Will the 2011 Harvest Be Normal?

I have come to believe that the idea of a “normal harvest season” in the world of wine is just that: an idea, and nothing more.

For at least a decade, I’ve been following harvest reports around the world very closely. The Internet has made that possible. Over that span of time, in wine regions from the Russian River Valley to the Rhone Valley, and from Carneros to the Clare Valley, it seems as if no two consecutive harvest seasons ever are “the same.”

One year, crop levels may be way down. Another year, they may be way up. There even can be big differences in contiguous regions. This year in the Pacific Northwest, for example, Oregon has been looking at a potentially record crop, while Washington growers are facing declines of around 20 percent. This story from Wines & Vines provides the details.

In California’s Monterey County, Rhonda Motil, executive director of the local vintners and growers association, made an observation that has become almost typical: “This is my ninth harvest in the area, and it has been unlike any that I can recall.”

She follows that up with an equally predictable note of optimism: “The growers have all handled Mother Nature’s curve balls with the patience and expertise indicative of our winegrowing region.”

You can read the most recent harvest update from Monterey here.

Of course, it’s only natural for farmers — and that’s what winegrape growers are — to be optimistic. They have to be, given the factors that they can’t control, which tend to be factors that Mother Nature dictates. When Mother is happy, the harvest can go off without a hitch; when Mother is unhappy, an entire growing season can be ruined within just a few hours.

Those are the extremes, of course. Few harvests are perfect, and few are total washouts. In most years, in most regions around the world, we’re dealing with what I like to call “the great in-between.”

While I know winedom’s 100-point rating system is controversial, it comes in handy when trying to explain the spectrum of wine quality in which Mother Nature plays such a key role.

Among quality focused producers, you can depend on a minimum quality level of around 85. These are wineries that have built reputations, and would rather have smaller quantities of good wine to sell than larger quantities of so-so wine. For them, 85 is the base, and they build the number up from there, based largely on the quality of the grape crop.

There’s also an oft-quoted notion that, thanks largely to technological advances — temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, computerized crushers, etc. (http://education.mhusa.com/section/1131933836156/1131933421296.htm) — it’s almost impossible to produce a wine that would garner a rating of lower than 70. For the big “wine factories” that help stock liquor store and supermarket shelves, 70 may be the base.

And then there are the super-premium brands, for which 90 or higher is the numeric base. They are much more likely to greatly limit quantities in so-so years — or even kiss entire vintages good-bye, in extreme cases — in order to protect their brand.

It’s not unusual to hear farmers and vintners discussing the quality of the harvest in this type of numeric terminology. So, will the 2011 harvest in Oregon be a 90? Will it get that high in Monterey? What will the lower yields do to that number in Washington?

The truth is, we won’t have a really firm grasp of the situation until that last grape has been picked in a given area. And we won’t know with any great degree of certainty until all of the harvested grapes have been transformed into wine.

So, will 2011 rank as a normal harvest season? It’s hard to say when we really don’t know what “normal” is.

Posted in Wine Region Profiles
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