Vintage 2018 in Santa Barbara County, a Miracle or a Return to Normal?

We are finishing up our 2018 Santa Maria Valley harvest here at J. Wilkes and the wines are starting to show a character and quality that will likely make this vintage a ‘classic’.  Winemakers throughout the State have been dealing with warmer-than-normal temperatures for the 2013-2016 vintages, where each successive year meant the earliest harvest in history.  The consistency of big heat spikes in the Summer and Fall made it look like the ‘new normal’ was earlier and earlier picking, shorter hang time, and potentially a degrading of the ‘cool climate’ ocean -influenced character of Santa Barbara wine.

This photo shows a normal 2018 Summer day in a Santa Maria Vineyard.  Fog until 11, sun, then cool winds from 2 pm until sunset

But wait!  Doesn’t more sunshine and heat mean more ripeness, color, depth and fruitiness?  Not really, and let me explain why.

Most wine drinkers, even geeks, don’t understand that great vintages in the New World, and California particularly, are defined by slow ripening and long hang time.  Ever notice that boxed wines have weak color and depth?  That’s because they are grown in the Central Valley of California, in Winkler Zones (a measure of heat in an average growing season) 4 and 5.  The grapes are normally harvested in July, and even June in hot years, and the grapes don’t get the benefit of flavor and color development in the same way a cooler, coastal region would.

To simplify, the currency of the Old World is dirt and centuries of tradition.  The mantra of the Old World, which has changed slightly with rising temperatures, is ‘Please let it get ripe this year, and please let the weather hold out through harvest.’

In the New World our currency is sunshine and technology.  Our mantra is opposite of the EU, with most New World regions praying to the climate Gods:  “Please let it hang long enough to develop flavor and depth.”

The top grey line goes through the 35th Parallel of Latitude.  Why is Santa Maria cooler than Memphis, TN?

Santa Barbara County, and Santa Maria Valley/Sta. Rita Hills in particular, is a miracle of geology and geography.  Our east-west (transverse) mountain ranges allow a unique ability to grow cool-climate varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc below the 35th Parallel of Latitude (the top grey line above where it meets the blue).  Note that latitude 35 includes Morocco, the Tennessee/Mississippi border, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan–places where you normally don’t buy a house without air conditioning.

But my home in Santa Maria, at 34.92 Northern Latitude does not have air conditioning.  The average high temperature in Memphis, TN, just above the 35th parallel, is 91 degrees in August.  Our average high in Santa Maria in August is 74 degrees, just a hair over Memphis’ average low of 72 in the same month.  Kirkuk, Iraq is also at the 35th parallel of Northern Latitude, and the average August day there is 110 degrees, and the low is 10 degrees hotter than the average Santa Maria low in the same month.  So what gives?

Note that Santa Maria ocean surface temperature peaks as Summer ends.  This is why we normally see September as our warmest month.

The unusually cool climate has to do with the cold Pacific Ocean battling with the California sun–and the fact that Pinot Noir firmly believes that the fight is over her!  On most Summer and early Fall days we wake up with cool temps in the 50’s (Fahrenheit) and a sky full of marine layer/fog.  Both the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley are coastal California valleys that open up directly to the Pacific Ocean, which moderates our temperatures by virtue of a massive calorie ‘sink’–the cold water of the Pacific is constantly stealing heat from the coastal land masses, and that influence is significantly increased in areas where there is no natural (mountainous) barrier between the cold water and the land.

From a Californian perspective, areas open to the ocean have a much different climate.  Sherman Oaks, CA is just over the mountains from Malibu, but the north-south coastal range keeps the area consistently hot during the Summer months.  Sherman Oaks is about the same distance from the ocean as the Santa Maria Valley or Sta. Rita Hills AVA’s (16 miles and about an hour and a half driving south), but their average August high temeperature is well into the 90’s, while ours is in the mid 70’s.  It’s all about coastal air movement and proximity to a massive, cold body of water.

Which leads us to the amazingly cool weather, even for us, that we’ve enjoyed this Summer and Fall.  As a winemaker and viticulturist (if you do both you can call yourself a viniculturist), I watch the weather carefully.  From my home across the street from the Solomon Hills Vineyard (SMV AVA), I counted just a few days in June and July that went just over 80 degrees, with an average in the mid 70’s.  After a cool August (75 degrees average), September never went over 80 degrees, with mid to high 70’s dominating–perfect, slow ripening weather for our cool climate vines and clusters.  September usually brings a few high-pressure, Santa Ana Wind events that bump us up into the 90’s and even 100’s for a week or more.  The last year I can remember being this cool was 2006 and 2009–but both of those years did have a heat spike into the 90’s.  In short, this is the coolest Summer in coastal SBC winegrowing I can remember in my 24 years growing and making wine in the SRH and SMV.

Winemakers throughout the County are talking about ‘perfect numbers’ of grape ripeness (sugar, acid, and pH) as the fruit rolls into our wineries, and amazing quality, cleanliness and bunch integrity.  There’s always some vineyards that are challenged with mildew or rot, bird or animal damage to the clusters, but in general I think it’s fair to call this harvest a ‘winemaker’s vintage’.  By that I mean that the viticulture was pretty easy and the weather was perfect.  It’s the winemaker’s decision on the day to pick, and those decisions have not been impacted by adverse weather conditions.  Heat spikes and rainfall often freak winemakers out, and lead them to hasty decisions about their pick dates.  We did get a little rain a week back, but it did not penetrate to grapevine root level (18″ on average), and in my estimation, had little impact on vintage besides some winemakers calling picks a little early.

Heat damage in Pinot Noir, 2017.  Note the raisins and dimpling that will make a ‘Port-like’ flavor if not sorted out.

I was equally surprised by the break of a pattern I’ve seen for 24 years.  Almost every time we get our first Fall rains, we get a strong high pressure system roll in and we see temps jump to the 90’s and 100’s for a week, which punctuates the growing season with a ripeness bump.

Some farmers are also talking about ‘normal’ amounts of rainfall, about 12 inches, falling on our vineyards this winter.  A return to the ‘normal’, cool weather patterns and the lack of extremes has a bunch of folks excited that we may actually get some drought-busting rainfall in Winter ’18/’19, and that would certainly be a huge bonus for all of us who are watching our wells with increasing worry they could be dry without good rainfall in the next few years.

2018 Pinot Noir in early October, with the longest hang time in 9 years.  This cluster is around 25.8 brix, 3.35 pH and around 6 g/l TA

So….is this a freak, cool vintage or a return to a more normal weather pattern and slow ripening curve for Santa Barbara County wine?  Looking at the data, I would suggest it’s an anomaly.  The Pacific worked overtime to keep us cool, and the wines will speak of this vintage–expect Pinot Noirs with amazing color, richness, depth and balance and Chardonnays with crisp acid and persistent, lingering flavor.  We expect to use less new oak this year for aging, as we want to make sure that a perfect California vintage is not confused swith a heavy, French accent.  We may wonder in Summer 2019 why we haven’t put in air conditioning in our home, like we did in the host 2015 and 2016 Summers. But for now we have had all our windows open in Santa Maria since late July, waiting for the heat wave that didn’t come, and now we’re starting to get a little chilly.  Crazy year, crazy good wines!

Upcoming events with Wes Hagen and J. Wilkes Wines:

  • October 27th, Hallowe’en Dinner at Root 246, Solvang.  Menu below.
  • Oct. 31st:  Tasting, ‘Second City’ in El Segundo 6-9 pm
  • Nov. 5-7:  3 day event in Pismo Beach:  Along the CA Wine Trail and Wes Hagen seminars.
  • Nov 14:  Rappahannock Winemaker Dinner:  Downtown LA
  • Nov 15th:  Farmer’s Bottega Wine vs Beer dinner, San Diego.
  • Nov 14-15th SommCon, History of Wine with Wes Hagen.