The year we made less wine

Roller-coaster weather wreaks havoc on grape crops

Winemaker Phil La Rocaa surveys his crops in the aftermath of a disasterous 2010 season.

Winemaker Phil La Rocaa surveys his crops in the aftermath of a disasterous 2010 season.

Photo By matt siracusa

As long ago as May, California’s winemakers saw the beginnings of a strange rollercoaster of a season. That month, the temperature dropped well below freezing—an unseasonably late frost—and killed the new growth and blossoms on many vines throughout the state. Plants being plants, they began growing back—but things got much stranger. The rains continued into June and July, and not six weeks after the frost, temperatures soared around the Fourth of July. More blossoms were fried. Molds multiplied. Then it turned cool again.

By then, winemaker Phil LaRocca, owner of LaRocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch, had already lost half his crop to the frost—and it would get worse. Through July, temperatures hovered in the 70s and low 80s. Sugar levels lagged, and LaRocca squinted through his refractometer, wondering when and whether his grapes would begin to ripen. In mid-August, another abrupt heat wave well into the 100s scorched many young grapes now forming on vines statewide, and LaRocca lost still more fruit to sunburn, plunging him into an oncoming state of financial crisis.

LaRocca says that 2010’s summer of chaos and mayhem was the most unusual season he has ever experienced in 26 years of growing grapes.

“Everything weird in nature that could have happened, happened,” said the 63-year-old maker of organic wines. “It was the weirdest year I’ve seen.”

In fact, it was a disaster. With his grapes finally in and the whole crop crushed, LaRocca has tallied up his losses. “We’re down 70 percent from last year,” he reported—from 120 tons of grapes down to 45. His Merlot vines suffered a nasty hit: From 15 acres, LaRocca pulled in just 750 pounds of grapes. And his usual 12-ton crop of Sangiovese amounted to a mere 50 pounds this year.

“I only bothered to harvest them because I’m required to [in order] to keep my crop insurance,” he explained. LaRocca is anticipating relief funds following the season. Additionally, he and several other winemakers in the region have applied for federal disaster relief.

But to hear Aimee Sunseri talk of the 2010 harvest, we might think she’d spent the summer on a continent far away.

“We had a great bloom and a good set,” said the winemaker at New Clairvaux Vineyard in Vina. “We had a little too much fruit, but we thinned it back to a manageable level.”

She acknowledged the same late start and cool summer that plagued the grapes of LaRocca, “but we got a lot of nice colors from the sun, and the slower season brought our acid levels up nicely.” She recalled some cool weather in May, but nothing terrible.

Farther south, the season’s ups and downs froze and fried the grapes at Miraflores Winery near Placerville. There, winemaker Marco Cappelli watched helplessly as the crushing heat wave of August killed 20 percent of his crop in just days. In all, counting the damage from the late spring frosts and the late harvest that exposed some of his fruit to October’s rains, Cappelli lost 25 percent of his usual tonnage.

Directly west, in Mendocino County, cool weather stifled sugar production and delayed harvest into October and even November in places—but it was “incredibly fantastic for flavors and acid balance,” according to Paul Dolan, owner of Paul Dolan Vineyards and Mendocino Wine Co.

Throughout the state, the grapes that survived to see the crush contain less sugar than they usually do. As a result, Cappelli at Miraflores expects low-alcohol, high-acid wines—but “with a lot going on,” namely “a delicacy and focus of fruit.” He expects particularly spicy 2010 Syrahs, and Merlots with black olive and interesting vegetable notes. Sunseri at New Clairvaux expects a similar style of wine—and that’s fine. “In this area we don’t really need any more alcohol.”

And LaRocca also anticipates complex, low-alcohol “European-style” wine. Just not a lot of it.