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Challenges Don't Stop Strong West Coast Harvest

November 2014
by Jane Firstenfeld and Peter Mitham
Retzlaf harvest
A vineyard worker harvests red wine grapes at Retzlaff Vineyards & Winery in Livermore, Calif.

San Rafael, Calif.—As harvest wraps up in California and other grapegrowing regions along the West Coast of North America, early reports describe the 2014 vintage as early but with good quality and average to record yields.

It likely won’t be another record year in California, but Oregon and Washington both appear poised to set new records for wine grape production. The harvest also came earlier than normal throughout the West, with some growers reporting that harvest ended before picking would normally start.

California’s drought brought some challenges of course, but in general growers were happy to bring in a high-quality crop, with some reduced tonnages because of smaller fruit set and berry sizes. From Mendocino County down to Madera County, the general consensus was that the grapes came in early, were of good quality, and tonnage is slightly less than previous years. The 2013 harvest totaled 4.23 million tons, besting the previous record of 3.89 million tons set in 2012.

Napa County growers reported the early harvest produced yields that were lower than the previous two years but of comparable quality. The magnitude-6.0 earthquake that occurred Aug. 24 caused few problems in the vineyard, and despite the early harvest the quake still struck at a point when many wineries hadn’t started receiving grapes.

A short but intense storm Aug. 26 brought rain and several inches of hail in the city of Napa, but growers reported the hail didn’t reach the majority of the county’s vineyards.

Steve Moulds, president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers and owner of Moulds Family Vineyards, was wrapping up harvest in the Oak Knoll District on Oct. 1. “Typically, we begin in mid-October,” he said. “This year, we started picking on Sept. 18.”

Likely because the drought had reduced their normal food supply, deer, bears, coyotes and birds feasted on ripe clusters of grapes throughout California. In Madera County, Westbrook Wine Farm reported ongoing attacks from “voracious vertebrate pests—birds, deer, coyotes, fox and squirrels—seeking moisture in the absence of available water.” Dramatic moments came when winery staff watched deer vault an 8-foot fence for the first time in 17 years and coyotes standing on their hind legs eating fruit.

“Deer got all of the Barbera, ate all the leaves with nothing left to ripen the grapes,” said Charlie Green, owner and winemaker at Green Family Winery in Auburn, Calif.

Annette Hoff Danzer, winemaker at 3,500-case Cima Collina in Carmel Valley, Calif., said the harvest was not just early, everything ripened at once. “I have been in wine production for 20 years and have never experienced such an early crop and one where most varieties were ready virtually at the same time,” she said. “We brought in 70% of our production this past week (early September), which is unprecedented and a little crazy.”

Don duPont, owner and winemaker at Rock Hill Winery, also reported harvest came three weeks earlier than last year. “With the shortage of rain this year, we began an earlier watering program to make sure vines received sufficient water. We normally turn off water six weeks before harvest. This year we removed water just three weeks before harvest.” Rock Hill experienced an unusual amount of raisins, and the lack of groundwater has caused the grapes to dehydrate sooner than in years past, duPont said.

Record grape harvests across the Northwest are pushing custom-crush facilities to capacity and giving some cause to expand. A record harvest in 2013 and a series of vineyard acquisitions through the winter have prompted concerns in Washington state, where custom-crush facilities are operating near capacity.

In Oregon, growers expect the state could see an all-time record harvest that also arrived earlier than normal. Growers in the southern half of the state were wrapping up in early October, and most of the other key wine grape regions were expected to finish before November as well.

The early harvest is largely due to ideal temperatures throughout the growing season, which expedited the ripening process. “It is interesting to note that preliminary data from many (weather) stations suggest that the warmer conditions are coming from higher minimum temperatures, not maximum temperatures,” said Gregory Jones, Southern Oregon University professor and wine climatologist. “This reduces stress on the vines, accelerates ripening and allows the fruit to stay in harmony.”

Oregon growers produced 50,186 tons in 2012 and 56,246 tons in 2013. This year’s crop is expected to be larger than both previous years. In several published reports, growers and winemakers in Oregon have referred to the 2014 harvest as “epic” and producing grapes of “amazing” quality.

The early 2014 estimate out of Washington state was for 230,000 tons, and there’s been no report of any issues that would have prevented growers from pulling in that much fruit or more.

In British Columbia, the estimate for this year is 32,000 tons, and so far the 2014 vintage is pushing Western Canada’s wineries and custom-crush facilities to the limit.

Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie of Okanagan Crush Pad have been turning away potential clients from their facility in Summerland, B.C. Production under the partners’ own label, Haywire, will top 15,000 cases this year (up from 12,000 cases in 2013), reducing capacity for new clients.

“We’ve been at capacity for the past two years, and we’ve turned quite a few people away,” Coletta said. “There’s a bit of a surplus this year. The weather’s been really fantastic, and the grapes are fantastic quality.”

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