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.

Rain seals deal

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.”

Brutal year

Grape grower and winemaker Steve Thompson is one Central Coast grower who’s glad to see the season finally end. “This year was brutal,” he says. “Yields were terrible, but farming costs didn’t go down. I’m relieved the crop is in.”

The owner of Coyote Moon Vineyard and Twin Coyotes Winery, he grows 32 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and Vermentino near Paso Robles, Calif. He began this year’s harvest with the Sauvignon Blanc on Sept. 2. That was about two weeks later than usual. He finished picking his grapes on Oct. 20.

“Last year, we picked about 90 tons of Sauvignon Blanc,” he says. “This year we got just 14 tons. “Overall, yields in his freeze-damaged vineyard were off 40 percent this year,” reports Thompson, whose crop was insured for frost.

He escaped the early October rain with minimal damage. He got the last of his Cabernet Sauvignon off the vine the day before the rain began. And all but one acre of his Petite Sirah had been harvested by then. With its tight clusters, this variety is especially vulnerable to fungal disease. Two days after the rain he sprayed the vines with a fungicide to protect them from any powdery mildew. A week later he harvested the grapes without any damage.

But, for many growers the season is not yet over. Some expect still to be picking grapes into November, much later than usual.

Another bright spot for Thompson has been the quality of his fruit this year, which he attributes to the extra long hang time of his grapes.

“The quality has been exceptional,” he says. “The quality of the Vermentino, in particular, has been fabulous.”

Thompson reports Brix readings 22 to 22.5 degrees; for his Sauvignon Blanc; 23 for his Vermentino; 24 to 25 for his Petite Sirah and 25 for his Cabernet Sauvignon. In terms of acids, the pH of his grapes tested at about 3.5.

Near San Luis Obispo, Calif., in the Edna Valley of San Luis Obispo County, Jean- Pierre Wolff rushed to finish harvesting his 50-plus acres of Chardonnay grapes by Oct. 24. He has sprayed his remaining varieties for Botrytis following the early October rain. The harvest of Wolff Vineyards and Winery’s 125 acres of grapes this year began with 34 acres of Pinot Noir on Oct. 7 — about four weeks later than an average season. The two other varieties — Syrah and Petite Sirah — are running about three weeks later than usual. Wolff doesn’t plan to start picking those grapes until the first or second week of November.

“It’s definitely been a challenging year,” he says. “The April freeze and the cool summer have certainly impacted the quantity of grapes. Our Pinot production was down about 30 percent and our situation is similar to others in the valley.”

His Chardonnay yields are down, also. However, because his Syrah and Petite Sirah bud out about three to four weeks after his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they escaped the April freeze unharmed. So, considering the cooler growing season, he expects production of these two later-blooming varieties could be close to average or just a little lower this year.

Irony of good quality

“Quality-wise we’re good this season,” Wolff says. “The Brix of our Chardonnay met our needs and those of our customers. And, the cold weather resulted in tiny clusters and berries in our Pinot. So, the flavor and color will be very concentrated.

However, it will be a little different story for his Syrah and Petite Sirah. With their tight clusters these two varieties are especially vulnerable to Botrytis and other fungal diseases.

Ideally, winemakers like these varieties to have 25 to 26 degrees Brix, Wolff notes. However, by the end of the third week of October, the Brix readings of those two varieties had only reached the 21 to 22 range.

“We can’t afford to wait much longer, when we will get anything close to the mid 23 Brix we’re picking this year. You can still make a decent wine at that level of sugar.”

Dana Merrill’s company, Mesa Vineyard Management, Templeton, Calif., owns and manages 6,000 acres of vineyards from the Santa Maria Valley north to King City. Among his varieties that recovered the best from the April freeze were Zinfandel and Merlot. Viognier fared the worst. Blocks of that variety that normally produce about 5 tons an acre yielded, at best, just half a ton this season.

“Our yields will be very low this year,” he says. “Even without the frost, we’d be looking at a lighter-than-normal crop. But throw in the frosted blocks and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re 40 percent off normal on our yields.”

Merrill has also heard reports of half-a-ton yields of frost-damaged Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that typically have produced 5 or 6 tons per acre.

Shattering from poor weather during bloom has also taken its toll. “The cluster counts on Zinfandel looked good, because it’s fairly resilient following frost damage,” he says. “But the clusters had a lot of shot berries and incomplete fruit set. As a result growers this year may have harvested 2.5 tons per acre. But, by the time they’re done sorting for quality they may end up getting only about 1.75 tons of grapes per acre.”

Damage from the early October rains in his area also varied by variety. “Fungus problems have been worse on the softer-skin grapes like Petite Sirah and Zinfandel,” Merrill says. “Most of the guys on the east side of Paso Robles were able to get their Zinfandel off without too much trouble, But on the west side I imagine they having to cope with fungus. With a little looser cluster, the Cabernet Sauvignon weren’t hurt as badly.”

Late harvest

While this year’s harvest started about two to three weeks later normal, it’s not as late as last year, he notes. Assuming the weather holds, he expects to be picking grapes through the second week of November.

As the last week of October began much of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes in the Paso Robles areas were still on the vines. “After that it’s a mixed bag,” he says. “There’s still some Syrah out there along with other varieties on a hit-and-miss basis.”

Despite the low yields, quality of the grapes this year has been holding up. “Most of what we’ve picked looks pretty nice, although in some places it’s only so-so,” Merrill says. “But the wineries want the fruit. So, they are being very accommodating.

That includes accepting lower Brix levels than usual. “This isn’t the year to go for ultra-high sugar,” he says. “Growers don’t want to risk losing fruit to another rain storm. They want to keep moving the harvest along,”

The desire for growers to get their grapes off the vine to minimize any rot problems is likely to complicate things for growers and wineries with specialty grapes.

“We’ve reached the point where the grapes are about as good as wineries are going to get this season,” Merrill says. “It will be a tough year for growers and small wineries with specialty grapes. Those with a few acres of a given variety for their own case good programs may not have much, if anything, to choose from.”