The Kendall-Jackson 2005 Harvest Report

SANTA ROSA, Calif., Sept. 7 /PRNewswire/ — An awe-inspiring act of nature heralded the end of a long, wet winter in Sonoma County wine country this year. Millions of strikingly colorful painted lady butterflies made their way north up the California Coast in record numbers, migrating from their winter homes in Mexico and the deserts of Southern California.

Another unexpected surprise from Mother Nature was the burst of vibrant wildflowers in places throughout California that haven’t seen this type of plentiful display in years. Locals, particularly in the Knights Valley of Sonoma County, can’t remember when they were treated to such vivid carpets of lupine and crimson clover.

In addition to the wildflowers growing between the vine rows, each spring vineyard managers plant organic cover crops to encourage the balance of beneficial insects. This is particularly the case among Kendall-Jackson’s more than 12,000 acres planted in five major California Coastal appellations — Napa, Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Mendocino. These cover crops, such as crimson poppies, fava beans, purple vetch and other legumes, provide excellent natural sources of nitrogen and organic matter in the vineyard, eliminating the use of insecticides.

With several North Coast wine regions, including the Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley, receiving as much as 50 inches of rain this past winter, water tables and irrigation ponds were at all time high levels. The wet winter was followed by a typically cool and wet spring. (Point of reference: 50 inches of rainfall is considered “above average” along the coastal mountains and ridges of Northern California. The majority of rainfall in California usually falls between the months of October and May.)

Bud break and grape set for Chardonnay and most other varieties went pretty much without a hitch, although Merlot and Pinot Noir in some areas of Sonoma and Mendocino counties were affected by the spring storms.

In several regions of California where Kendall-Jackson farms, the Merlot crop was down in tonnage. Much of the Merlot crop was in bloom during the heavy spring rain showers, particularly in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. The force of the rain, mixed with pockets of hail, simply knocked the blooms off the vine. Where Merlot had already moved through bloom, the tiny grape berries suffered “shatter.” Shatter occurs when the cool grapes absorb too much moisture and then are subjected to warmer temperatures.

The much heralded arrival of Pinot Noir as America’s new “it” wine may be put on hold due to reduced crop levels in specific areas of Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Monterey counties. This is the third consecutive harvest where Pinot Noir has been down in tonnage while consumer demand continues to rise. In Sonoma County, Pinot Noir crop levels were actually up in a number of Russian River locations, while numerous vineyards in Western Sonoma County and Mendocino’s Anderson Valley experienced major crop losses.

Despite the vineyard to vineyard tonnage variations, the Pinot Noir stars continue to align for Kendall-Jackson since founder Jess Jackson had the foresight to create some of the finest, high-quality coastal Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and Mendocino counties. Even before the “Sideways” hoopla, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve was — and remains — America’s best-selling Pinot Noir over $10.

With the arrival of mostly sunny and warm days in July and August, summer managed to hit full throttle throughout California’s wine regions. The heat was moderated by alternating days of cool Pacific Ocean coastal fog, followed by intense days of sunlight. Temperatures typically rise as a result of the infamous fog-blocking “Pacific High Pressure” system, and, in this case, managed to break into the high nineties and low hundreds on several days in July and August. By late August and early September, daytime temperatures had settled into an average of 88 degrees in most coastal vineyards.

What distinguishes California’s true coastal wine regions from other regions in the state is the fact that nearly every evening, the temperature will drop some 40 to 50 degrees from the daytime highs. This harsh act of nature helps to ripen the grapes and soften tannin levels. This process is also beneficial in producing optimum sugar and excellent acidity levels in grapes, helping to achieve a superb juice-to-pulp ratio. Add to this equation the fact that many of Kendall-Jackson’s vineyards are located on mountains, ridges, hillsides and benches, and you have the setup for intense berries with exceptional ripeness and fruit flavors.

As Kendall-Jackson’s harvest began to swing into action on August 18, it was clear that 2005 was going to feature similar weather and climate traits to 1997′s harvest. That harvest, eight years ago, produced one of the great vintages in California’s wine history, one that exhibited healthy overall crop levels, excellent ripeness and quality.

“We have a great crop of grapes this year and we’ve tasted some really luscious Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay,” said Kendall-Jackson Winemaster Randy Ullom. “I suggest you check back with us in November to verify our initial excitement regarding grape quality, but at this point, I will go out on a limb — 2005 may be as great as 1997.”

Kendall-Jackson farms grapes in five major California coastal wine regions. The climate and harvest conditions on the Central Coast are vastly different from the climate conditions on the North Coast. To avoid generalizations about the harvest, we’ve broken down comments from our vineyard managers, region-by-region:

Napa Valley: “We slogged through the late winter and spring rains to discover that we are about 5 to 10 days off our normal harvest schedule. It was a mild spring with only one day of frost alarms in our Kendall-Jackson Oakville vineyards. Our Napa Merlot suffered only minimal “shatter” during the rains. The Cabernet Sauvignon showed vigorous growth due to the high moisture levels in the soil this year and we will see slightly higher tonnage figures throughout the valley because of this. We expect to be harvesting grapes through the end of October.”

-Mariano Navarro, Vineyard Manager

Sonoma County: “Pinot Noir crop levels from the Russian River Valley and Shiloh ranches are right on target — up slightly from last year. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir brix levels are running neck and neck this year. We expect to be picking grapes in mid-September.”

-Hector Bedolla, Vineyard Manager

“In the terraced vineyards of Alexander Mountain Estate, about 1,800 feet above the Alexander Valley floor, climate conditions vary block to block. Overall, the grape berries are very small, with concentrated fruit flavors. The crop tonnage at Kendall-Jackson’s Hawkeye Mountain Estate is average in size. Because of the rugged soils and cool climate, we won’t begin to harvest the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon until the end of September. Much of the Cabernet Sauvignon will not be harvested until early October.”

-Tony Viramontes, Vineyard Manager

Mendocino County: “Farming on the top of mountains and ridges is always a risky proposition and this year was no exception. The timing of our Merlot bloom on Kendall-Jackson’s Grizz Ridge Estate high above the Anderson Valley coincided with the spring storms that rolled off the Ocean. We may have lost as much as 25% of the Merlot crop on this particular 250-acre vineyard. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir crop in our Philo vineyards is a different story. It’s slightly above average, though some Pinot Noir in our western-most vineyards was hit by the rain. We expect to be picking by the end of September.”

-Dennis Winchester, Vineyard Manager

Monterey County: “We experienced an early bud break (February 17) and managed to get through bloom without being affected by the spring rains. For the most part, the Kendall-Jackson harvest is about 7 to 10 days late due to the relentless cool, foggy summer mornings. We’ll begin picking the Pinot Noir by late-September and Chardonnay in early October.”

-Bill Hammond, Director of Vineyard Operations

Santa Barbara County: “Our Chardonnay crop on the Santa Maria Bench and in Los Alamos is excellent this year, perhaps up by as much as 10% over past years. Pinot Noir is also a good size crop this year for us. We’ll be picking Pinot Noir first with Chardonnay to follow by mid-September. Syrah is just now passing through verasion and should be ready to harvest in the first couple weeks in October.”

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