The Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley are about mid-way through the 2008 harvest. From all accounts, it has been a wild but ultimately rewarding ride through a challenging growing season.
“We experienced the worst frost season in many decades and a very dry spring,” said Duff Bevill, past president of the WDCV and owner of Bevill Vineyard Management LLC.
After the rains stopped in March, the ground warmed quickly and the vine shoots were branching out when the extended frosts hit in April, affecting many vineyards that had never experienced frost before.
“The damage hit some blocks, burning the fruit and diminishing the yield, whereas others went unscathed,” said Bevill.
The cold weather gave way to heat spikes and wind in early May during the critical period of bloom, causing further crop loss. June will be remembered for the pall caused by more than 1,000 forest fires, many large ones located in adjacent Mendocino, Lake and Napa Counties. Dry Creek Valley was fire-free but shrouded in drifting smoke, as was all of Sonoma County.
July and August brought mostly ideal ripening weather with early morning fog and afternoon temperatures in the 80s and 90s, punctuated by brief heat spikes. The week before Labor Day, the fog disappeared and daytime temperatures rose above the century mark, remaining hot for several days running. The light crop ripened rapidly, and wineries quickly began to bring in their grapes.
Michel-Schlumberger’s winemaker/vineyard manager, Mike Brunson, began picking Pinot Blanc grapes on August 22.
“Pinot Blanc develops the particular flavors that we like at lower sugars,” explained Brunson. “It usually starts to strut its stuff around 20.5 Brix, much lower than most California wines.”
According to Brunson, the lighter overall crop resulted from the weather challenges, and the lack of ground water had an impact on fruit size – creating very small berries with tons of flavor.
Grape grower Dave Faloni, whose family has been farming their 52-acre West Dry Creek Road ranch since 1925, remarked that the high temperatures in late August caused everything to “go nuts,” rapidly ripening the grapes and dehydrating them as well. Fortunately, the fog rolled in on September 8, slowed everything down and allowed the wineries to take a breath and catch up.
“Many of the vineyards and wineries share picking teams,” explained Faloni. “The teams were maxed out with all the grapes ripening at once, needing to be harvested. The wineries were running out of capacity, so the cool weather was a blessing.”
Faloni lost approximately 10 percent of his crop to frost this year, but he has a lower overall yield that is off as much as 40-50 percent due to the weather extremes.
“The quality of the fruit is still very good,” he said.
The weather in recent days was characterized by heavy morning fog, sometimes lingering until noon, followed by afternoons in the 70s and 80s. At this point, Michel-Schlumberger has harvested all of its Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Viogner and Zinfandel. Dutcher Crossing Winery’s winemakers, Kerry Damseky and Dan Glover, are also about halfway through with their harvest. Dutcher Crossing is sourcing its Sauvignon Blanc from Mauritson Vineyards this year.
“The fruit has nice melon and pear flavors,” said Glover.
“Our Dry Creek Valley Maple Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are all in,” he added. “Although the yields are a little low compared to other years, we are very pleased with the flavors. All the fruit is coming in tasting really good. The Bernier-Sibary Vineyard’s Old Vine Italian blend of Carignan, Petite Sirah and Mataro (also known as Mourvedre) grapes are beautiful, with sugars right where we wanted them.”
One block of Taylor Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and another of Syrah also are in.
“Tasting them has proven that this year’s weather challenges did not negatively affect the flavor components,” said Glover. “Overall the yields are down, but from a winemaker’s perspective, this often translates into better wines.”
George Unti, owner/vineyard manager for Unti Vineyards, said they are about 15 percent through with harvest.
“We only grow red grapes, including Grenache, Syrah, a little Mourvedre and Zinfandel,” he said. “Even with no frost damage, the Syrah crop is very light. We did lose some of our Zinfandel in the frost.”
The heat-loving Syrah grape creates robust, long-lived, spicy reds. Thick-skinned and deeply pigmented, Dry Creek Valley Syrah makes an excellent single varietal wine, but is also valued as a blending grape.
Unti noted that Doug Nalle, owner of Nalle Winery in the southern end of the valley, was already done harvesting his head-trained, dry-farmed Zinfandel grapes.
“We tend to prune later in the winter, and therefore we harvest later,” Unti noted.
“We were fortunate the fog arrived in time to allow many of the red grapes to hang longer on the vines, developing mature tannins and fruit flavors,” said WDCV President Greg Chambers. “The earlier-ripening varieties are showing us that the lighter yields have resulted in excellent aromas and flavors. Once again, the growers and winemakers of Dry Creek Valley have weathered the challenges of Mother Nature.”
Summary: The 2009 vintage wines from Dry Creek Valley should be very good, but some will be in very limited supply.