Harvest hues of cascading pistachio leaves dance outside as I investigate this years annual passage, our regional grape crush. Comparisons, I guess, are inevitable because it is generally easier for us to place things in common groups or broad categories. Locally, after successive years of challenging and smaller harvests following a bountiful 2007, the regions grape growing fortunes improved dramatically this year. With descriptors like 'exceptional', 'generous', and 'high quality', California's total premium grape tonnage appears to be well beyond 10% above last years according to the industries Wine Institute. Normal picking timelines were encouraged in 2012 by mild weather, sustained sunshine and inconsequential late season rainfall across all the diverse North Coast winegrowing appellations..
Overall, Sonoma County vintners and winegrowers reported a textbook perfect growing season. Winegrape revenues for the regions should exceed $100 million above last years total according to industry sources. “It has been a great harvest for Sonoma County growers and winemakers. Yields and fruit quality have been exceptional. The rebound in grape yields was badly needed for Sonoma County growers after two harvests with lower than average yields. The record tonnage harvested in Sonoma County was in 2005 with 231,000 tons and 2006 yielded 216,000 tons. I think the 2006 total could be exceeded this year, perhaps reaching 220,000 tons. As we celebrate the 2012 vintage, growers are already beginning to plan for 2013.”, according to President Nick Frey, of Sonoma County Winegrowers.
Some of the larger appellation highlights included:
- Alexander Valley ( warm growing in the northeastern county) "We are finding tremendous flavors have developed in the fruit from the overall ideal weather this season. I think this will prove to be an outstanding vintage once the new wines are fully evaluated.” , reported Jim Young, President/CEO, Robert Young Vineyards. Those evaluations were echoed by Brad Peterson of Rawah Vineyards, offering, “2012 has been a very good vintage. We finished our last block on Thursday, October 18. The fruit quality was excellent and yields in our vineyards were up 20-30%. The resulting wines are tasting excellent, as well.”.
- Carneros (cool growing on the counties southern border) “It has been an ideal growing season with mild temperatures and opportune heat spikes to get the grapes to full maturity", said Steve Sangiacomo of the prestigious Sangiacomo Family Vineyards. "We have finished the harvest just in time (October 19) — before Mother Nature delivers the first storm of the season. We feel very fortunate to get everything in, and most importantly, with the quality at such a high level.”
- Dry Creek Valley (east of the Coastal Ranges) "...Zinfandel and Cabernet crops were big,"...."we had done our thinning work, and nature gave us good weather and(we) achieved that win-win situation that makes both growers and wineries happy: a bountiful and high-quality crop made possible by careful work in the vineyard.” proclaimed Winemaker Tim Bell, of Dry Creek Vineyards.
- Russian River Valley (cool, foggy mornings benefit chardonnay and pinot noir) Sparkling and still wines produced at J Vineyards & Winery enjoyed a push according to Vice President of Winemaking, Melissa Stackhouse. "Overall, I’d have to say that 2012 may have surpassed 2007 as the ‘perfect vintage’.”
- Sonoma Valley (diverse inland vineyards west of Napa Valley) " We haven’t seen such a tremendous harvest in terms of both volume and quantity in years!", said Kunde Family Estate winegrower, Marcia Kunde Mickelson. "Our biggest issue has been tank space due to the bounty of this harvest, but we’re squeezing by!".
With grape tonnage significantly above last year, Napa Valley may have just also produced a 'perfect' vintage, and some growers have even called 2012 the 'best vintage ever'. “Pick dates that are determined by ripeness are always preferable to pick dates determined by impending rain storms,” says Amy Warnock, viticulturast at Atlas Peak's Stagecoach Vineyards. Throughout wine country vineyards, when Mother Nature cooperates as she did this harvest, everyone benefits. Reflecting, John Wilkinson, a director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, said, "the growers are not only getting offers for their fruit that they might not have been getting in 2008 and 2009, but getting good prices."
Further east in warm growing Lake County AVA the estimates for value of its winegrape crop are expected to be at a solid $35-40 million, considerably ahead of last year. However, not all varieties will seem to benefit. "The dry weather up to now has been welcome (in contrast to the last 2 years), except that (cabernet) fruit may be losing weight in the dry heat, if we can’t harvest it soon,” cautioned Randy Krag, a Vineyard Operations Manager in the Red Hills appellation...."and the quality is excellent this year". And, yet another dose of reality was offered from the cooler and diverse Mendocino County appellation. Here, expectations were for a near picture perfect harvest this year, avoiding the natures challenges of the recent past. Yields were anticipated to be up as much as 10,000 tons above last year. However, something other than Mother Nature can effect a stellar harvest. "There were definitely examples where the pick was cancelled because there wasn't enough people to put a pick together,” said Zach Robinson of Hursch Vineyards.
So this North Coast grape harvest of 2012 was of great volume and presumably very good quality. It had the best of weather, and finds a marketplace that needed a bumper crop. Not all growing regions were treated equally, but just about everyone had few negatives to offer. So, it may turn out to be one hell of a vintage season for wine lovers. But, generally, even in a 'vintage year', premium grape growing is still farming; challenged by all that farming offers. Although, grapegrowing can be very delicious farming.