With the 2012 wines just put in barrel, there’s already controversy a foot up and down the West Coast. Since September, the wine industry (including yours truly) has been boasting about the perfect growing season and harvest. Moderate spring conditions produced a healthy bud-break, flowering, and fruit set. Then, even peak heat averaging in the high 80’s and low 90’s gave the vines the energy to ripen those heavy crops. Every winery from British Columbia through California held hands and danced with flowers in our hair, not a care in the world.
It seems at first, wineries got away with telling the public they had the best of both worlds: great wine and a whole lot of it. Of course, if you’ve followed Stolpman’s party line at all over the years, we always stress “less is more”. With conservative crops, the vine can pump energy into less fruit and produce more concentration and richness. Now do I have to contradict myself?
The bumper crop was so extreme throughout the West, our bank called me in August from their Sonoma office. They wanted to know my plan for dealing with the excess quantity. Were we prepared to increase our production? Were we going to try and sell more fruit to other wineries?
While our bankers are experienced wine industry veterans, they sometimes forget how their different winery clients operate their businesses outside of spreadsheets! I reminded our banker that at Stolpman we dry farm, and we actually predicted perfectly normal low yields. Our vines are trained to set small crops because they must survive the dry summer without irrigation. Just because the moderate spring weather allowed for a heavy crop, the vines of Stolpman Vineyards didn’t get greedy.
We did have enough fruit hanging to make an early-picked “presse” rose that ensured even further concentrated Grenache and Sangiovese. Those clusters were picked in early September as I noted in my earlier blog. Then, on October 29th, our friend Chris King of De Su Propia Cosecha saw the most telling juxtaposition of the 2012 harvest. He snapped a photo of Stolpman’s early morning Syrah harvest, with La Cuadrilla picking grapes off of our dainty vines. The small canopy had already turned yellow, orange, and even red as vines were shutting down, putting their last bit of energy into perfecting the grapes.
Later that very same afternoon, Chris took a photo of another Santa Barbara Syrah vineyard. But this photo depicts a lush green canopy, boasting huge leaves, and plenty of fat clusters. This vineyard photo symbolizes conventionally farmed blocks all over the West Coast. Vines that are used to being irrigated every year seized the opportunity to set dozens of clusters and the farmers didn’t disappoint their thirsty plants, watering them enough to plump those grapes right up!
Winery crush pads were flooded with the diluted grapes, and now, some winemakers are admitting to critics that their 2012 wine isn’t perfect. Steve Heimoff of The Wine Enthusiast just reported in his blog that a winemaker in Sonoma dealt with this problem by bleeding juice off for a saignée (pronounced ‘sonyay’) rose, with hopes that the remaining wine will be darker and more concentrated because of increased skin contact.
The obvious question is, why would a winemaker wait until the fruit is picked to decide to make a rose? All a saignée does is remove juice off the skins, while picking rose fruit early allows the vines weeks or months to focus on fewer grapes, making them more complex and naturally concentrated.
There are many answers, but the largest factor is that so many wineries don’t grow their own fruit and can’t control farming, especially the large wineries that account for the vast majority of US wine production. And of course, many wineries feel the need to make a whole lot of 2012 red wine after the 2011 frost reduced yields.
At the end of the day, we actually harvested 20 tons less than the much cooler 2010 vintage. 2010 offered another healthy set but the weather never warmed up through the summer and vines could not ripen heavy crop loads. Just like in 2010, 2012 will prove to separate the men from the boys. The men, devoted to quality, naturally limited their crop loads in both years. The boys never seem to learn, and the greedy growers take advantage of any chance to sell more tonnage!