Then Verus Now
By: George Balling
We have always marveled at how adept winemakers and grape growers are at adjusting to all that a vintage hurls at them. There are few truly “perfect” growing years when it comes to farming wine grapes. It has only become more complex and uncertain in recent years as the variable conditions from temperature to smoke to rain seem to have become more extreme. In talking to several winemakers over recent weeks, we have learned that in wine country around the west they now get smoke forecasts as often as they do weather forecasts, and I can tell you they pay very close attention to both.
When we look at the wine grape harvest for now it is impossible to assess progress and quality without comparing it to then. To be more specific we are assessing 2023 and its progress through the lens of 2020. Yes, we write of 2020 a lot but I’m not sure there is a more consequential vintage than that year. The sheer scale of the tragedy that unfolded in 2020 had ripple effects worldwide and in some cases continues to.
What we are starting to learn about the 2020 vintage though is that the negatives while bad, perhaps aren’t quite as tragic as initially thought. There are more Northern California wineries that produced wine that year than initially thought. We are learning this now as we are in the midst of the wines from 2020 being released. This is where our recently acquired knowledge of smoke forecasts comes into play. As it turns out, back in August of 2020 winemakers and growers around Napa and Sonoma counties were receiving red flag and smoke warnings. The growing year up until that point had been warm and dry, nearly perfect by some standards.
As the warnings came in some of the most prominent and recognizable names located in Central Napa Valley sprung into action. The assessment at places like Spottswoode, Staglin, and other notable vineyards is that red grapes could be harvested. Would more hang time be beneficial? Of course. Could the Cabernet and Merlot crops develop more sugar? Sure. But could we pick right now? Yes, we can. And pick they did. We just received our allocation information on the Spottswoode Estate Cabernet from the 2020 vintage. We are thrilled we are getting some of this most sought-after bottling. When we received the email on the pending allocation, what perhaps was the most noteworthy part of the email was a small note from the winery. The note told us that they had managed to harvest the Cabernet surrounding the winery just 36 hours prior to the Glass Fire igniting just to the north and east of the Spottswoode Estate. The aforementioned warnings prompted them to harvest this vineyard. Once “Glass” started all that was left in nearby vineyards was lost.
The Spottswoode Cabernet release is just 30% of the normal size. We have heard similar statistics from Staglin and many others. The wines we have tasted so far are clean of smoke, producers of this caliber would never release them if they were not. The wines are slightly lower in alcohol than a “normal” year, but when we tasted the 2020 releases from Staglin we were thrilled, the wines are lovely. We suspect that as Spottswoode and others arrive they will be the same.
Fast forward to now. Talking to winemakers around the west in the last week has been as illuminating as always. Harvest throughout the west has slowed down, way down. The cool and at times rainy weather here in the Northwest has pretty much stopped the late season ripening. In California harvest was already late due to the late spring start and a cool summer. It’s not getting better. More rain is due to come into the Northwest this week, with some of it reaching all the way to the vineyards of Northern California.
Predictions now are for harvest there to reach perhaps all the way to early November. This brings with its tardiness great risk. While the west has been thankfully mostly smoke free this year, the longer harvest drags out the chance of wild fires around the vineyards is still there. The rains of fall also come more into play. All will be closely watching both the weather and smoke forecasts for any signs that they need to pick and pick now. The good news is that most wine grapes like in 2020 are harvestable now. Additional time on the vine would help greatly, however rain, the biggest risk to the crop at this point, may take that decision our of the winemaker’s hands. We will keep you posted.