Californians are always talking about the weather, which no doubt seems strange to the rest of the world. Considering that the climate is temperate, most people might think that it would go unnoticed. Eliminating temperatures in the high mountains and the desserts, where few people live anyway, no snow falls and heat almost always stays under 100 degrees F. So what’s to talk about?
Most Californians live in coastal cities, and the closer we are to the ocean, the less we can anticipate what to wear. We never know what that strange mix of land and ocean temperatures will deliver, whether the wind will blow, the fog float in, the sun shine, or the rain fall, pretty much on any day during any season, a condition which can create plenty of weather conversation all by itself. But we also live in a state that is the top producer of agricultural products in the nation. After greenhouse and nursery products, grapes are the largest crop, and like humans, they are very sensitive to climate. So the reason we closely monitor the weather is that after trying to figure how much clothing we should layer on our bodies to accommodate all conditions between rain and heat, our second immediate concern is the wine in our glasses. And the weather is challenging its supply and style.
Triggered by temperature changes, buds break through the dormant vines in the spring. But this year, cold and rain conveyed a different message and delayed growth. In June, after buds had courageously popped, rain continued, disrupting flowering and then shattering grapes in their clusters after they appeared. As a result, crops will be down by a lot. Weather was off last year too, so now vintners are talking about demand exceeding supply. You know what that means. Prices rise for them and for us. They buy grapes, and we buy wine.
After that scary spring, July, August, and September failed to deliver summer weather. Yes, the season by-passed California. Only those with a direct line to the gods will know the reason. The weather was “unseasonably cool” as we say, without even a heat spike or two that could have pushed at least some left-behind vineyards into full ripeness.
Yet we still had hope for a warm fall. Instead, the sky darkened and rain poured during the entire first week of October, which can dilute the fruit, diminishing quality, and create molds that further reduce crops. Some vintners rushed to pick ahead of the storm, especially whites and Pinot Noir, even though the grapes may not have been as ripe as they had come to expect from past years. In this situation, grapes in the tank are worth all those in the vineyard that may not survive. So the 15 and 16 percent alcohol wines that we have come to love may now be reduced to 13.5 percent like wines always were before the inky, fruity era indulged us with easy highs. I was in Sonoma several days ago and saw many red grapes still hanging on vines. If temperatures warmed and rain disappeared for the next few weeks, those reds would ripen further.
But regardless of any last minute warming spells, the question remains. California winemakers have become experts at picking extremely ripe fruit and wrestling the wine into balance with all kinds of magic. But do they remember how to create a balanced wine with fruit that is minimally ripe, at least by current standards? The vintage reports are just beginning to arrive. In the meantime, Californians will continue to talk about the weather.