The 2011 Vintage in California: A Cautionary Tale

by Chuck Hayward

The 2011 harvest looks to have produced one of the most difficult vintages that California's wine industry has confronted in decades. Blessed with relatively normal weather patterns during summer and fall, the state's growing regions rarely have to deal with the problems faced by wineries working in more marginal climes. Now, the first 2011s have entered the market and its pretty clear that the vintage has definitely left an imprint. Now it's time to sort out just what that imprint is.

The last vintage to throw winemakers for a loop was 1989. That year, a series of storms pummeled the north coast trashing much of the chardonnay on the vines that was ready to pick. Napa and Sonoma chardonnays in particular suffered as winemakers were forced to throw away moldy fruit while harvesting grapes swollen from the rains before the rot got worse. The violent weather left such an indelible impression that many consumers and a good chunk of the trade considered the entire vintage a writeoff.

The weather dealt two blows to growers in 2011. An unusual spate of storms plowed through the state during flowering in June. With the flowers decimated thanks to the rain, there was little possibility of pollination resulting in bunches with few berries that severely reduced yields. The poor spring weather was followed by another wave of storms in early October. As in 1989, growers were once again forced to pick quickly as disease pressures in vineyards increased exponentially. Lacking sufficient hangtime, much of the fruit was picked before the grapes had achieved optimal ripeness.

When it comes to classifying a vintage as good or bad, the tendency for the wine industry is to rush to judgment and make a broad, overreaching assessment of the harvest. The vintage is either good, mediocre or bad. The problem is that characterizing a vintage in California is not that simple. The state is almost 800 miles long containing a multitude of growing regions and microclimates. At the same time, grapes ripen at different rates with picking dates that vary over the course of the season. A storm that hits Napa often has leaves no impact in Monterey while chardonnay that's picked in the North Coast in September will be picked in late October in Santa Barbara.

And so it was with the 1989 vintage. While the chardonnay crop in Napa and Sonoma suffered from the rains, cabernet sauvignon was relatively unharmed thanks to the grape's thick skins and later ripening window. And while the chardonnays of the North Coast were of poor quality, wines made from fruit grown down south were unaffected by the weather and some wineries produced stunning wines. Nevertheless, the lasting image of 1989 was the heavy rainfall at harvest that prompted many to think that all wines made that year were poor.

So what are we to make of the 2011s? Are the state's wines universally poor or should we remember the real lesson from 1989 and take a more measured look at this difficult year? The recent Pinot Days tasting, the annual pinot noir festival that's been produced by Steve and Lisa Rigisch for almost a decade, provided a first chance to comprehensively assess the impact of the weather. 

Viewed through the window of this fickle varietal, it was clear that the poor fall conditions had an impact on Sonoma and Mendocino pinot noirs particularly. While there were some pleasant wines to be found, there were just as many, if not more, disappointments. Yet it was surprising to witness the change in the style of 2011 pinots as you traveled south. Down in Monterey as the color of the wines deepened, there was clearly more richness and intensity to be found. Broad in shape but framed nicely by just the right amount of acidity, many wines showed more balance and complexity than what was made in 2010. Examples from Santa Barbara were more elegant in comparison to Monterey, a reflection of the cool conditions towards the end of the region's extending growing season.

The tasting confirmed an important tenet when trying to characterize a particular vintage. While there is often a general theme to a vintage, there will always be exceptions. Some winemakers can handle the challenges throw at them by the weather, some regions will be unaffected as rain or frost pass them by. But we all should remember that there are exceptions in each vintage. Tasting the wine, not the vintage, will shine the light on the year's successes because it looks like the 2011s may not be as bad as many everyone says. Happy hunting!

Here are some 2011 California pinot noirs you might want to try!

2011   Belle Glos "Las Alturas" Pinot Noir

2011   Loring Wine Co "Rosellas Vineyard" Pinot Noir

2011   Melville "Terraces" Pinot Noir

2011   Siduri "Garys Vineyard" Pinot Noir