People often ask me during Harvest something to the effect of "how are things looking this year?" Without fail, I find myself overwhelmed by the question, and perhaps come across a bit amateurish for the inability to find an adequate response.
What a lot of people might not realize is that even for small producers, a vintage consists of 10, 20, 50, or more lots of wine that are all being treated independently of one another. These lots are all developing over time separately and nothing is a sealed deal until the cork is in the bottle, and even then things will change. The result is an incredibly complex tapestry that cannot be justified by generalizations. This is the reason that the question about how things are looking never has a short answer, even when things are indeed looking very good.
Luckily, as winemakers, we have the luxury of making educated guesses based on trends that we have seen over the years. Now that all lots of wine from 2020 are pressed and undergoing malolactic fermentation (or completely through with it), I would like to provide you with a little insight as to how the season unfolded and what you may expect from this vintage.
First off, let's talk about what Mother Nature dealt us.
Apropos to the year 2020, there were plenty of curveballs that kept us on our toes. Some of the most notable weather traits preceding and during Harvest were extreme heat spells. A fairly mild summer came to a screeching halt around mid-August when warm tropical air pushed over the Central Coast on several different occasions. For the critical point of the growing season triple digits were commonplace. Through most of the estate this sped up the ripening process by rising sugar levels and conversely lowering acid levels. Harvest officially began with the first pick of Tempranillo and Viognier on September 14, which was five days ahead of 2019 and two days behind 2018.
With regard to the heat, certain varietals fared better than others, but at Caliza we were reminded of why Syrah is our star-child. It seems as if the heat benefited most Syrah clones as these lots came into the winery with unprecedented depth of color and ripeness. Overall, the heavier varietals tended to follow this trend whereas the lighter varietals were driven more towards bright characteristics and were picked at slightly lower than average sugar levels. For this reason, I predict 2020 to be somewhat of a hybrid of 2017 (which saw brighter, redder characteristics throughout) and 2018 (which was classic Paso dark). This could serve to broaden the palette of colors we have to choose from as we begin blending in April, thus opening the door for more complex and well-rounded wines.
Aside from the heat, like most of the West Coast, Paso was tortured by terrible air quality as a result of the devastating wildfire season in California. This brings up significant concerns related to "smoke taint," a term that describes smoky flavor permeating grape skins and making itself perceptible in the resulting wine. In Paso, we have to count our blessings being situated where we are. Though some wildfires raged within 100 miles of us, the level of devastation experienced in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties is near incomprehensible to us who stayed relatively out of harm's way. Smoke taint seems unlikely for Caliza, although there is no way to know until the wines have spent some time in the barrel. Regardless, I remind myself constantly to be thankful that the things endured up North were not thrown upon us as well.
As for how things played out in the cellar-- and this is where it gets good-- I have to say 2020 Harvest was markedly different from past ones for a few reasons.
First and foremost, at Caliza our winemaking team has consisted of myself, Carl, and Andy for four years in a row. The benefits of working with the same team year after year are self-evident, and there is an undeniable "flow" that emerges as multiple seasons are spent together. Aside from familiarity, we also have had the luxury of being the sole occupants of our current winemaking facility for the second year in a row. For this reason, we made significant improvements within the winery over the summer in order to maximize efficiency during the busy months. One such improvement was an increased number of tanks. This allowed us to ferment bigger lots together as well as give us more control over the fermentation process itself. Another improvement was utilizing an outdoor crush pad for all destemming and processing. This helped maximize indoor space, therefore cutting back on multiple hours per day that in previous vintages were spent shuffling around fermenters and equipment. On top of all these improvements, we had slightly lower yields than in past vintages, which made the bulk of the work a little more manageable.
When you put together all these changes, the result is a significant reduction in what I like to call "frantic moments." Anybody who has worked a Harvest knows what I'm talking about. At some point during our busy season there are bound to be times when one or all of us loses our wits and makes poor decisions, becomes overwhelmed by the number of tasks to be done, or simply succumbs to sleep deprivation. In my short tenure in this profession, I have realized that a big part of doing a good job is staying in control and avoiding mistakes.
For me, 2020 was a vintage marked by many challenges all being met with precision and tact. Throughout Harvest, the cellar was a relatively calm and organized environment where all of us were able to act rationally instead of rashly. For this reason, I think as a team we have come closer to achieving what we hope to achieve than ever before. Early on, the wines from this year are showing a lot of promise. As mentioned before, I am especially excited to see what happens with our Syrah, and I feel confident that there will be another Reserve in 2020. Also, I think our team will be pleased with the amount of variety and breadth of spectrum to choose from during the blending process. All in all, I think that 2020 will have some redemption for us in three years when the wines are ready to drink. Cheers!