I don’t know of a single wine aficionado who hasn’t been concerned about this year’s grapes coming from the flooded areas of the wine region of northern California. Rain is normally a good thing for vineyards, but when it comes at the rate of 9 inches in 24 hours, well, that’s not so good. According to reports, in certain vineyards, it was impossible to see a single vine.
What will all this water mean for the 2006 growing year and harvest in the vineyards of Sonoma, and especially Napa? Well, luckily, the news isn’t grim. In fact, if northern California’s wine country had to sustain floods, this is the ideal time of year to do it. Since it’s the dormant season for grapes, most vineyard owners and winemakers aren’t worried. Sonoma County’s agricultural commissioner Lisa Correia says, “Orchards and vineyards aren’t actively growing, so typically they can withstand a couple of weeks’ worth of water. It’s not something that will kill the plants, as long as the standing water doesn’t last too long.” Had the floods come in March when the grape buds are at their most sensitive, or at harvest time in the fall'that would have been another story altogether.
According to James A. Wolpert, chairman of the enology and viticulture department at the University of California, Davis, damage to the vineyards in Napa is not so much due to the flooding itself. The vines are dormant and can withstand as many as two to four weeks underwater. However, what is at risk due to flooding is the infrastructure of the vineyards. The floodwater “carries with it lots of limbs and debris and that catches up in the wires and in the trellis system and can cause considerable damage to vineyards as a result of that flow.”
So of most concern to vintners and grape growers in rain-soaked California other than the vines themselves is the infrastructure of those vineyards. Many have complex underground systems to provide water to the grapes in summertime. And tractor movement in the vineyards becomes difficult or impossible once debris and tree limbs get into the trellis systems of the vineyards, so all the debris has to be removed largely by hand. Still, James Wolpert says in regard to how the floods might affect wine prices, “It’s not like Katrina and gas prices. There’s nothing like that in store.” Ultimately, there are 900,000 acres of grapes in California and only a few thousand were flooded. “We’ll get through this just fine,” concludes Wolpert.
So don’t run out and start hoarding Napa Valley and Sonoma wines just yet. As they say, a little rain never hurt nothin’.
SIPS: In last week’s “end of 2005” Grapevine column, I mentioned that I thought it was somewhat silly to annually name year’s end best wines. Some of you disagree. So although we’re only two weeks into 2006, I’m going to go ahead and name the Best Wine of 2006. What the heck, let’s just get it over with. Barring an unexpected inheritance from an unknown rich relative, the wine I will undoubtedly drink more of than any other in 2006 will be House Wine. No, I mean it will really be House Wine. My favorite recent red wine discovery is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (58 percent), Merlot (32 percent), Syrah (9 percent) and Cabernet Franc (1 percent) from the Colombia Valley in Washington called House Wine, produced by The Magnificent Wine Company of Prosser, Washington. This velvety blend is so smooth and subtle, with lovely chocolate/cocoa and currant notes, that it’s hard to believe it sells for a mere $10.95. Maybe one reason the price is so low is due to the minimalist bottling and graphics. When you look for this wine in the stores, just look for a simple, black-and-white label with a drawing of a house and the words House Wine etched in what looks like magic marker.