A California Harvest Like No Other

The last bins of grapes from the vintage rolled through the streets of Solvang the first week of December, culminating the 2010 harvest in Santa Barbara County.

But that’s not unusual in this unique growing region.

“Grape diversity here is the norm, rather than the unexpected,” explains Jim Fiolek, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association. “Santa Barbara’s vineyards are planted along transverse valleys that run east to west, the only place on the Pacific Coast that this occurs between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego, Chile.

“This unique geologic ‘twist’ creates hundreds of microclimates, with soils and climatic conditions changing just about each mile. We can grow superb Pinot Noir in the western areas and excellent Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet 25 miles farther to the east. All with excellence. This is indeed an incredible place.”

The transverse nature of Santa Barbara County makes it entirely different than any other wine region in California, and supplies the area with the longest growing season in the state. The 2009 harvest began in August with crisp white varietals like Pinot Gris as well as those designated for “sparklers,” while the winemakers in the western areas of the county happily relied upon the predictable maritime influence to weather the heat spike in that month, and began harvesting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in early September.

Further east, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Dolcetto, Merlot and many other warmer climate varietals began to be harvested in October. The hardier and later-ripening Syrah, Cabernet and Tempranillo, to name a few, took October rains in stride and made their debut into wineries throughout November.

“We literally can grow quality wines from A to Z in Santa Barbara County,” says Steve Fennell of Sanford Winery, who also serves as President of the Vintners’ Association. “Albarino, Barbera, Chardonnay, Dornfelder… Merlot, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir… Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Viognier… Zinfandel… and all those in-between. There really is something for everyone here because of our dozens of microclimates. This area is ‘Diversity Perfected.'”

Michael Larner of the Larner Vineyard concurs. “As with all vintners in California this year, we had our share of weather challenges. But other than a lot of nail-biting, it all worked out well. The marine influence from the nearby Pacific tempered the heat spike for our cool-climate growers in the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley, while those warm temperatures brought harvest back on schedule for growers in the Santa Ynez Valley and Happy Canyon further to the east.

“The odd October rains may have caused a few gray hairs, but most of those grapes are hardy and took it in stride. Sure, there were some vineyards that had weather-related damage, but all in all, Santa Barbara County will have an excellent 2010 vintage.”

With 2010 wines now finishing fermentation, going into barrel or some even being prepared for early 2011 bottling, winemakers are pleased with the vintage. Careful farming, an intimate knowledge on the part of the growers for their individual microclimates, and patience on the part of winemakers resulted in bountiful yields of excellent quality.

“We’re not like the rest of California,” notes Fiolek. “It’s always a bit frustrating to be lumped into reports on ‘the California harvest.’ We’re different here because of our unique topography.

“Diversity perfected, indeed.”

Posted in Wine Buzz
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