Our long awaited, week-long trip to Northern California, with time spent in both Sonoma and Napa Counties, is here. I’m writing currently from our temporary residence outside of Windsor. It is great to be back among the vines and wineries, especially during, or in some cases close to, harvest. The rumble of grape trucks is frequent, but not yet constant. We have seen harvesting crews in many vineyards as we travel about, and the most lovely of aromas of fermenting grapes is present in the few wineries we took time to visit.
Admittedly, this trip is more about vacation (the first one for Mary and I in a long time) than work, so we drastically limited the number of wineries we visited to just four for the entire week. But being here, it is nearly impossible not to talk about the 2019 vintage and gather anecdotal information and some solid “intel” about how things are progressing.
It has rained twice since we have been here. This is unusually early for rain, and not welcome for winemakers or grape growers. However, the rain was light in both cases, not creating any real problems for the crop, but creating some logistical challenges. In both cases the rain was followed the same day by breezy, warm and dry conditions — perfect for quickly drying out the vineyards.
The logistical challenges though, are not insignificant. With harvest being so close, winemakers are not able to sample grapes to check the chemistry right after the rain, as it will create inaccurate readings in both sugars and acids. Also, if you were set to harvest grapes on those days when it rained, you were forced to wait at least a day. This creates challenges in the cellar, as presses, fermenters and crush crews get backed up with the rain delayed haul and those previously scheduled for that day. Harvest crews and truck drivers are similarly impacted.
The crop in the vineyards we toured, and from what we have heard, looks to be of fabulous quality as we reported in previous weeks. The vineyards we walked through, all in Napa, have abundant and uniform bunches. We saw no raisining, or uneven ripening of any kind. There is talk on both sides of the Mayacamas Mountains about a fairly severe grape glut this year. Severe enough that some vineyards that are not under long-term contract may just go unharvested. This rare occurrence is the result of two factors. First, some of the merger and acquisition activity at the largest of wine companies is creating quite a bit of demand interruption. Newly acquired brands and wine companies are canceling grape contacts as they attempt to assess just how much raw material they need going forward.
For these large producers of bulk wine, they are also “long” quite a lot of wine from the last several vintages, which have also been large by historical standards. It is all further complicated by trends in the domestic wine markets. The only categories with growing demand are from smaller wineries with more unique and higher-end wines. We can confirm this trend at the retail level as consumers are shunning the cheaper, mass produced bulk and private label brands for higher caliber “juice.” In fact, the only price category showing significant growth here at home is for wines priced over $9, and the average bottle purchased in the United States pushes toward the mid-teens.
Will grapes from the best appellations and farmed by the best growers find a home this year? Of course! Napa Valley Cabernet and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, to name a couple, will always have strong demand and stable pricing. For the lesser growing areas and mass-produced grapes, price degradation and decreasing demand will likely be the norm for some time.
Over the next several weeks here in Sonoma and Napa Counties the forecast is for roller coaster, albeit mostly normal, temperatures. There are some chances for additional rain too, which remains an inopportune time for precipitation and certainly not the norm. This will no doubt cause more than just a bit of indigestion for even the most stalwart of farmers and winemakers.
One other report, our interactions while here have been with mostly the oldest of the “old guard” here in Napa and Sonoma. Their wines remain stunningly good and worth every penny we have paid for them, which in some cases can only be described as expensive. These folks remain some of the greatest people in the wine business. While it is nearly impossible not to be in awe when traveling around these iconic areas, those in the business remain some of the most humble and endearing characters we know. A refreshing and welcome note on the state of “wine country.”
Finally, we would like to thank our friends at Failla Winery, Pride Mountain Vineyards, Shafer Winery and Vineyards and Spottswoode Winery, and our dear friend Bill Phelps, for all our wonderful visits.
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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.