Well, we may run out of water, but we won't run out of wine -- at least not the 2014 vintage. For while the drought ravages California, checking in with several winemakers in Santa Barbara suggests the 2014 vintage will have relatively high yields. Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard & Winery thinks the yields might be "because grape growers compensated for the lack of rain via irrigation, which may have given the vines more water directly at their disposal, or the warmth of the vintage convinced the vines to be more prolific. Either way, most vineyards are experiencing higher to slightly higher yields, and the grapes themselves seem to be overall a little more juicy than other years."
The relatively warm summer also led to a surprisingly early harvest; Jeff Fischer of Habit Wine Company has already completed his twelfth and final pick of his gruner veltliner, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir, while Morgan Clendenen of Cold Heaven Cellars laments, "Harvest this year was about a month early. I've never picked viognier in August since I began in 1996. That was a little surprising and yes, I felt robbed of a proper summer."
It wasn't necessarily a normal summer, though. "A surprise for this vintage, compared to others, is that with the consistent warmth we are not getting the cooler nights we typically experience," Lanrer says. "Santa Barbara's wine country normally has a 40 degree diurnal temperature shift, from 80s in the day to upper 40s at night. This vintage it has been very rare that we have gone below 60s. This leads to acid respiration, a process that occurs with or without light. Therefore the grapes are ripening, but we are losing acid faster than usual, an uncharacteristic vintage trait."
For example, Fischer stressed the difference between last year and this one: "In '13 I didn't have to pick as early as the acids were not dropping fast and the fruit could hang a bit longer and I feel those wines have great depth and complexity. This year, everything was ripening very quickly; we had some serious heat and acid was dropping fast so I tried to pick accordingly. For the most part, it seems like another great year, characterized by low alcohol and nice minerality."
Clendenen sounded a similar note, saying, "What this will mean, I think, in the end product is wines that are broader on the palate but lower in alcohol. It was a good year for the early picking faddists. They got their lower alcohol but actually came closer to physiological ripeness than in previous years, in my opinion."
As usual, grape growers and winemakers have had to play the hand Mother Nature has dealt them, but they seem pretty happy with those cards. "I'm very pleased with syrah this particular vintage," Larner reports. "It's showing great structure and elegance, yet is still bold all at lower ripeness levels. This allows us to make wines more balanced in alcohol content and age worthy."
So while this vintage has escaped the wrath of the drought, Fischer point out, "I'm more worried about what next year will be like if we don't get a substantial amount of rain before then." Perhaps if you're collecting, go all-in on 2014.