We are entering our fourth year of very tough climate conditions for grape growers in the wine districts north of San Francisco

As the savvy wine traveler learns, there is no such thing as an entirely bad harvest or vintage as some wine writers would proclaim. If you do some research, there are fabulous wines to be found despite the challenges facing grape growers.

Last year was the coldest growing season in decades. Growers were worried the signature Bordeaux grapes would not be pulled in with high enough sugar levels.

In an effort to hasten the ripening process, many growers stripped leaves from around the grapes to open them to more sunlight and warmth. Then, Northern California was hit with a major heat wave of 105-plus degrees. The result: many crops were destroyed by sunburn

Once again, in 2011 we have struggled with a colder growing season. Adding insult to injury, the heavy rains of May – during the blossoming period – shattered grape clusters so that it appears yields will be down substantially.

The harvest is late – by most accounts – up to three weeks. One Sonoma Valley grower said that his dark skinned grapes will push very late October or first of November if we do not see some consistent Indian summer, dry mid- to upper 80’s weather with bright morning sun.

What does this mean for the wine enthusiast?

Look for opportunity.You may use the 2010 vintage as an example. Not all was lost despite the horrible picture painted by many stories. Seek out the vineyards and appellations that actually did well. We have two vineyard examples for the 2010 harvest.

Kuleto Estate Family Winery

“2010 may well be our finest vintage,” said Dave Lattin, winemaker for the Kuleto Estate Family Winery.

Kuleto Estate is located at about the 1,500 foot elevation, east of the Silverado Trail and the Rutherford Crossroad.

“This is no exaggeration,” he said. “We usually have enough sun with our high elevation. Our fruit did not burn because we did not cut our leaves back as did other growers on the Valley floor. “

“Most mountain top growers have done just fine last year,” he said.

“I would love to see another vintage like 2010,” Lattin said. It was cool enough so that we could have a late harvest and yet produce grapes with just the right amount of sugar to keep our alcohol content down.”

“It’s the vintage we strive for,” said Lattin. “We developed true physiological ripeness with lower sugar levels.”


The legendary Hanzell which may have been California’s first cult winery sits atop the southern end of the Mayacamas Mountain range at the 2,000 foot elevation. Their harvest had little trouble in 2010.

“My heart went out to the farmers who were hit,” said Jean Arnold, President of Hanzell.

“Can thicker skinned Bordeaux varietals handle an untimely rain at harvest? Yes, but perhaps one bad storm, maybe,” she said.

“We did not have an issue with the heat spikes, as well,” she said.

Like Kuleto, 2010 should turn out to be a solid vintage for Hanzell. With all of the untimely rains of 2009, Ms. Arnold said that it appears that year should produce a great vintage.

Yes, the headlines proclaimed gloom and doom regionally. We are always sensitive to the farmers who may struggle from one year to the next, but the savvy wine traveler should always recognize that with a little research – a great vintage is always waiting to be discovered.