The story of the 2015 California vintage is one about dramatically low yields. The prolonged drought and an unusually cold spring combined for very few grapes hanging on vines. Vintners identified low cluster counts early on, but as the Pinot Noir harvest began, weights averaged 60% of the already light forecasts. The bunches are tiny without much juice.
Pinot Noir is one of the most delicate varietals of the Vinifera family, so the vineyards’ drastic reaction to weather conditions is not entirely shocking. What is a surprise is news of widespread shatter in the tougher, heartier Syrah grape. Syrah farmers in Northern California, Paso Robles, and higher elevations of Ballard Canyon all report devastating losses.
The Stolpman Microcosm
While our Syrah crop looks seriously light, it appears – knock on wood – that we have fared far better than most of our Syrah comrades. One of our fruit customers, Brandon Sparks-Gilles, winemaker at Dragonette Cellars, tells me that Stolpman by far and away has the healthiest, most even crop out of all of his vineyard sources.
So are we just getting lucky?
Yes, and… we have the Grape Whisperer.
First off, Ruben didn’t get greedy and go for aggressively high yields in the moderate conditions of 2012, 2013, and 2014. While many vintners seized upon the mild springs and warm summers to pile diluted bumper crops into wineries; Ruben continued to withhold irrigation from the vines, forcing them to behave conservatively.
While this seems like a no-brainer in the context of our “quality at any cost” approach to wine, the temptation was real. The frost season of 2011 had just given us our lightest crop in the vineyard’s history, a financial burden that – as our vineyard manager of 20 years and at this point a part of Stolpman Vineyards’ nuclear family – wore heavy on Ruben.
Ruben stuck to his instincts, spur pruned, withheld water, and ordered La Cuadrilla to bring every shoot down to just one cluster. The result was our highest quality ever achieved – and – the vines weren’t sapped of energy, exhausted going into another growing season in which no rain water penetrated deep enough to feed tap roots.
No doubt an effect of the April 27th, 2011 frost trauma – Ruben now prunes extremely late in the winter. In part an effort to keep La Cuadrilla busy in January, we get pre-pruning out of the way throughout the vineyard and then begin our final, precise cuts in late February into March. The goal is to delay bud break until the bulk of frost danger subsides.
While temperatures didn’t dip below 32F in 2015, the extended cold weather impeded bloom and set in vineyards that budded early. Later, but more robust growth saved the day at Stolpman.
Ruben’s fear: El Nino
While thus far Ruben’s strategy has worked flawlessly, delayed pruning only works because of our ability to harvest extremely late in Santa Barbara County. At 34 degrees latitude, the sun stays powerful late in the year and rain seldom falls before November. Thereto, Ruben feels safe retarding growth to avoid early frost, subsequently pushing harvest further back.
Meteorologists report that either cataclysmic flooding or extended drizzles will begin in October. Ruben has been worried since early July when high cloud cover began to sporadically appear, signaling pressure system changes. If we do get torrential downpours before we finish harvest, El Nino will certainly ruin Ruben’s party. We shall wait and see.