Before anyone gets overly concerned, I am not taking the place of Randy Mann or Cliff Harris, although the weather does play a big part each year on the grape crop, both here and abroad. Over the last several years we have seen everything from severe cold snaps in the appellations of the Northwest to drought in parts of California. Some of these events have had big effects and others not as much. Here is a roundup of the weather effects for the appellations of the Western U.S.
We have seen many cold winters in a row here in the Northwest, and the Snake River Valley appellations and vineyards around Lewiston are feeling the effects. These severe cold snaps have knocked many acres of grape production offline, resulting in a shortage of wine grapes at Idaho vineyards. This problem is an even bigger deal since there is not enough Idaho grown fruit to supply the number of wineries that have popped up in our home state. We received news this week that one of our favorite “all Idaho” wineries, meaning Idaho-grown grapes and a winery based here, Koenig Vineyards, will likely not have any of their delicious red wines in the market for about 12 months! The past few vintages have been so small, that they simply could not make enough wine to distribute.
When a grapevine freezes it takes two to three vintages before the vine will yield a usable crop. Of course, there are degrees to the damage inflicted by a freeze, but suffice it to say the last few winters have taken a toll in Idaho and around the greater Northwest. Especially after this tough February we have just endured, we might expect some smaller crops for the 2019 vintage as well as the few previous years.
The much-publicized drought in California has been a complete non-event for wineries around the state. Especially in the most iconic valleys of Napa and Sonoma Counties, the rains have always arrived on time each winter and filled the reservoirs ensuring enough water to get through the subsequent growing season.
This winter of 2019, though, has gone to a whole different level. Areas of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma have been flooded by the heavy rains. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains has closed stretches of Interstate 80 and made it nearly impossible to get to the ski resorts of Lake Tahoe. Up and down the state there has been so much rain that there is no talk of drought anywhere.
The question now for the 2019 vintage is: ‘will the rain stop in time to allow for a good wine grape crop?’ Growers and winemakers alike prefer a long, warm and dry growing season, and prefer no rain from bud-break to harvest. We will keep you posted as the growing year unfolds and whether these winter rains are too much of a good thing.
We have all heard the dire stories of drought in California for the last several years. As we have reported though, “Wine Country” has had plenty of rain to keep the vines happy and producing. In fact, from 2012 on, California has had a string of very good to great vintages. We are now seeing releases up to and including 2017. The only vintage where we have tasted some wines that did not meet our expectations was 2014. It was a warm and dry year and the wines from 2014 are a bit tricky. It was a smaller crop from 2014 and we have tasted wines that are very good but also have tasted some that seem a bit thin and astringent. I would approach this year with caution and try before you buy in quantity and rely on the advice of your favorite wine professional.
This past week I had lunch with the winemaker from a prominent Napa Valley winery and for the first time, heard that a winery sold off some Cabernet that was still hanging when the fires of 2017 lit off. He explained that any fruit that had not been picked once the fires started, if it was growing in the fire zone, almost certainly has smoke taint. Once the grapes are tainted there is no way to get rid of it, and the fermented wine is ‘bulked out,” meaning it’s sold off and likely ends up in a private-label wine in a big box store. This is the most definitive opinion we have heard on the 2017 vintages and urges for caution when buying the fuller bodied reds from 2017.
We will continue to keep all of you up to date on effects big and small of our ever-changing weather.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.