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California Harvest Comes in Fast and Light

October 2015
by Andrew Adams and Jane Firstenfeld
Husch Vineyards
Husch Vineyards reported that white wine grape yields were down 30% in 2015.

San Rafael, Calif.—In mid-September, as Wines & Vines went to press, the 2015 wine grape harvest in California was halfway done in some regions and wrapping up in others, concluding a harvest that was widely described as quick and light.

From Mendocino County down through the Central Coast, most California growers and vintners said harvest came about three weeks early or sooner, and yields were down 20% to 30%, on average.

On Sept. 14, Zac Robinson, the co-owner of Husch Vineyards and member of the board of directors for the Mendocino WineGrowers, told Wines & Vines that the white wine grape harvest was pretty much done countywide. He said the white grape yields could be down 30% or more from the average. “The verdict is still out on the reds,” he said. “Pinot in Anderson Valley is varied—although that doesn’t mean much from a region where 3.5 tons per acre is considered ‘heavy.’”

He said the picking of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel was well under way throughout the county, which is home to more than 50,000 acres of vines, and yields looked OK. While the 2015 harvest came early, Robinson said the year wasn’t that abnormal.

“If you ignore the calendar for a moment, it actually looks like a very normal growing season,” he said. “The vines progressed nicely, and the weather was favorable until the very end. Of course, everything was shifted three weeks forward, but can’t we argue this was a calendar problem, not a Mother Nature issue? Perhaps the rains will arrive three weeks early too?”

In late July, John Balletto, the founder and owner of Balletto Vineyards and Winery in Santa Rosa, Calif., said he expected yields to be down 10% to 15%, but about a month later, he said it was more like 30% to 40%. Balletto farms more than 600 acres of vineyards in the Russian River Valley, and he said he heard similar crop yields from his neighbors. “There’s some big names out there looking for grapes,” he said at the time.

From far west Sonoma County, Jasmine Hirsch, director of sales and marketing for Hirsch Vineyards, located near the town of Cazadero, Calif., said the winery picked the last of its estate grapes Sept. 7, which is usually when harvest begins. “The yields this year are painfully low, about 65% below average,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “The quality could be extraordinary; the wines will be high in acid with intense fruit and great concentration. But there will be very little of them.”

Steve Matthiasson of Premiere Viticulture Services and Matthiasson Wines finished picking grapes for his own wines Sept. 14, which he said he was extremely early. “It’s nuts,” he said. “I have one lot of purchased fruit coming from the Foothills tomorrow, and our late-harvest wine, and that’s it.”

Matthiasson said it appeared yields were down 20% to 30% in general, but there was little to complain about when it came to the condition of the grapes. “Quality seems to be outstanding: high acids, extraordinarily deep color, easy extraction, soft but ample tannins, ripeness at lower sugar levels.”

He estimated that the Napa Cabernet harvest in general was about 15% complete at the time.

Vintners in the Sierra Nevada foothills also reported it was a small and early harvest, yet fruit quality was still good. Scott Klann, winemaker/proprietor of 5,000-case Newsome-Harlow Wines in Murphys, Calif., said harvest began Aug. 4. He had anticipated that yields would be down 30% to 50%, “But in reality it is shaping up to be only about 10% to 20% down,” he said. “Cluster size is tending to be about average up here in the Foothills.” Brix levels are higher than typical, “But speed of ripening is allowing us to hold on to acidity a bit.”

At 6,000-case Twisted Oak Winery, owner Jeff Stai said the first fruit (Verdejo) was harvested in early August. “It’s not exactly all at once, but it seems like it,” he said. Stai also reported “some” labor shortages during harvest.

“We’ve had some mildew issues, and cluster sizes are smaller,” he said. “We also had a poorly timed rain that caused some shatter.”

In Santa Barbara County, home to 249 wineries: “Harvest began on Aug. 3, earliest on record,” said Brooks Van Wingerden, general manager of 11,000-case Margerum Wine Co. “It is a very compact vintage due to the drought and warm weather, with low yields. Varieties that traditionally ripen at different times are ripening at the same time.”

Van Wingerden noted that warmer than usual water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean caused a lessening of diurnal temperature changes and nights that never cooled down.

Although Margerum’s grape volume is down some 40%-60%, and despite the weakened diurnal changes, Van Wingerden enthused, “Quality has been phenomenal: tiny clusters of intensely colored, incredibly flavored grapes.

Syrah and “a little Grenache” kicked off the 18,000-case Halter Ranch harvest on Aug. 20, according to winemaker Kevin Sass. Initial impressions of the fruit indicated inconsistencies and non-uniform ripening. “As a result we have spent more time on the sorting table, removing green berries within the clusters,” Sass said. A long, drawn out fruit bloom/set period resulted in a lack of uniformity during the set.

The Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association reported Aug. 21 that the crop was moving in about two weeks earlier than usual and was expected to be 20% to 40% smaller than recent large vintages, due to “unusual weather patterns and the ongoing effects of the drought.”

In the Livermore Valley, Las Positas Vineyards (3,000 cases), started picking Pinot Gris on Aug. 19, two weeks earlier than normal, according to winemaker Brent Amos. “Yields are down considerably, about 40% less than normal, mainly due to it being cooler than normal during fruit set. Harvest will likely end in mid-October, but it’s too early to tell for sure. Clusters are lighter because of poor fruit set. Brix and acid are normal this year (so far),” he said.

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