little bit of sunburn most years, but I’ve never seen anything that remotely resembled what I saw that day. It appeared to me that as much as 25% of the grapes were affected in some blocks, ten times as much sun damage in one day as we had in the previous 24 years combined. We certainly have seen hotter days in past years, so the most logical explanation for the widespread damage is lack of acclimation. I’ve been using the analogy of someone taking a tropical vacation in February and lying on the beach all day without sunscreen. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.

BSN (WTF?)

More damage started to become visible a week or two after the sunburn episode. Clusters with only a few sunburned berries were starting to shrivel. The main stem (rachis) of the cluster had been burned and was shutting down, cutting off water from the whole cluster. On some vines every cluster was affected – a 100% loss. In mid September a grower friend asked me if I had heard of BSN (“everybody in Napa is talking about it”). I said “wtf is bsn?” The answer came back, “bunch stem necrosis”. I certainly knew of bunch stem necrosis – the condition where the rachis shuts down (usually for unknown reason), cutting off the flow of water and sugar, resulting in “waterberry” – basically sour raisins. I just hadn’t heard the acronym; I guess in Sonoma we’re just a bunch of bumpkins.

The end result was that losses due to sun damage in Sonoma and Napa probably totaled between 15 and 25%. Some vineyards had insignificant damage and others lost their entire crop. A friend who is the vineyard liaison / grape buyer for a fairly big Zinfandel specialist said all their Sonoma County old vine growers were off 50-70% in terms of tonnage. We probably lost around a third of our grapes, including 80% of our Malbec, and probably 50%+ of our Zinfandel and Syrah. On top of the crop losses, we had increased costs for pre-harvest thinning, picking and sorting.

Everything Except a Plague of Locusts

September was a more typical month, weather wise. There were some fairly intense heat spikes that alternated with more moderate, but still sunny, weather. I wish we could have swapped July weather with September weather, but at least the excess heat was better than insufficient heat. We finally started harvest the last week of September, picking some Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay that had wonderful flavor at lower than usual sugar levels – I was stoked. A big heat wave at the very end of September ended the dream of having all of our wines at lower than typical alcohol levels. Zinfandel was affected the most; substantial raisining during late September / early October drove potential alcohol levels through the roof. We’re still trying to coax all our Zinfandels to dryness as of this writing in mid December.

Harvest went very smoothly for us, although I heard horror stories of insufficient labor and inadequate tank space at wineries to get all the grapes harvested quickly enough. Then the threat of a major storm popped up, only a month or so after the start of harvest. “Rushing To Beat Rain” was the front page headline of the Oct. 19 Press Democrat. The lead sentence was “Mother Nature may deliver one last gut punch to grape growers before this historically dismal season comes to an end.” I was talking with a fourth generation grapegrower the day before the rain hit, and told her it seemed like we’d had everything except a plague of locusts this year. She pointed skyward and said, “Don’t give Him any ideas”. We ended up on the receiving end of 5.4 inches of rain – almost the identical amount we had received during the second week of October, 2009. Although this storm hit more than a week later than the 2009 rains, it was more worrisome because a much larger percentage of the Sonoma and Napa grape crop wasn’t ripe yet.

After the big storm there was a huge rush to bring in as much as possible before another predicted storm’s arrival. Both before and after the storm wineries were faced with a tough decision: pick less than ideally ripe grapes or risk rot and hope for good weather to follow. We did a little of each. I decided we had more to lose than to gain by letting either the Saralee’s Roussanne or our estate Durif (aka Petit Sirah) hang through the first major rain. The Roussanne was physiologically mature, with nice flavor but very low sugar – only 20.5º brix, and is extremely susceptible to rot. Fortunately, our estate Roussanne (60%) of the blend) had come in earlier at 24º brix. The estate Grenache, even though prone to rot, was not ripe enough, so I let it hang. The same strategy applied to three other vineyards, two of Cabernet sauvignon, and one Petit Verdot. Only one of the four survived the deluge relatively unscathed – the Mohrhardt Ridge Cabernet. We picked the Grenache and the other Cabernet vineyard the last week of October, with careful sorting both in the vineyard and at the crusher to pull out rotten grapes.

The weather forecasters were promising a heat spell going into the first week of November. The Mohrhardt Ridge Cab was in great condition, and stood to benefit significantly from another week of sunny hangtime. On the other hand, the Petit Verdot was starting to rot like a bandit, but was seriously underripe. We were not the only winery getting fruit from that vineyard, and therefore had more limited input regarding farming practices than we have with most of our growers. This grower gambled, leaving a very large crop unthinned (after all, it had always ripened in past years). When we finally harvested these last two vineyards, the Mohrhardt Ridge fruit was gorgeous, fully mature at 22º brix (around 13% potential alcohol), and I’m thrilled with the resultant wine. The Petit Verdot grower lost 90-95% of his crop. We ended up with one barrel; it’s better than it would have been had we picked earlier, but still not great.

Blind Men Describing an Elephant

I’ve been reading various winemakers’ assessments of the harvest, and at times it’s hard to believe they’re talking about the same year. During the time leading up to crush a lot of winemakers were excited about the potential for fully ripe grapes at lower sugar and higher acid levels than usual. Late season heat waves did dampen that enthusiasm somewhat, but many of the wines from the early phase of harvest are quite charming, with bright, fresh fruit and moderate alcohol. Color is very deep in most of the reds; the young Pinot Noirs are so dark that they don’t even look like Pinots.

A couple of prominent winemakers have been quoted as saying that increased hang time resulted in great wines. Let’s see: bloom time three weeks late, veraison three weeks late, harvest two weeks late equals increased hang time? Either somebody hasn’t been out in the vineyards much this year, or they just can’t turn off the PRBS machine.

I think the 2010 season and harvest bore more resemblance to 1980, 1998 and 2000 than to any other years I can remember. I’ve heard comparisons to many other years, even 2006, when we had 11 days in a row over 100ºF (because that was the latest harvest in that winemaker’s memory?). For some winemakers it was a logistics nightmare, and for others it flowed smoothly. Some said it was a wonderful year, others said it was a near disaster.

So, You Ask, Are the Wines Any Good?

It really is folly to generalize about vintages in our region because of the vast diversity of climate and varieties. An outstanding year for Russian River Pinot Noir may be a weak year for Napa Valley Cabernet and vice versa. However, since the critics typically either laud or damn a vintage, with little in between, I’m guessing they may give 2010 the thumbs down, considering that the most prominent U.S. critics have a preference for big, sweet, high alcohol / low acid wines.

From what I’ve seen and heard, I think I can offer a reasonable early assessment of the vintage. There should be some fantastic wines and some lackluster wines, as there are almost any year in Sonoma and Napa, although 2010 may be more uneven than usual. Here are my observations and predictions:

  1. An excellent vintage for white wines, particularly from warmer locations such as mid-Napa, Dry Creek, Sonoma and Alexander Valleys. Whites may be a little more uneven in cooler parts of the Russian River, Carneros and Sonoma Coast.
  2. Variable Pinot Noir, with the best being stupendous. Location and row orientation were critical this year vis-à-vis the August heat wave.
  3. A challenging vintage for Zinfandel. A lot of old head trained vineyards suffered huge losses to sunburn, lack of heat made true ripeness a challenge, and raisining (always an issue in Zinfandel) was rampant. There will be a very limited supply of 2010 Zinfandel, with quality variable.
  4. The “quality” of 2010 Cabernet sauvignon, the bellwether of Sonoma and Napa, will depend largely on your stylistic preferences. For myself, and others of a more traditional bent, it was a wonderful year. The Cabernets have great color and structure, good acid and below 14% alcohol. If, on the other hand, you prefer über-ripe, jammy, high alcohol Parkeresque Cabernets then 2010 is a dismal year. I heard of more than one winery that rejected grapes because they didn’t reach their minimum sugar requirement of 25º brix (about 14.5% potential alcohol). I am a bit suspicious some of these wineries had ulterior motives for rejecting grapes – inventory backlog and cash flow issues.

2010 - all in all a vintage that many winemakers and all growers would like to forget. There will be some outstanding wines, but you’ll need to select carefully, and taste before buying whenever possible.