Late harvest could yield superior U.S. wines

SANTA ROSA, California Tue Oct 4, 2011 5:01pm EDT

A baseball field is surrounded by vineyards at Balletto Vineyards winery in Sonoma County, California in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Larry Levine/Handout

A baseball field is surrounded by vineyards at Balletto Vineyards winery in Sonoma County, California in this undated handout photo.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Levine/Handout

SANTA ROSA, California (Reuters) - Despite a late harvest in the Sonoma region of California and heavy rains that tore through vineyards, California wine makers expect this year's grapes to yield superior wines.

Like other grape growers in the region Saralee Kunde is coping with the impact of the delayed harvest because of the above average rainfall and cool summer weather.

Her crop of Viognier grapes, a variety that originated in the northern Rhone region of France, is off by 60 percent.

"The vineyards got slammed," she said. "We had five inches of rain in May and June, that's not when we need the rain. Our Pinot Noir weathered it well, but I heard of some growers who lost 80 percent of their Cabernet (Sauvignon) crop."

Grapes from her 350 acres of vineyards in the Russian River Valley are sought after by wine producers. Each of her vines can be traced back to its roots to the mother block at the University of California at Davis.

Kunde, a dairy farmer's daughter originally from Wisconsin, and her husband Richard began planting vines in 1989. They supply grapes to 60 winemakers and wineries including The Biltmore in North Carolina, which claims to be the most visited winery in the United States.

"Winemakers are looking for flavors. Each clone has something a little bit different and we grow the grapes for the flavors," Kunde said.

The vintners have 54 different clones of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Roussane and more than a half-dozen other varietals with which to blend their wines.

"2011 has the potential of being one of the best vintages I've ever seen," said Rod Berglund, the owner and winemaker of Joseph Swann wines in Forestville, California, after walking through the vineyards to decide which grapes he wanted for his 32nd harvest.

"I think this is as good as I've ever seen in terms of fruit quality," he added.

Rob Davis, of the Jordan Vineyard & Winery in the nearby Alexander Valley, agrees.

"This year the growing season was rough," he said. "But I believe the grapes that remain have the potential to make incredible wines."

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