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West Coast Growers Report Earliest Harvest

September 2015
by Wines & Vines staff
Early Harvest at Treveri Cellars
Treveri Cellars of Wapato, Wash., unloads 18 tons of Chardonnay for sparkling wine Aug. 7, the earliest harvest ever recorded in Washington state.

San Rafael, Calif.—For many winemakers and grapegrowers in the western United States and Canada, the 2015 harvest came early, very early.

Treveri Cellars kicked off harvest 2015 for Washington state on Aug. 7, crushing 18 tons of Chardonnay for sparkling wine—the earliest harvest ever in the state. The grapes were brought in from Hilltop vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, a subappellation of the 25-year-old Yakima Valley AVA. Chardonnay is the second-most planted grape in the state after Riesling, with 43,800 tons harvested in 2014.

“The sugar level was right where we wanted it, so we decided to haul them,” Katie Grieb, senior vice president of marketing for Treveri, told Wines & Vines.

Chateau Ste. Michelle scheduled its first pick for Aug. 12 in the Upland Vineyard, also in the Yakima Valley. “We sampled all of the most likely candidates and will (probably) add to the schedule,” Kevin Corliss, director of vineyard operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates said. “The start of harvest is going to be spread over several days as véraison was also spread out a bit, perhaps due to the heat waves.”

British Columbia sparkling wine producer Bella Wines harvested Chardonnay from a vineyard near Oliver on Aug. 12. Speaking with Wines & Vines between dropping off bins for pickers, Bella Wines principal Jay Drysdale said that in 2014 he picked the same site Sept. 3. This year, warm weather has meant sugar levels increased more slowly than the acids have dropped, prompting an early harvest.

In Napa County, Calif., the harvest began before dawn July 22 at Game Farm Vineyard. More than 12 tons of Pinot Noir were picked and transported to Mumm Napa, a 275,000-case producer of sparkling and still wines located just a few miles north of the 3.9-acre vineyard on the Silverado Trail.

Ludovic Dervin, winemaker at Mumm Napa, said an early bud break was responsible for moving up the harvest schedule, which normally would not have started for another week. (The same vineyard was harvested July 30 in 2014 and Aug. 1 in 2013.) The Pinot Noir harvested July 22 came in between 19° and 20° Brix. And while Dervin sees great potential in the 2015 vintage, he added, “Unlike the last three vintages, this year’s crop is more of a ‘diamond in the rough,’ requiring more carving out and polishing in the vineyards to express full potential.”

A warm February prompted vines to wake up from dormancy in spite of fairly dry soils, said Dervin, who cited low winter rainfalls that arrived on a concentrated schedule.

“Unlike the previous vintages of 2013 and 2014, the soils were dry when the vines started their growing season, leading to a more difficult start, with inconsistent shoot growth elongation,” Dervin told Wines & Vines. “Bloom was long and led to more variability in crop size and maturation levels, requiring some green cluster thinning.”

Harvest began in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley on July 29, one of the earliest dates on record. “Bud break was early due to warm weather in February and March, but May average temperature was actually colder than January,” noted John Balletto of Balletto Vineyards and Winery in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“As a result flowering was delayed, and some shatter resulted, lowering yield potential relative to the past three excellent harvests. Still véraison was early and harvest will be one to two weeks ahead of 2014 in many vineyards and varieties. Cool nights and morning fog have slowed ripening and are allowing nice flavor development.”

In California’s Central Coast, the 2015 vintage was expected to come earlier and be a bit lighter than the previous vintages. “We are coming off three big harvests in a row, and while this year’s crop appears to be smaller than the past couple years. It is still what I would consider to be in the ‘normal’ range—a bit surprising considering the prolonged drought,” said David Potter, winemaker and owner of 2,500-case Municipal Winemakers in Santa Maria, Calif.

Those in the Paso Robles, Calif., received a surprising—and historic-—soaking from heavy rainfall in mid-July. The rain came from remnants of a hurricane off the coast of Mexico and southern California. Writing in the Tablas Creek Vineyard blog, Jason Haas noted the storm ironically hit while the winery was hosting a vineyard seminar on dry farming. Haas noted the storm dumped 2.6 inches of rain at the winery and 3.55 inches on the city of Paso Robles—more than the area has ever seen in the month of July in recorded history.

Haas reported the vines handled the deluge just fine and would later say he expected harvest to begin sometime between Aug. 28 and Sept. 7. “Given that our crop levels are relatively light this year, I’m betting that it will be toward the early end of that range. It is noteworthy, I think, that we’ve recovered from a two-weeks-earlier-than-normal bud break to a normal véraison.”

Some growers in the Lodi AVA area reported they’d be harvesting much fewer grapes than normal, thanks to a severe spring hail, but it appeared to be an average and early year for the rest of the region.

Paul Verdegaal, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for San Joaquin County, told Wines & Vines that while he had not been able to visit the vineyards that suffered the most damage, he heard their crops had been limited to 2 or 3 tons per acre, which is typically what happens after such an event. “The worst damage was in a 2- by 3-mile area just west of downtown Lodi, with some smaller areas to the east and to the south,” he said.

Verdegaal added the area’s overall crop appears to be average, so while the hail damage won’t likely put a dent in the Lodi AVA harvest overall, it will hit some individual growers hard. “Most wineries are encouraging their growers with damage to harvest, but profit margins will be squeezed for those growers, even with insurance.”

Otherwise it’s been a fair ly “normal” year. Despite a growing season that started about three weeks or more ahead of average, the area’s vineyards slowed down and are now seven to 10 days earlier than normal. Verdegaal said there has been a bit of mildew, and vine mealybug has been more active this year, but pest and disease pressure has been manageable.

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