In fact, on Oct. 5, an unseasonably strong low pressure system spread rain over the area for several days as it did other California wine grape regions, including the North Coast. Rainfall totaled between a half and 1.5 inches. That set the stage for Botrytis bunch rot in thin-skinned varieties, which were left even more vulnerable to the fungal disease by the previous powdery mildew outbreaks. In response, many growers picked their grapes at less-than-desirable sugar levels to salvage as much of their crop as they could rather than risk more losses from rot damage.

“That rain sealed the deal that the rest of the grapes needed to come off the vines,” Stollberg says. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir represent the bulk of the varieties grown in his area. By the time the early October rains came, most of those grapes had either been harvested or were already scheduled to be picked by the middle of the month.

Meanwhile, even as yields were dropping, Central Coast growers watched grape prices rise as demand for their fruit rebounded from the depressed market of the past several years, adding to their disappointment.

“We were sure hoping to have higher crop loads than we did,” Stollberg says.

Based on his experience and talking with other growers, he reports Pinot Noir yields were down as much as 40 percent depending on vine density. “In vineyards with more dense patterns that normally produce about 2.5 tons per acre, we’re seeing less than a ton per acre this year,” he says. “At the same time, in Chardonnay blocks that typically produce in the 5-ton-per-acre range, growers have been harvesting no more than about 2 to 2.5 tons per acre.”

One bright spot in the season has been the quality of the grapes. “The quality looks pretty darn good,” Stollberg adds. “With the smaller berries and lighter crop loads, the crop ripened pretty nicely. The grapes have more mature fruit character, especially the reds. That should make some really nice, kind of intense wines.”

Nevertheless, 2011 has been the most challenging year Stollberg has faced in his 10 years of growing grapes. “Growers who’ve been in this area for 20 to 30 years are telling me the same thing,” he says. “It’s definitely been a very tough year — one to look back on briefly and then look forward to focus on next year.”