North Coast wine industry sings the 'hang time' blues

According to Brian’s Dictionary of Wine, the term hang time designates three related times: a time of flavor development for grapes, a time of anxiety and expectation for winemakers and a time of dread, despair and paranoia for grape growers. The poor grape broker’s job is to try to reconcile these three times to keep everyone happy -- a tough task in a year like 2011, when no one is anything remotely like happy.

Needless to say, 2011 was hang time personified. Winemakers will generally maintain that, for wine flavor development, the longer grapes hang on the vine the better. The caveat is the grapes stay dry and the vine canopies keep doing their photosynthetic thing so that the vines can finally bring the grapes to full ripeness.

This cool year we had all the hang time anybody could ever want. But the grapes did not stay dry, and many grape leaves stopped functioning before the grapes reached required sugar levels. I ate more grapes than a starling this season -- there was plenty of time while we were waiting for them to ripen -- and flavors did seem to develop at lower sugar levels than usual. Growers and wineries cooperated, with varying degrees of success, to get the grapes picked before nasty mildew and Botrytis spores could spread further.

For the most part, this should be a year for lean, elegant wines with developed flavors and lower alcohol levels. At least, that is what most winemakers are expecting. I guess, winemakers will get to live their own hang time for the next three months, as they try to evaluate still-fermenting-and-developing wines, hoping for something great out of all the anxiety. 

And then there was the grape market, which had its own kind of hang time. The North Coast grape market hung a lot folks out to twist in the wind and rain. The bulk-wine market told us a long time ago that inventories were getting tight all over the state. Some grape buyers, however, thought that the excesses of the last several years would continue and waited to purchase some grapes until the end of the season, expecting to find what they needed at bargain prices.

Instead, recovering demand and, especially, a light crop, pushed prices up, and good-quality grapes were hard to find even at elevated prices. The light crop also hurt growers, who spent a lot of money farming this wet, cool year. For most growers, increasing spot-market prices did not fully offset lower yields and higher costs. 

All in all, it was a brutal year, the most difficult I have seen in 20-plus years of negotiating deals, walking vine rows, standing beside crushers and buying lunch. I’m not complaining -- our sales and our market share continue to grow -- but I’m glad the 2011 harvest is in the barn. It is only right that some great wines should emerge from all of that suffering. Proving the adage “there’s no rest for the wicked,” we are already working hard at the 2012 grape market. We can sell it all -- no problem there. But only Mother Nature can keep it dry and get it ripe. My vote for this year is for a little less “hang time” and a little more sunshine....

Brian Clements is vice president and partner of Turrentine Brokerage (, a Novato-based marketer of winegrapes and bulk wine in California and abroad.

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