J. Lohr Winery's 2000 vintage is now into its sixth week and is about 70% complete. "It has been a vintage of patience," reported winemaker Jeff Meier. Despite early bud break, some unseasonably warm weather during the growing season and several hot weather weeks, "true" ripening has come very slowly.

Most vintages have an order of ripening with pigments coming first, followed by tannins and then sugars in red varieties. In 2000, these typical ripening characteristics are coming in reverse with most grapes reaching sugars in the 24.5 and above range well ahead of achieving "flavor" ripeness. In essence, for most varieties optimum ripeness in the year 2000 is coming at sugars well above 25.0 Brix for reds and above 24.0 Brix for Chardonnay, which indicates that alcohol levels in wines from this vintage will be higher than average. Understandably, this has made J. Lohr's vineyard manager and winemaker a little nervous.

J. Lohr's early ripening red varieties -- Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc -- were picked at sugars well above 25.5 Brix, with the highest being 26.8 Brix. This level of ripeness was required to reach optimum tannin and pigment development -- alcohol levels will need to be closely managed in the winery.

The Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot harvests were expected to begin by mid-October. Again, the sugar numbers indicate ripeness, but flavors, lack of seed maturity (proper lignification or browning) and tough skins have caused Meier to put off picking. "This decision ought to make the difference between mediocre and great wines," Meier stated with confidence.

Chardonnay has paralleled the red varieties with respect to ripening. Harvest began two weeks later than sugar numbers would have indicated, starting on Sept. 21 in the older vineyards. Again, seed maturity, pulp softening and flavor development were not realized until sugars were well above 24.5 Brix. So far during barrel fermentation, Meier and team report that the flavors are exceptional. White Riesling will truly be a late harvest, probably beginning in early November.