To those of us who live in L.A. sans air conditioning, the mild California summer of 2010 was an unseasonably pleasant, food-truck friendly three months notably devoid of sweat-free nights other than the brief late-breaking heat wave. To the California wineries now in the thick of turning this year's crop into wine, this was either the worst summer in recent history, or potentially one of the best. Depending on whom you ask, of course.
Via press release, Hidden Ridge owners Casidy Ward and Lynn Hofacket announced today that they will not harvest any fruit this year due to an “inconsistent growing season” in Sonoma. Yet nearby, Bibiana González Rave, winemaker at Lynmar, told Squid Ink recently that she thinks the unusual weather could result in an “exceptional” 2010 vintage for Lynmar (she added a cautious “you never know”). Turn the page for more.
Further south in Paso Robles, Niner winemaker Amanda Cramer told us last week that she thinks 2010 “is going to be an extremely varied year. It really comes down to how people managed a difficult growing season, the start to finish processing.” More so than other years, she adds, when weather was on the winemaker's side so one could get away with mediocrity in a bottle (check back later this week for the full interview with Cramer). Note that we are talking about winemakers, not independent growers, as the latter have fairly universally been calling this year the worst in decades, or at least in Sonoma and Napa. For grape growers, like any farmers, if it's a bad growing year overall, the market price plummets and you've got nothing to show for it.
Cramer's point about this year's vintage being much more dependent on the winemaker's skill, at least for those wineries fortunate enough to have decent-enough grapes, follows a Top Chef sort of logic that we find refreshing in the often grape-obsessed wine world (a really great chef is going to be able to do more with the everyday supermarket roast chicken than the rest of us). Cramer is cautious to note that whether the grape harvest was good this year — or done at the right time — is still pivotal. That all-butter shortbread is going to beat out the margarine version any day. Point taken (Hidden Ridge chose not to harvest their grapes for that very reason).
For those who are still fairly confident in their harvests, their winemaking comfort zone is also at issue. González Rave, Lynmar's winemaker, says she feels perfectly “at home” making wine from grapes with lower brix (less sugar) because she trained in France, where a cooler climate prevails. Cramer notes that some California winemakers may not feel so at ease with their a-typical grape predicament this year. At the risk of Top Chef reference overkill (which we realize we've already done), the idea being that a pastry chef is going to feel more comfortable working with her usual chocolate and vanilla rather than sea urchin and pork.
González Rave is also lucky to have grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay) that benefit from early harvest, as many wineries were left with nothing – literally – to work with after the mild summer and late rains. At Limerick Lane Winery in Healdsburg, owner-winemaker Michael Collins lost all the fruit from his estate (he specializes in Zinfandel, a grape varietal typically left on the vine longer). Hidden Ridge, a mountain vineyard, also had terrain playing against those Cabernet grapes — the cool summer meant the vineyard did not receive the requisite heat to develop the grapes' desired concentrated flavor.
So yes, for many winemakers, 2010 was a less than ideal growing year. But with all the headlines about “worst ever vintage” splashed across newspapers, we wonder whether it will ever be possible for wine drinkers to appreciate those same dressing-up-the-grocery-store-chicken-skills that we so admire in our best chefs. If for no other reason than sometimes, making something pretty darn great out of store-bought mushrooms is a lot more interesting than when you've got a pantry full of truffles on hand.