Despite the shouts of some overeager cheerleaders, reports from California make it clear that 1979 will not go down as a great harvest. Up to six inches of rain fell on vineyards north of San Francisco from mid-September through early October, severely effecting the quality of grapes not yet picked, especially cabernet sauvignon.
The vintage is by no means a disaster. Early ripening grapes in the north and much of the harvest in the south were in large quantity and promise to make good quality wines. Some of the cabernet crop was picked in good condition. But the winemakers' problems began even before the rains came. Rod Strong of Sonoma Vineyards reported during a visit here last week that the Sonoma Valley had 10 days of 100-degree weather in early September. "The vines survived, but the grapes were fatigued." When it cooled off, the sugar levels refused to rise. Mildrew ("rot rot, not noble rot," said Strong) followed the rains. The grapes passed their prime and some began falling to the ground.
Some weren't even picked. One estimate has 6,000 tons of cabernet left on the vines in Sonoma County alone.Napa fared badly, too, and the bad weather tormented vineyards in Mendocine as well.
One likely result, after the excellent harvest of 1978, is to "tighten up the market," in Strong's words. "It may be a blessing," he said. "I think the slack will be taken up in a few years, but there is just too much carbernet and merlot around for the demand. Prices were falling."
For Strong, "this was the most difficult vintage since 1972," though he hastened to point out that he does not expect most wines to be as disappointing as were those from that troubled vintage. "Until Sept. 2 we foresaw another 1978 or 1974," he said. Counditons had been perfect. There will be some very good wines, but we shouldn't get spoiled. Every vintage in California isn't great. This one isn't."
The blend of future editions of Sonoma Vineyard's well received red, white and rose table wines will not be altered due to the harvest, Strong promised. The highly regarded late harvest Johannishberg riesling of 1978 has arrived on the local market. Sonoma's 1978 chardonnays from the River West and Chalk Hill vineyards should follow after the first of the year, as will the 1976 River East pinot noir and Alexander's Crown cabernet. This last Strong emphatically endorsed as the "best wine yet" from his prize vineyard.
Another result of the vintage worth noting: Chardonnay grape prices failed to soar as predicted. There is speculation that this may reflect consumer resistance to $10 and higher chardonneys. Meanwhile, in France, average prices at this year's Hospice de Beaune auction, the trend setter for Burgundy, were 14 to 18 percent below last year's. There is more wine this year (except in Nuits -St. Georges and Vosne Romanee where hail damaged the crop) and the quality is thought to be quite good. Beaujolais price were down, too. Don't expect any surprise bargain prices before Christmas, but it is cheering to learn that wine prices might not be stuck forever on that one-way upward escalator.
Look for a stepped-up television sales campaign for Gold Seal Wines. The New York State winery, which has an annual production of over 1 million cases, is now the property of Seagram's. Unlike Coca-Cola, which acquired Gold Seal's neighbor Taylor and created "Taylor California Cellars," Seagram's already owns a major California winery: Paul Masson. Therefore the New York State image will be accented.
Ironically, some of the wine used in Gold Seal's top-of-the-line products now comes from California. It has been used to dimish or overcome the strong, "foxy" taste imparted by native labrusco grapes.
While still selling a great deal of wine made from the native catawba grape, Gold Seal is pushing their "Charles Fournier" signature blended wines. A "burgundy" and a "chablis" sell here for $2.69 or so. The blanc de blancs "American champagne" is under $7. All three have been packaged in a wooden container with the hansome Gold seal on the top that has recently been introduced in this market. It sells for $12.99.