By Penny Gadd-Coster
With the sparkling winegrape harvest finished over a month ago, and the still varietals also winding down, it’s time to reflect on harvest 2015. This grape growing season and harvest was unlike any I’ve seen in my 30 years as a winemaker. It started with the unusual weather patterns. First, an unprecedented drought of four years impacted the vines, and then in the spring, a heat spell followed by a cool spell caused the berries to first bloom, then re-bloom. Typically bloom takes a couple of weeks, but this year it lasted a month, a phenomenon I’ve never seen before. One of those blooms didn’t germinate and produce fruit—that may be why it second bloomed, in a last-ditch effort to reproduce, if you will.
Fortunately, the Carneros appellation in Sonoma where we source most of our grapes for the Rack & Riddle brand seemed to weather the changes fairly well. And with few hills, the vines didn’t suffer the same drought issues of other areas; even though the soil in the Carneros region drains well, what rain we did receive was allowed to soak in and not just become runoff as you see with hillside-planted vines. We were still down 20 percent in yields, but with the average for other areas of Sonoma County being 30-40 percent down, we lucked out.
Many other areas of the county were not so fortunate—my own vineyard at my home in Cloverdale, in the Alexander Valley appellation, yielded zero grapes this harvest. Ninety percent of the clusters were green berries that never ripened. A recent article from Wine Spectator shows a perfect example of this phenomenon, known as Millerandage, or “hens and chicks,” a fruit-set defect where underdeveloped and fully developed berries appear in the same cluster. The article shows an image of a cluster where about 50 percent is comprised of hard, green berries. In my case, when only a dozen berries per cluster are ripe, harvest is impossible. This is no doubt the disappointing side to farming, when you put so much time, money and effort into your vineyards, but reap nothing.
While the yields were low, overall the quality was good. But if you were one of those who just didn’t have the yields necessary to harvest, this would be the perfect year to dive into the bulk market. As a custom crush facility, we are seeing many people who wanted to bring in a varietal for a special project unable to because of low yields—many of those people are planning some fun blends instead, or taking advantage of the limited-release bubblies we have available in our private label wine program. Custom dosage, differing aging times en tirage and custom packaging/labeling means you can present a new sparkling label unique to your brand in very little time. It’s typically just three months turn-around on average from start to finish—from obtaining label approval and printing, to labeling and packing in cases, ready to ship. This can be a rewarding project to pursue on down years such as this one.
Looking ahead, my hope is that next year picks up. These years tend to flip flop, so the chances are next year is going to be an average crop. Here’s hoping. Meanwhile, good luck to all as you craft this season’s blends, perhaps challenging, but that’s why we do this! I am looking forward to 2016, optimistically better weather, happier grapes, and revitalized winemakers as we may actually have a moment to reflect for a change. We made it through another harvest—cheers!