oh mighty grape fairy, shine your light on our vines!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A lot of praying is going on in wine country these days (along with nail biting and floor pacing and a fair amount of expletives not being deleted). I'm considering a revision of the part of my book that boasts about Washington's harvests, guaranteed to be sunny and rain free. Not this one.

Washington suffers from weather tribulations, notably freezes, on a fairly regular basis. In just the past few years I've seen a variety of ill-timed weather, including a deep freeze early in 2004 that wiped out much of that year's crop; a Halloween freeze in 2006 that dropped temperatures into the low teens; an early October freeze a couple of years ago and a Thanksgiving freeze last year, both of which took their toll on certain locations.

But I have never seen a fall so wet, so cool and so cloudy as this one. And if what I read is true, the same weather is causing consternation as far south as Napa and Sonoma. Oregon vintners may be making a lot more rosé this year. And to top it all off, the Walla Walla paper carried a front page story about a spotted wing fruit fly that has suddenly decided to make this lovely valley its home.

So it's time for supernatural intervention. At least here in Washington, winemakers are picking their spots and taking their shots at picking grapes (so far they are doing far better than the NBA, which won't be taking any shots in the foreseeable future). Brief periods of sun and warmth have allowed some sauv blanc and chardonnay to come in, along with a bit of merlot. The weather outlook is not completely dire. No deep freezes on the radar for another couple of weeks.

But cabernet is going to need more than that in most places. There is still a chance for a miracle vintage – a Hail Mary of the Vines if you will. In such a scenario, the sun keeps poking through and temps stay above freezing at least until early November. Fruit has been dropped to where what remains can ripen sufficiently. Yields are down – not entirely a bad thing – and the resulting wines are Euro-style: sleek, elegant, firm, with nuanced notes of earth and herb.

This may well lead some national wine rags to write off the vintage as sub-par, which is exactly what happened in 1999. That would make for an excellent buying opportunity for consumers savvy enough to taste the actual quality. Those 1999 Washington reds are drinking beautifully right now, far better than some of the "great" vintages that followed.

So my prayer for today, oh mighty grape fairy, is that you shine your light on our vines! Sop up the surplus of dull wines with silly labels. Put the young winemakers to the true test of a challenging vintage. And let the best of them make wines that they will be proud of for the rest of their lives.

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