The 2011 season for Central Coast wine grape growers will not be soon forgotten, unfortunately, for mostly the wrong reasons.

Growers were hopeful for much improved prices this season. They got their wish. Unfortunately, the weather turned hope into economic despondency with yields off 40 percent or more in many areas.

If there was a silver lining, the low yields seem to be offering promising intense flavors in the final wine.

Weather was the story of 2011.

First there was the frigid air from Alaska that spread over much of the area on April 8-10. The cold front drove temperatures down to the mid-20s, where it lingered causing extensive damage in vineyards from the King City area of southern Monterey County and down through the Paso Robles area of San Luis Obispo County to northern Santa Barbara County.

Even overhead sprinklers weren’t always enough to protect the tender crop buds of newly-awakened vines. One veteran grower described frosted blocks looking as if they had been blow-torched, turning once-green shoots almost instantly black and even killing buds that weren’t out yet. The damaged vines responded to the loss of their primary buds by sending out new growth from secondary and tertiary buds as well as suckers. Although later-budding varieties escaped unharmed, the damage was done. Recovering vines invested much of their energy the rest of the season growing vegetation rather than producing fruit.

Frost wasn’t the only peril growers faced this year. The freezing April weather was followed by an abnormally cool spring with late rains; a long, drawn-out bloom that resulted in a poor set; below-normal summer temperatures except for a brief spell of hot weather in early July; and persistent pressure from powdery mildew throughout the season.

Jim Stollberg’s firm, Maverick Farming Co., Santa Maria, Calif., manages about 450 acres of wine grapes in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. Frost protection in his area was successful in fending off the April cold snap, he notes. Still, grape production in the valley was down this season and not just because of this year’s weather. Less-than-ideal conditions last year adversely affected fruit and cluster formation in the 2011 crop. “As a result, production this year would probably have been about 20 percent below average, even if this had been a great growing season,” he says.

As it was, the weather this year slowed development of the grapes, delaying harvest at least three weeks, depending on variety, and increasing the threat of quality-damaging fall rains as the days passed and grapes continued to hang on the vines.