New Wines from California's Central Coast

Mother Nature has been playing games with California's Central Coast in recent vintages, and this fall things have been especially nervewracking, especially in vineyards planted to late-ripening varieties.  At press-time much fruit was still hanging, which makes this the latest harvest on record for many vineyards.  On top of that, severe frosts in early spring dramatically reduced yields in many sites; for example, more than half of Paso Robles' 26,000 acres were affected by frost between April 8 and 10, and some vineyards will produce no fruit at all.

Two thousand ten was a relatively benign vintage aside from a damp, chilly spring and a cool summer, which slowed the growing season and set the stage for one of the latest harvests ever, until this year.  Some producers told me that 2010 was the coolest growing season since 1998.  The good news is that heat spikes in late August and early September (temperatures soared to almost 110 degrees in Paso Robles) helped to kick up sugars, after which the weather cooled back down and stayed that way into October, allowing the vines to be picked at leisure, or at least until the serious rain and cold weather hit in late October.  Those weren't issues for pinot noir and chardonnay, by the way, which had long been harvested by then.

Every producer I spoke with this fall was pleased with 2009, describing the year as a textbook, often cool growing season, with sugars advancing smoothly and no serious drops in acidity leading up to the harvest.  An early September burst of heat helped push grape sugars up and no significant rain came until the middle of October, by which time almost all pinot and chardonnay had been harvested.  That fruit was extremely healthy.  Warm, even hot weather returned after the rain and late-ripening varieties could then be harvested into November.

There are still a number of 2008 red wines coming into the market, especially those based on cabernet sauvigon, and they tend to show the effects of this low-yielding vintage, which was seriously affected by severe spring frosts.  The wines tend to be on the rich side, with deep, concentrated flavors and serious power, but without the superripe character of many 2007s.  

A welcome development in the Central Coast is the growing number of entry-level bottlings from upper-tier producers, wines that are often made with at least some purchased grapes.  Much of the fruit comes from high-quality sites and was originally intended to wind up in high-end wines, but that's a slow-moving category now, to say the least.  This means that wineries are now able to buy grapes from many carefully planted and tended vineyards at prices that are often far below their intended value, which translates into excellent wines at fair prices, at least in theory.  But don't expect to see bargain prices for wines made from grapes sourced from blue-chip Central Coast vineyards any time soon, as that fruit is still in very high demand.

A number of producers told me this year that one way they're dealing with the sluggish market is by relying more heavily on direct sales to consumers, either at tasting rooms or via mailing lists.  The logic is that while their market presence may be compromised by limited distribution to retailers and restaurants around the country, they can keep more profit if they sell straight to the end buyer at a lower price than the buyer would be charged at a wine shop.  With wine consumers becoming more and more cost-conscious, this strategy makes sense, at least for the short term.  Still, quite a few wineries, especially the smaller ones, say that they remain loyal to the traditional three-tier system of producer-wholesaler-retailer.  The little guys usually can't afford to have their own sales forces and must rely on wholesalers to keep their wines in the public eye.