I'm just back from a week's immersion in California wines thanks to the 'Wine Summit' organised by the California Wine Institute for around 20 international journalists and buyers. The focus was not so much on visiting producers as on tasting some of the state's top wines in focused tastings, with plenty of opportunity to meet producers at the various lunches and dinners, where more wines were poured and tasted. (With apologies to vegetarians, I probably ate more meat last week than in the rest of the year so far.)
We did take a drive up to a high point on Gallo's MacMurray Ranch in Sonoma to get this great view of the Russian River Valley. The Indian summer - in the low eighties at midday though so much cooler morning and evening - was the culmination of what is being seen as a very good to excellent vintage, as the following snippets, gathered throughout the week, make clear. I have included the dates to make sense of the comments about finishing 'next week', etc. A few producers had already completed the harvest, most were more than half way through, and none could really spare the time away from the vineyard or winery to take part in one of the week's events. But they generously did so. Their early, understandably tentative, responses point to a vintage that may be even better than the lauded 2012.
Ted Lemon, Littorai, Sonoma Coast (30 Sep): All harvested. Slightly higher yields than predicted, wines a little softer than in 2012.
Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (30 Sep): Sauvignon Blanc yields more generous than in 2012 but Pinot Noir 'back to normal', ie lower than in 2012. High quality, possibly even better than in 2012 for Pinot Noir; Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay similar quality to 2012's fruit. Started harvesting the Pinot 21 August in the Russian River Valley - early but not the earliest ever. Everything came in at once, and the Chardonnay before the Pinot Noir.
Michael McNeill, Hanzell, Sonoma Valley (30 Sep): We started harvest on 14 August and did not stop until we finished on the 24th. Hanzell Vineyards is an early site. We are usually first to have bud-break, first to flower, which results in an early harvest. Our 'typical' harvest is the last week of August through the second week of September. We have the same length of growing season, just shifted forward. With the dry and warm winter and spring of the 2013 vintage our growing season was shifted that much further forward.
While I hate to say too much at this early stage, we are seeing excellent structure in our Pinot Noir - plenty of ripe tannin and good acidity. I am also very impressed by the concentration of fruit in the Chardonnay - some wines seem sweet when they are bone dry. As you know, we still have a long way to go, but I am pleased so far.
Larry Turley, California (30 Sep): Out of all the vineyards in various regions, 60% harvested so far. Nearly finished in Sonoma and half-way through in Mendocino. High crop in Lodi and only about a third in so far, partly because maturity delayed owing to leaf damage caused by spider mite. Yield a little lower than 2012 in most regions.
Gavin Chanin, Chanin Wine Company, Santa Barbara (1 Oct): A great year in Santa Barbara. Ripe fruit - seeds brown and stems ripe - and silky tannins. Long cool season, especially cool and slow ripening in August after warm June and July. All his Pinot was ready to be picked in the same week rather than the usual four weeks - unusual, for example, for the Los Alamos vineyard and Sta Rita to be ready at the same time - a sprint finish. No rot. They hand-pick at 2 am (with lights and pit helmets) to make sure the fruit is cool when it comes into the winery.
Dan Kosta, Kosta Browne, Sonoma (1 Oct): 90% of his Pinot picked. So far so good. A little bit of botrytis in the later picked fruit. Intense wines with good colour and acidity. Thicker skins than in 2012 thanks to a cooler September. Higher than average yields but lower than 2012 - more like 2007 overall. High quality with intensity. Smaller clusters and berries and important to avoid over-extraction.
Gina Gallo, Gallo Family, California (1 Oct): We are about half-way through the harvest. Everything suddenly 'popped' to ripeness at the end. No greenness in the reds - heat spikes zapped all the unripeness in Pinot, Cabernet and Zin. Whites are beautiful, 'little jewels', no botrytis.
Jamie Kutch, Sonoma Coast (1 Oct): Very slightly down in quantity compared with 2012. A big pH shift during ferment. No rot. Textbook rather than epic. Pure and elegant. (He adds that according to Rajat Parr, it is one of the greatest ever vintages - see below.)
David Graves, Saintsbury, Carneros (1 Oct): Only 6 tonnes of Chardonnay left to pick, the total harvest period was just 4 weeks and was about 16 days earlier due to the early start - very dry June to March meant that the soils warmed up and accelerated the phenology. Volume a little lower than 2012 except for Pinot Noir, which is slightly higher. Good colour and acidity. No-drama vintage that ended ripe without rain or rot. Good aromatic characteristics in the whites.
Carole Meredith, Mount Veeder (3 Oct): Harvest finished 10 days ago - they don't have any Cabernet to wait for. 2013 quite similar to 2012 - early year. Plenty of heat but no excess. A dry season has produced spectacular quality fruit with fully ripened flavours. Very healthy fruit (indicated by very low levels of VA - similar to those of 2005). They have just pressed the Syrah, Mondeuse and Zin. Similar volume to 2012.
Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon, Santa Cruz Mountains (4 Oct): Will finish harvest next week. In his San Juan Bautista vineyard, the Grenache (Ch Rayas plant material) is exceptional in having fine small berries.
Andy Beckstoffer, Napa Valley (4 Oct): Many bunches affected by shatter because of the heat during flowering, giving low bunch weights. They expected small berries but the berries swelled in August to more normal size. Early vintage (Crane vineyard picked 28 September - a couple of weeks earlier than is typical) marked by elegance.
Rajat Parr, Sandhi Wines, Santa Barbara (8 Oct, by email): It's a great Pinot vintage. Best I've seen since I started making Pinot (2006 was my first vintage). Chardonnay also looks very good but not sure how good. 2012 was also very good but much softer and rounder.