Vintage 2011

How has strange weather affected this year’s grapes and other crops?

For the second year in a row, farmers in the spring and summer saw unusually low temperatures slow the development of fruits and vegetables in their bloom periods and subsequently slow ripening through the summer and fall. To boot, heavy rains and hail late into the spring battered blossoms and destroyed summer vegetable crops. Fruits and nuts, including persimmons, pomegranates, walnuts and almonds were reportedly down in yield, late in ripening and, in some cases, more sour than sweet.

But of all plants that depend on summer sunlight, wine grapes may be the most sensitive to heat or the lack of it. Grapes not only need sunlight and warmth to develop sugar and complexity, the wines they produce will remain for years in bottles—and if it’s a good vintage, people will remember. They’ll remember bad years, too, and so in California, where big flavors and high alcohol drive the market, many winemakers fear cold seasons like the current one.

Phil LaRocca, for one, grape grower and winemaker of LaRocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch, spent much of the summer and fall anxiously watching his grapes and taking sugar measurements. His Cabernet Sauvignon, especially, was simply not ripening. LaRocca even called winemaker friends in France and Oregon, regions of relatively cool climate, to ask what in the world he could do to get sugar levels up.

“They said not to panic, that I’d get at least 12-and-a-half-percent alcohol,” LaRocca said. In an average year, his Cab can easily weigh in at 14 percent alcohol, and LaRocca—whose wines are certified organic—says he has considered some emergency measures this fall, including using organic grape concentrate to sweeten his juice before fermentation or even fortifying his wines after fermentation with organic distilled alcohol. Another technique called chaptalization consists of adding cane sugar to grape juice and is illegal in California but widely used elsewhere in the world during cool years.

For Gideon Beinstock, owner of Clos Saron Winery in Oregon House in the Sierra Foothills, the subdued temperatures of 2011 happened to work out well for his preferred style of winemaking. Beinstock makes wines much like the lower-alcohol styles common to Europe—and 2011 bodes to be a good vintage.

“We have lower sugars this year than in most years, which happens to suit us well,” he said.

Beinstock adds that he got lucky, wrapping up the harvest of his Pinot Noir and Syrah grapes just a day before the season’s first storm dropped four inches of rain on his land.

Farmers of food crops also had a dramatic year in the field. At the GRUB Cooperative off of Dayton Road, co-founder Francine Stuelpnagel said the cold spring was as unseasonal as any she can remember. Stuelpnagel recalled the powerful hail storm in early June that destroyed a thousand dollars’ worth of her lettuce and damaged other vegetable crops.

“There were crazy ping-pong-ball-sized hailstones,” recalled the Chico native. “I’ve never seen anything like that here in my life.”

As the summer wore on, only several days hit 100 degrees, and tomatoes, for one thing, struggled to ripen, Stuelpnagel said.

“But we grow a lot of varieties,” she said, “and diversity is a self-defense mechanism against these kinds of years.”

Stuelpnagel says that the harvest of fall crops is more or less back on schedule after the strange summer, but at LaRocca Vineyards, the Cabernet Sauvignon was still unharvested as of Oct. 25—80 acres of grapes on the 200-acre vineyard still dangling almost a month late. But in spite of LaRocca’s concerns about slow sugar development, he also recognizes the likelihood that, in the bottle, things may turn out just fine.

“Hang-time brings out the complexity in a wine, and I think we’re going to get some good structure,” LaRocca says. “This will be a vintage that could age really well.”

But good or bad, we’ll remember.