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Grape Harvest 2015: Early, Tasty, Very Small

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That I'm writing my harvest column a month earlier than last year, which featured winemakers talking about the surprisingly early 2014 harvest, is a hint something historic is afoot. Welcome to Drought Does California, 2015 edition.

Up in the Santa Lucia Highlands, long-time grape-grower Rich Smith (a veteran of 42 harvests) said a week ago, "We've already got hang-time. We've got color in syrah which is usually still green. That means low yield and smaller berries, so the skin-to-volume ratio goes up, which makes winemakers happy and growers not so much."

He's referring to the wine "flavor" and color that comes from the skins, and that the ability to sell by weight favors the growers.

"There is definitely a light crop. We got about half as much as 2013 from a number of our acreage contracts," says Joshua Klapper, winemaker at La Fenetre Wines in Santa Barbara County. He makes delicious wines but owns no vineyards of his own.

"The flip side being quality seems very high," he says. "Great natural acidity and intense color seem to be the norm. These are not absolute predictors, but definitely indications pointing to a very good vintage."

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"Vintage 2015 is the earliest harvest in modern winemaking in California. I've spoken with winemakers with fifty vintages under their belt and they cannot remember an earlier harvest," says Wes Hagen, brand ambassador and consultant for J. Wilkes Wines in Santa Maria. "It would be easy for a pundit or an amateur to see the timing and assume there was a lack of color, flavor development, and balance because of the truncated hang time. But as a pro with decades of experience deciding when to pull the trigger on vineyard blocks, I can honestly say that I expect greatness out of the 2015 vintage."

Klapper suggests that the ever-building affects of the drought have led to the lighter crop, after some bumper previous vintages. "The lack of moisture in the soil seems to be accelerating ripening. Water tends to slow things down," he says. "The drought seems to have finally affected crop this year with light yields, though after three record years, it seems fair to me!"

As for the future, much hinges on El Niño. Until then, Hagen says, "The good news for wine drinkers is there has never been a better time in history to buy and drink wine. The recession kicked poor winemakers and growers into the unemployment line, and as a professional wine judge for 20 years I can say without hesitation that the quality of commercial wine is stunning. Has there been homogenization due to large companies snapping up vineyard and wineries suffering in the economy? Of course. But I have also learned a secret of winemaking few geeks know: larger volume can keep wine healthy and sound, and winemakers who are in charge of large productions are often the best in the business, as they are commonly paid the highest salaries."

Hagen sums up with some strong advice, "Stock the cellar right now, because wine prices will be going up after a short 2015 harvest. Tiny clusters, tiny berries, expect big intensity and color. 2014 was a fine vintage, and I think you can argue that '13 will be deeper than '12, '14 will be bigger than '13, and 2015 will likely be an intense, perfumed, complex vintage especially for pinot noir and chardonnay all around the state."

And if El Niño doesn't help vines soak deep and wash out the salinity of irrigation? "Without significant winter rainfall throughout California this winter, expect wells to start running dry and wine prices to skyrocket," Hagen warns. "I suggest hedging your wine investment by putting at least a few cases of wine in a cool place now while prices are as low as they have ever been."

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