2010 vintage: A test of chemistry and patience

By Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue, Wine Press NorthwestNovember 28, 2010 

Challenging. Confounding. Exciting. Heart-wrenching. Heart-breaking. Insane. And wow!

Wine descriptors they are not. Rather, they are how winemakers and vineyard managers described the range of their emotions during the growing, harvest and fermentation of a worrisome yet still rewarding 2010 vintage.

After a dreary spring and mild summer, Pacific Northwest winemakers seem ready to party like it's 1999 -- a vintage that produced remarkable and age-worthy wines.

A majority of producers might even call it a princely vintage, but it took a remarkable stretch of almost perfect weather in September and October to get the late-ripening grapes to the finish line.

Tonnage is estimated to be down about 20 percent across the region, all stemming from a wet spring and cool summer.

Delays in harvest and slow-to-ripen fruit brought moldy grapes, bird predation and high-acid wines. Calamities were few, though, and some areas -- particularly Idaho -- fared better than most. And unlike California, "We don't have any disasters," said winemaker Rob Griffin of Barnard Griffin in Richland.

Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla joked, "Wow, the harvest that almost got canceled. Thank God we had a lot of beautiful weather at the end. Maybe I'll take global warming rather than climate change."

Here is a region-by-region look at the 2010 vintage:

Washington

Those with the tools, skill and experience seem poised to deal best with the juice now in their cellars. And don't expect to see alcoholic and flabby wines birthed from 2010.

"I've been longing for a year like this," said Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla. "It smacks of the old days."

Griffin said, "I know we're going to be trying winemaking techniques that usually stay in the textbooks. It's going to be one of the more challenging vintages, but it also will ultimately be one of the more rewarding."

In some ways, 2010 reminds Griffin of 1999. He began to bring in fruit Sept. 22, about two weeks later than recent vintages.

"Certainly, the overt comparison is legitimate," Griffin said. "The season was similar in heat unit accumulation. (Washington) made good wines that year, but we do that almost every year."

And it also was akin to 1977 -- his first harvest in Washington -- because of the late start and late ripening.

"It's going to challenge a winemaker's skill, and it's already done that to growers," Griffin said.

Growers who recognized the issues early, dropped fruit, sprayed for rot and adjusted fared best.

Viticulturalist Dick Boushey, whose first commercial harvest was 1983, runs his eponymous vineyard in the Yakima Valley and also consults on Red Mountain for Col Solare and Fidelitas. He said 2010 reminds him of 1985.

"It was cold and miserable like this year, and we didn't get the heat units," Boushey said, "but back then we didn't have a clue of how to deal with something like this."

In the Horse Heaven Hills, Jarrod Boyle of Alexandria Nicole Cellars and Destiny Ridge Vineyard near Paterson, noted, "It was a blessing in that the growing season was gradual. It wasn't all of a sudden, so it gave guys a chance to thin."

Thinning comes at a cost, though, especially for cabernet sauvignon.

"We were down easily 25 percent," Boyle said. "The whites were great as far as tonnage, but for cab, we were shooting for 4 tons (per acre) and ended up with 3 tons per acre. That all equates to dollars."

Dusted Valley reported a 20 percent reduction from its estate parcels in the Walla Walla Valley.

"We started three weeks to a month late, but we're really happy with what we got," Johnson said.

Wade Wolfe of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser said cool temperatures and slow ripening put some Yakima Valley vineyards up to 18 days behind schedule. He made grenache his first pick around Sept. 28.

Harvest ended Nov. 4 at Destiny Ridge when barbera, mourvedre and petit verdot were picked.

Mainstream varieties -- gewrztraminer, merlot and syrah -- came in at their traditional times. Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc were significantly late.

And up to the end, cabernet sauvignon and riesling, arguably Washington's hallmark, were in jeopardy.

"An exciting vintage!" Covey Run winemaker Kate Michaud said with a big smile. "Besides it being super, super late, confounding is what I would say."

Boushey pointed out, "I had merlot picking ahead of the whites, and I've never seen that. "

In fact, chardonnay and riesling still were being picked on Nov. 20, Boushey reported.

Even grape chemistry came as a surprise. Two warm weeks in September jump-started sugars in red varieties and riesling. Then a rainstorm helped spread mold in grape clusters, and chemicals were sprayed to battle it.

"I'd never seen it explode like that," Boushey said. "We've been spoiled in Washington. We can put on three sprays and think we're covered. In other parts of the world, they apply four to six sprays. I know I should have put on one more. I know next year everyone will be spraying."

Meanwhile, fresh in the minds of everyone was 2009's killing freeze of Oct. 10. A similar event before Halloween would have meant disaster.

The late and condensed harvest created more than the usual chaos on crush pads. Those sharing equipment and facilities worked on tighter-than-ever schedules as bins of freshly picked grapes stacked up.

"This is not one I want to repeat again," Boushey said. "A lot of white grapes didn't get picked because of the rot. You need to go through by hand rather than machines in that case, and that will hurt the bigger guys."

Those who selected the best bunches will be rewarded with outstanding whites, particularly chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, while syrah and merlot should shine above the cabs, Griffin said.

"Merlot is particularly good this year," he said. "Cabernet is a little problematic. The wines will be a little bit sterner and harder."

And considering the glut of older wine on the market, some wondered if Mother Nature did them a favor in 2010 by presenting a smaller crop and a vintage that in many cases will need extra time to age -- which isn't typical of recent years.

"The wines will be more like the '99 vintage, which aged wonderfully," Boushey said, "so the wineries maybe should hang onto these wines an extra year before releasing them."

Oregon

For many in the Willamette Valley and beyond, 2010 will go down as one for the birds.

"It was just insane, especially in the Yamhill area," said Luisa Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards in Beaverton. "I saw as much as 50 percent damage because of the birds. It was just heartbreaking to see that in a day and a half they would ravage a vineyard. I remember going out to some vineyards, and the surrounding trees would be vibrating with so many birds."

A poor season for wild blackberries drove more birds than usual into vineyards, and the late-arriving harvest throughout Oregon matched the migration plans of hungry birds headed south.

Torii Mor Winery in the Dundee Hills reported a crop reduction of 25 percent, mostly to birds.

In the Umpqua Valley, Pat Spangler of Spangler Vineyards in Roseburg dubbed it "the worst bird problem since 2004."

Until the birds swooped in, botrytis was the key concern. And there were blocks that failed to overcome the cool start to the growing season.

"Some vineyards never got to complete ripeness," Ponzi said.

Ponzi Vineyards began to bring in fruit Oct. 8, two weeks later than normal, and finished Nov. 5.

It was a more concentrated harvest at Torii Mor for Jacques Tardy, who is winemaker and vineyard manager.

"Fast and furious," he described it. "We didn't start picking until Oct. 16 and by the 22nd, 90 percent of the fruit was in."

For the Ponzi family, pinot gris came first, followed by pinot noir and then chardonnay toward October's end. Normally, the Dijon clone chardonnay is among the early ripeners.

"I'm still scratching my head over that," Ponzi said.

Merlot was the first thing through Spangler's door, and Oct. 6 was the latest he had ever begun crush.

Strangely, 2010 started out like a lamb as January and February tracked among the warmest on record. Then, April through June brought cool temperatures. Greg Jones, a climatologist at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, noted that June through early October temperatures were near normal, if not slightly cooler, with fewer heat spikes.

All the turmoil made for lower expectations of pinot noir, but Ponzi is pleased.

"In the barrel, it's got the beautiful dark color, wonderful flavors and texturally, it's beautiful," she said. "Potentially, it could be a really beautiful vintage."

That came much to the delight of Sam Tannahill, whose A to Z Wineworks is Oregon's largest producer.

"Late can often translate to great," he told colleagues at the Oregon Wine Board. "All signs are pointing to the potential for great wines with balance, elegance and finesse."

When it came to historical perspective for the 2010 vintage, Luisa Ponzi turned to her legendary father, Dick, who is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the winery he founded.

"There's nothing to really compare it to because of the birds, the botrytis and the lateness, but he said maybe '85," she said. "Obviously I don't remember it, but '85 was a fantastic vintage. It was the first vintage by Ponzi Vineyards that was recognized by the national press, so he really liked that one!"

British Columbia

Gordon and Walter Gehringer in Oliver are thankful Mother Nature gave them the option of when to bring in their last grapes. And they chose to end harvest Oct. 30 with the varieties that always need extended hang time -- cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon.

"They are the challenging ones," Walter said. "Everything else was brilliant."

On the Naramata Bench, Jeff Martin of La Frenz Winery in Penticton reported, "I was more than a little concerned that we may not have a harvest at all, if we had an early frost, as can happen. We needed a picture-perfect October, and as the weather gods would have it, we got."

Just in case, wineries throughout the province hoarded bags of a chemical compound to help them adjust for high acidity if the grapes didn't get ripe enough.

"Everybody in the industry ordered calcium carbonate out their ears," Gehringer said. "But the last two weeks of September and all of October were absolutely great, which helped out immeasurably and surprisingly."

However, dimpled berries are one memento the brothers won't soon forget.

"The anomaly of the vintage was that a lot of the reds were shriveling, and we don't know why that was," Walter said. "We had to handle the grapes and the vines a lot. Four times we went through and thinned. Most years we would just make two trips.

"Obviously, you touch some of the bunches as you untangle the vines and there's movement, so we were wondering if we damaged the sap flow path because of the desiccation and aborted bunches in the red varieties -- about 50 percent of the clusters," he continued. "But when we talked with our neighbors, they said they all were experiencing the same thing."

On Vancouver Island, harvest for Venturi-Schulze Vineyards began three to four weeks later than in a hot year such as 2009. The vintage demanded more effort than any in the 23-year history of the Cobble Hill winery.

“As always, those with better sites had more success, but everyone here will refer to 2010 as ‘The year from Hell,’ " Marilyn Venturi said in an email. “All growers I have spoken with report that botrytis hit hard and spread quickly at the end of the season. Some vineyards reported that they lost 100% of their crop. Wildlife problems were extreme this year, from wasps to birds and bears.”

Late-ripening varieties “simply ran out of season,” she said, pointing to temperatures that ran close to 5 degrees colder all year long.

“The challenging season also prompted many to try their hand at sparkling wine, and there will be an interesting variety of rosés, I hear,” she added.

Idaho

This year marked Greg Koenig's 16th Idaho harvest, but the Caldwell winemaker and grower has nothing to compare it to.

"In August, you could have asked any of us and we would have told you a pretty dire story," Koenig said. "We were so far behind, but we had a phenomenal September and October.

"Now, we're just shaking our heads and looking forward to tasting the wines," he continued. "It was looking like one of the worst vintages, and now it's one of the top three in terms of quality. There is a bit more acidity, which is what I've been asking for, so the wines are going to have nice balance."

Melanie Krause from Cinder noted, "We harvested about two to three weeks late on each variety but with good ripeness and flavors. Since we ended harvest with no frost and little rain in November, we were able to bring in our cabernet sauvignon and mourvedre in good shape."

The final variety for Koenig was sangiovese, which came in Nov. 11, right after cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot.

"We don't really have a couple of weeks (of hang time) to play with, but this year we did," he said. "It was sunny, and it hadn't frozen."

About 1,600 acres of vines are planted in the Gem State, mainly in the Snake River Valley. And while some new parcels came into production this year, the tonnage may weigh out close to 2009 for Idaho's 43 wineries.

Koenig makes wine for four of them -- his own, Bitner, 3 Horse Ranch and Williamson. Each produces estate fruit, and the combination of a cool spring and mild summer prompted him to encourage those vineyards to prune. That led to a crop reduction of 10 to 15 percent.

"I'd rather have two good barrels of wine than four mediocre barrels, especially coming off a string of six or seven ripe vintages," he said. "In our own vineyard, we pruned merlot to less than one ton per acre in anticipation of the impossibility of ripening. It turns out that we picked two weeks before we really needed to."

He is thrilled with his juice from petit verdot and petite sirah -- both young plantings -- and there was just enough botrytis in some riesling for him to create what will be about 30 cases of trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) for the Williamsons.

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