May 21, 2008
Battered, But Hanging In

To look at bunches of wine grapes just starting to develop on vines in the Sierra foothills, you might not realize the kind of beating they've been taking. They look perfectly fine. But that, however, depends on where you look.

While the vintage is young, it's shaping up as one of the more unpredictable in years, say growers and winemakers in the Mother Lode. There's been a spring frost, soon followed by an early and sustained spike in temperature, then high winds. All of these weather developments could pose eventual problems for the size and nature of this fall's crop.

Last night at the restaurant Latitudes in Auburn, however, where Placer County vintners gathered for their annual introduction of recent and pending releases, farmers and winemakers weren't whining. While the weather has set them back and left them scratching their heads, they more or less agreed that the year still is too young to begin talking about the quantity and quality of the vintage of 2008.

"They look fabulous," said grower Karen McGillivray of the 11 acres of wine grapes she and her husband William tend at Newcastle. Never mind that last month's sharp frost at the couple's Dono dal Cielo Vineyard reduced the potential crop by around 30 percent, or that the dry spring and the early heat prompted them to start watering vines more than a month earlier than usual. That's farming, and they've been doing it long enough - they planted their first vines in 2002, and this is the first year they're going entirely organic - to learn to roll with the periodic setbacks nature deals them.

Jim Taylor of Mt. Vernon Winery at Auburn said the frost hit his barbera "big time," at least "stunning" if not killing around half the crop. Still, he's optimistic that the year will progress more or less routinely. "It's a little early to figure out, but it probably will be an OK year," said Taylor.

Another Auburn vintner,Teena Wilkins of Vina Castellano, figures she lost between 15 percent and 35 percent of her eight-acre crop to the frost, including 60 percent of her one acre of barbera, the variety that sustained the most damage. Nonetheless, she was upbeat, noting that in the 10 years she's been farming wine grapes this was her first significant loss. "Next year we may have to put in some frost protection."

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