Vintage Report 2022 from Prima Materia
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
Prima Materia’s 2022 Vintage Report
Remember the old days when people said that California didn’t really have vintages? While some things stayed the same this year, like drought conditions, heat spikes and supply chain challenges, a few things smiled on our Lake County vineyard too, like a cool spring and modest summer, and no fires. And yes, other challenges reared their heads this year, but first, the weather…
Here is 2021 max temp graph with 110 as the top line
Here is 2022 with 120 as the top line:
To be sure, a vintage is shaped by much more than just the weather, but it is arguably the largest factor. This year we had 1/3 as many days at or above 100 degrees at the vineyard, and many fewer at that critical 95-degree mark where the vines start to go to sleep in the hot sun to preserve moisture and energy. Plus, we had a bit of rain at the beginning of April, just as the vines were waking up that helped produce full canopies and good leaf shading of the fruit that is so important in warmer climates. No rain since December was dangerous to put it mildly and most of us had to use some irrigation in March or April to keep the roots moist for budburst, but even an inch at the right time is extra helpful. For comparison on the heat front, last year we hit region 5 of the Growing Degree Days at over 4,000, but this year we just nudged region 4 while areas a quarter mile away were considered region 3 at 3,000 – perfect for Sangiovese and mid-climate grapes of all sorts. 2019 could be considered the last generous vintage with plenty of rain and moderate heat, but there were subtle echoes this year in the way the skin and seed ripeness and acidity came together. Other than the nasty week of 115F temperatures in early September, oh and then 2+” of rain, the weather was moderate – keeping in mind that Lake County can sometimes be surprisingly different that Cloverdale or Calistoga – and we narrowly avoided the spring frost that battered Lodi, the Foothills, and even other parts of Lake County just because we were lucky to be one or two degrees warmer on benchland.
At the start of the season we were actually running quite late for veraison (when the grapes change from green berries to their mature skin color) in July, but we started to catch up when the normal summer heat started, and the curve was pretty good into September. Just to prove how Lake County’s altitude shapes it differently, Napa and Sonoma were claiming early seasons while we were way behind. But the first half of a season rarely matches up with second half, and 2022 made that point emphatically.
On September 3rd six days of searing heat hit Northern California. We were well familiar with the term “heat dome” which created last year’s epic heat outside of California’s Bay Area. Similarly, the Willamette Valley this year had extremity cranked up to 11 with endless rain and a freezing spring, but when I got there on a wholesale trip in early August it was 95 every day, and 2022 is now known as the vintage that global warming saved in Oregon. Our year was maybe cranked up to just 10, and after six days barely cooling to the low 70’s or so at night after 115 during the day, we couldn’t believe that news that a week of rainstorms were materializing, though it is the best way to quench a heat wave, and it makes total sense.
To shift from 6 days of consistent record heat into 2+” of rain so fast was insane, like nothing I’ve seen in 14 vintages, and extremely concerning. Based on the incoming heat we picked a few things early that I knew couldn’t survive the record temperatures and then heavy rain – Chardonnay, Dolcetto which we sold, Primitivo, some dry-farmed Zin in Dry Creek that I had been taking care of, and various small bits for rosé, but most of our grapes were several weeks away from our style of ripeness. The Dolcetto, which is usually our first red grape to pick around September 5-10th, just didn’t even hit 12% alcohol, and the Aglianico was still half green during the heat spell. Because Lake County’s growing season starts so late, it generally doesn’t do well with early-picked fruit since it hasn’t had enough time for phenolics to develop, so tannin maturity is often zero at low alcohol, but here we were. Sometimes glou glou is the only answer.
On the positive side, the rain definitively ended the growing season heat-induced vine stress, and I immediately went out and pulled leaves to open up the canopies. Since it was the third drought year in a row, the grape bunches were small and open with tiny berries anyway, which was perfect in allowing good airflow for drying, though the six days of pure humidity was nerve racking. Colleagues in Sonoma County sent me stories of bunch rot and botrytis, and the wine suppliers were all marketing additives because vinegar bacteria was ruining fermentations. Happily not for us. Then we had a ridiculous four weeks of perfectly warm-but-not-hot weather, I mean just gorgeous, especially since our winery is all outdoors and those cold nights can really freeze up a tank at the end of fermentation. Our Aglianico was picked on October 15th, tying for the earliest harvest ever, and though the crop was still on the light side, it was way better than the last two years. Sangiovese and Barbera were nearly normal in quantity, and even the Barbera which is notoriously bad with rain due to heavy bunches with egg-shaped berries and thin skins, only a few spots of bunch rot were found and sacrificed for quality. Tannin ripeness was sufficient, and the seeds were abnormally brown and ripe despite less hangtime and heat accumulation for skin tannin ripeness. I am actually pretty excited about the wine quality despite the challenges.
On the technical winemaking anomalies side, this year’s grapes had bizarre glucose/fructose ratios, meaning that grapes picked at relatively low potential alcohol levels shot past their supposed ABV, and what seemed like nice low numbers yielded alcohol levels that were higher than predicted. Not earth-shattering, but what seemed like a great (for our area) 13.7% potential alcohol ended up around 14.5% repeatedly, even with open-top fermenters breathing off the ethanol. Equally bizarre, there is something called the PKA curve which (and the following is a very crude simplification) dictates the stability of acid in grapes, and it kicked my ass for the first time. That pH point is around 3.65, and wines above that tend to lose acid during fermentation, while those below can actually become more acidic due to potassium dropping out. On paper all fermentations should become less acidic as potassium is leached out of skins and the secondary malolactic fermentation does its mellowing magic, but that curve changed that. So, grapes with more acidity, like Sangiovese, Barbera, and Aglianico are positively zippy this year with tons of acidity from staying below that 3.65pH number, and then gaining even more (dropping in pH) during fermentation. Lower acid grapes like Sagrantino, Zinfandel, Grenache, etc., shot way up from being just at or slightly above that 3.65 dividing line, which usually has no real effect for us. In short, the lower acid grapes are quite round and mellow (though I loaded those with more tannin – you know how Prima Materia rolls) while the higher acid ones really are damn crisp reds, and nothing is in between. We don’t know why yet, but rain timing, water stress, and crop load must all be part of it. Our high potassium soils and rootstock choices have an effect too. The science-y types will have a theory in the spring as they crunch the numbers, and I love how we all end up being in the same boat regionally – one thing happening in the North Coast, something else in the Foothills, Lodi, etc., and then we scratch our collective heads and say oh yeah! That must have been it…
The bigger part of the vintage story this year wasn’t in the vineyard though, and it isn’t usually part of the things that we talk about in a vintage wrap-up. Part of this year was about the three months I spent trying to find glass bottles and paying 2-and-3x the normal price, labels that may not have been printed on the same quality of paper or with the good ink, and boxes of gloves that say medium but are actually small, so that the manufacturer can save on the cost of materials. The pickers also required another 20% raise – three years in a row, and just like my friends in kitchens, I want them to make tons of money. But, I haven’t raised our bottle prices in years, and I can’t now since wine drinkers are worried about pricing. Which brings me to:
The biggest concern in 2022 for the wine business at large was the erratic decline of wine consumption. The numbers show that restaurant wine sales are up – of course they are after the lockdown, but tasting room and direct wine sales are down. I remember saying in December last year that the month was really, eerily off. Then January, then February I said the same thing again. Basically, wine consumption has slowly been dropping each month for a year now, depending on how you crunch the numbers. Now, many of you are doing your job in that regard, and we love you, but the industry has been worried about the consumption shift that has been happening slowly for over a decade, and it might have finally arrived. Early last year the industry was super excited that wines over $20 was the fastest growing category, but now wine below $4 is the only category growing. Why? First, people drank way too much during the lockdown, and there was a wonderful surge at reopening that is now just a sad trickle. Talk to someone in the restaurant industry, and it quickly becomes clear that the general consumer is back to their old ways and has little understanding for how difficult things still are – the goodwill is gone, tips are down, and people are generally not super empathetic anymore. Sidebar - we in the industry failed to create permanent change like we had hoped, so we are all reverting. Second, a recession is on the horizon, and we are all worried, plus inflation is no joke. Third and this one is the most dynamic feature that has been looming on the horizon for some time, despite the seemingly boundless growth of natural wine, consumers under 30 also drink tons of other stuff and aren’t specifically wine aligned at all the data shows. At the same time, the older folks who used to buy cases to age in their cellar and join wine clubs continue to dwindle. The larger market still hasn’t cracked the younger consumer category either, despite some larger brands rolling out cartoon labels. Canned wine boomed then busted and is now in flatline purgatory. The wine industry is clearly very worried, and for good reasons. Today’s wine business headlines as I write this: October shipments down 9% from one year ago and Sales volume drops 7% from last year.
This reality came to something of a head in August when consumer wine shipments dropped 6% in one month, and the SF Chronicle ran several articles about Napa Valley becoming a ghost town and how ridiculously expensive the tastings had become. True, and my schadenfreude was strong watching Napa and Sonoma privilege squirm while skewered, but it is all very, very complicated and nuanced. But the fact remains that in 2022 tasting rooms were pretty much all down in most established areas, unless you had big money for fancy spaces and made it back cranking out all those weddings that didn’t happen for two years, but then you may not be all about the wine quality anyway. It is all a bummer, and we are right in the middle of it ourselves as this is particularly challenging for small producers that rely on those direct sales. We also had some small wholesale distributors close up during Covid. There is a reason you are seeing so many small tasting rooms host popups, block parties, taco trucks, and anything else to get warm bodies in the door. Oh and all of our tasting prices have gone up to leverage people into buying bottles – a few more tasting room closures are on the horizon and you can read about Rock Wall, Hangar 1, and Columbia Crest closing their tasting rooms elsewhere.
So what does the future hold? Well, definitely no new equipment since that small $10,000 tank now costs $25,000, and interest rates are going up. Dreams of a real cellar with decent equipment will still be on hold for a while I am afraid. But more importantly, the real question is how do we get younger folks interested in wine as the population ages up without pandering or telling lies? You know, healthy paleo wine, no headaches, Goop, etc. I was part of an informal wine marketing chat in Napa recently and the consensus was that the new wine generation doesn’t really care about “the story” anymore when a million narratives are competing, and they fall asleep when talking about soil or clones. Some “hot button” social angles can work they said, but younger people don’t buy in quantity or join clubs anymore, so the pickings are leaner. Asked my thoughts on what the industry needs, they were perplexed and a little horrified as to how someone could possibly think that the wine industry desperately needs working class people making wine to save it, increased fragmentation to subvert the dominant economic structure, a doubling-down on history, and white kids working in fields. California wine is monstrously privileged due to the economics of entry (land, equipment, labor) and has always had a resonance with luxury that goes all the way back to Ancient times, so clearly those of us on the Debord/Foucault side of the spectrum don’t have an ear, and the confusion of identity and substance marches on. While it is probably a good thing that decades of tired marketing is falling out the window, especially for producers who can’t take part in the luxury slice of the narrative, the trickle-down stings right now since it encompasses everyone. The revolution must wait a bit longer.
Questions remain though, like how do we preserve wine’s unique historicity without it being a barrier? How do we make it interesting to the newer generation when everything is flattened and commodified through marketing? How do we keep costs competitive when everything around us is going crazy? And just like the restaurant industry, it is becoming really, really hard to find good help to do the actual work, especially in vineyards. Not surprisingly, vineyard workers and tasting room staff are the hottest job posting categories in the wine industry, while winemakers are down to one in 50 job postings and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a UC Davis enology graduate. The system has been spinning out of balance and isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
And by the way, right now there is a record number of vineyards and wineries up for sale. The older small winery owners and vineyard farmers are closing-up shop left and right, just like the restaurant owners who have done enough time in the grind. The deals out there are crazy, in fact if someone wants in on one of the below-market properties in Lake County with planted land and a fully-functioning solar winery, shoot me an email. But this misnamed “post-Covid” period is still very challenging when coupled with the industry’s fading shine and numbers falling, making all the work questionable. And we haven’t forgotten that fire can hit, the well can run dry, the frost can appear, and all of the other environmental challenges are still alive and well. There is opportunity to be sure in all of this, but there is no going back, at least for a while, as we keep treading further into uncharted territory. In bocca a lupo my friends.