Boomer harvest follows quake

While a three-year dry spell has inflicted widespread economic damage on California, especially to its giant agriculture industry, its wine production is an exception.

The warm days, cool nights and dry weather in Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco have produced grapes of taste and quality that many vintners say they haven’t seen since the last drought in 2007-09. 

“This year’s vintage could be one for the ages,” says Michael Coats, co-owner of Valerie’s Vineyard in Sonoma County, which specialises in Pinot Noir. 

The two counties, celebrated in the film Sideways, produce most of America’s high-end wines. Part of the reason: reduced water forces the grapevines to produce smaller berries, which results in sugar and flavours being more concentrated.

“If there’s a silver lining to the drought in terms of wine grapes, it’s that they are really drought tolerant,” says Michael Honig, president and co-owner of Honig Vineyard & Winery in Napa County. 

He says his winery, like others, is enjoying another bonus of dry weather. With grapes ripening faster under the endless sun, vineyards are being harvested weeks earlier than normal –avoiding problems like autumn storms. 

The drought-enhanced vintage comes as good news after the Napa-Sonoma wine industry was literally rocked by a magnitude 6.0 earthquake on August 24. The quake toppled numerous wine barrels and caused other damage, in addition to destroying or damaging hundreds of buildings in Napa and other towns. 

Quake-related losses to the wine industry totaled more than $US80 million. But it caused less damage than it could have. Because the grape harvest was just beginning, many vintners had emptied barrels and cleared out warehouses to make room for the new grapes.

Wine Institute spokeswoman Gladys Horiuchi agrees the harvest is a promising one. 

“We’ve always had pretty good vintages during drought years,” she says. 

Grape quality looks to be good in other wine-producing areas of California, too, though winemakers face different challenges, such as having too little tank space for storage. 

Indeed, California wines have ranked high throughout the drought. In 2012 and 2013, Cabernet Sauvignons tested in Northern California scored ratings of 96 in a consumer guide produced by the Wine Advocate, compared with 78 in 2011. 

Although the 2014 ratings aren’t yet in, California vintages are likely to be high enough to extend strong retail sales, which rose 5% to a record $US23.1 billion in 2013 from the year before, according to the Wine Institute.