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The Race Is On for Vintage 2012

June 2012
by Jim Gordon
And they’re off! Is it just me, or are the vines growing faster than normal this year? Where I live in the southern Napa Valley, the vines bolted from the starting gate in mid-March, stumbled briefly during cold and damp weather in early April, then regained their footing and sprinted to the first wire. As I write this column in mid-May, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir shoots in Carneros have galloped to the second wire and begun flowering. (Also, the Kentucky Derby ran for the 138th time last weekend.)

It’s as if the vines are deep into the first turn and about to break into the long back stretch of June, July and August. It’s a hopeful time of year when every North American winegrape grower and winemaker is a potential winner, with the possible exception of those unlucky Midwestern producers hobbled by damaging spring freezes. The increasing popularity of wine with American consumers has driven demand for grapes, and for the first time in years there is virtually no surplus in the industry.

We keep hearing that more growers have contracts—contracts with longer terms and contracts with higher prices—after several years of being at the mercy of winery buyers who wouldn’t commit except at bargain-basement prices.

Best way to estimate yield
This is an ideal year for a larger than average crop. The chances of that are difficult to predict, however. As our columnist Glenn McGourty reminds everyone in his piece about crop estimation, the fundamentals of the 2012 harvest were established during early 2011. That was one of the rainiest, coolest springs that anyone in Northern California can remember—and not likely to encourage a bumper crop.

Yet growers have the ability to show the whip to their vines to improve performance in yield per acre (just to keep the horse race metaphor running), even though most rarely do. One way to increase the crop is to leave more buds on existing cordons, and another is to leave extra kicker canes. It appears anecdotally in the North Coast region that more growers have done this for 2012 than in recent memory.

McGourty’s Grounded Grapegrowing column explains the best way to estimate yields in mid-summer to help prepare for harvest.  The “lag phase” estimation technique is fairly simple and done just before veraison. It helps growers make decisions about crop thinning that they can then implement during veraison, when it’s easiest to identify by color the outlier clusters in terms of ripening.

The year they agree?
This may be the year that winemakers and growers get along better when it comes to crop thinning. Almost all domestic grape varieties and price points from $4 to $40 have been growing at 8% annually off-premise, and direct-to-consumer shipments of even more expensive wines continue to grow in volume.

Domestic wineries need to fill that demand or see it taken away by imports. Winery managers want to fill their tanks this year. Winemakers always want to maximize quality within the means of their budgets, but this may be the year they decide that the research on yields and quality is convincing. That is, acknowledge that moderately high yields can make just as high quality wine as artificially low yields induced by drastic mid-year dropping of fruit.

Lessons of the bust
So the race for this harvest, and ultimately the harvests of the future, is in full swing. Optimism in the wine industry has grown substantially since this time last year. In the middle of the new boom, however, let’s hope that no one forgets the lessons of the bust. 

Paul Franson’s cover story, “Desperation or Diversification,” addresses just that topic. He recounts how some growers were able to ride out the recession by making bulk wine and holding it until good buyers came along, rather than selling their grapes at less than their cost of production. A number of those growers told Franson that they would continue making bulk wine with a portion of their grapes to diversify their businesses, even when grapes are in great demand.

You might say that this time around the track they are hedging their bets.

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