Each growing season tells a story. Some, like 2017, are packed with drama. Others, like 2018, are more subtle. Here's how I saw the vintage of 2018:
The vintage starts long before the first grapes are picked. It starts in the winter after the preceding vintage, in fact. Much of what happens long before the vines even begin to grow has profound effects upon the growth of the vines and the quality, or at least the character, of the wine during the following year. The winter of 2017-2018 was much drier than the record setting winter of 2016-2017. In particular, the middle part of the winter, November-January, saw relatively little rain. You might think that this would not have much impact on the grapevines as they are dormant during most of this time, but the ground in which they grow is quite sensitive to both temperature and moisture during the winter. Too dry, and microbial life suffers. These microbes, as well as fungi, help to "mineralize" nutrients in the soil, making them more available to the vines during the growing season that follows. During the height of the drought, the vines suffered from both water and nutrient stress, as a result of the inhospitable conditions during the winter. While the vines this year did not exhibit a lot of visual nutrient stress, analyses of the plant tissues show that they are not exactly brimming with nitrogen and other nutrients. Low nutrients in the fruit can lead to all sorts of vexing problems.
The spring and early summer was pretty pleasant, and with the wet spring the vines grew like gangbusters. In years with rapid early growth I sometimes worry about the large amount of vegetative growth becoming difficult to support later in the year (more leaves equals more demand for water). Clusters were also looking on the large side.
As we got into the middle of the season, we had a series of heat waves in the north coast. Somewhat analogous to the mid season heat waves we had last year, although less severe. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that the mid-season heat was much less severe than in 2017, particularly when water stress is factored into the equation. We saw very little heat related trouble.
As the season progressed into August, most of us felt that the year had been quite forgiving so far. I for one was dreading the usual Labor Day heat wave, partly because I still had bad memories of the heat wave in 2017,and because you can usually count on it messing up the start of harvest to some extent. But it didn't materialize and harvest started in a relatively civilized manner. In fact, with the early fruit (The Shop, and The Habitat) we were chomping at the bit a little, and had to keep reminding ourselves to slow down.
Interestingly, and a little non-intuitively, although the season seemed quite mild and with much less heat and water stress than in 2017, when all was said and done, it was still one of the warmest growing seasons on record. Yet the condition of the fruit and the way the ripening proceeded seemed very much like a cooler year. The crop was much larger than in 2017 or 2016 and concentration is maybe down a notch in some of the wines, but not across the board. The whites seem to have fared well. Vineyards that were hit hard in 2017--Hirsch, Azaya (for McEvoy) and Alder Springs in the north fared much better in 2018.
We had fires again, this time in September. They did not burn in Napa and Sonoma County but there was a lot of smoke, which had everyone pretty worried. We tested a lot of grapes and everything came back clean, and as the wines fermented and went to barrel I did not detect any smoke taint. We were lucky that for much of the time the Mendocino and Central Valley fires were burning, the winds carried the smoke away from the vineyards--but even so, there were some pretty hazy days. So far the 2018 wines are unaffected, and in many cases show more fresh fruit character than in 2017. I should mention that in 2017 the fires came after all the fruit I work with had already been picked, so any damage we saw in 2017 had to do with the severe heat spikes, not the smoke. Late ripening vineyards were less fortunate, sadly.
I've been tasting through the wines the past two weeks or so. More to come on how they are progressing.