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California Harvest Early; Volume Sparse

September 2016
by Jane Firstenfeld
Green Island Vineyard picking crew
A picking crew harvests Pinot Meunier from Green Island Vineyard for Mumm Napa on July 28.

San Rafael, Calif.—When Wines & Vines began our annual check on vineyard conditions in mid-July, véraison was just beginning in much of California. By early August, however, crush had commenced for North Coast sparkling wine producers. Winter precipitation replenished reservoirs, rivers and aquifers and a generally mild growing season allowed many vineyards to reduce or eliminate irrigation, but mildew pressure had been intense in much of the state.

Mumm Napa grabbed bragging rights for first pick in the Napa Valley, beginning harvest of Pinot Meunier for Blanc de Noir sparkling wines July 28. The first pick was one day later than in 2015, but two or three weeks earlier than average.

Vineyard manager Julie Nord said the mild summer allowed acids to hold well, but she predicted a light crop of about 2.5 tons per acre for the Pinot Meunier and perhaps 3 tons per acre for nearby Pinot Noir in the American Canyon vineyard that had previously averaged 5 tons per acre. Other Napa Valley vineyards will probably have yields that are average or better than normal, she said.

For Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards on the Sonoma side of the Carneros AVA, picking at the home ranch began Aug. 2, according to winemaker Steven Urberg, who expected to begin harvest in Bennett Valley two weeks later.

Sonoma County’s grape crop was light in 2015; this year, cluster counts for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were close to average and should yield a crush bigger than last year but 12%-15% lighter than the historic average.

Starting with an early spring, early bud break and early bloom, fruit set was solid and maturity even. Urberg said 2015 was the earliest harvest in memory, with 2016 running about five days later.

At Cline Cellars, which has vineyards in Carneros and Petaluma Gap, director of winemaking Charles Tsegeletos hoped to start bringing in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Cline’s ultra-dry Nancy’s Cuvee the second week in August.

In Guerneville, Calif., Korbel Champagne Cellars started crushing organic Pinot Gris grapes from Lodi, Calif., on July 29 for the brand’s California Brut, and the historic property expected to begin crushing grapes from its 1,000 acres in Russian River Valley the following week. Director of winemaking Paul Ahvenainen anticipated a quick harvest, with crop yields average to a little below, for a total of 13,500 tons toward its 1.5 million cases of California sparkling wine.

By July 27, all white varieties in Temecula Valley in Southern California’s Riverside County had completed véraison, as well as 50% of red grapes, according to J.D. Harkey of Drake Enterprises. Harkey said he would begin harvest that week, and expected a normal crop, although a June heat wave brought sunburn and reduced yields to many growers.

Santa Barbara County’s 260 wineries also experienced a relatively normal growing season. Véraison arrived a bit slower than in 2015, and Nick De Luca, winemaker at Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, estimated a close to normal harvest based on the 10-year average.

Norm Yost at Flying Goat Cellars said Pinot Noir harvest for sparkling production began at Bien Nacido Vineyards on July 27, a week or two earlier than in 2015. Still too early to predict yields, he commented, “I did notice that none of the vineyards were dropping any fruit.”

In Paso Robles, véraison had just begun July 15, on par with 2015 but three weeks earlier than average, said Lucas Pope at Halter Ranch. A late June heat spike had stressed early ripening varieties. Still, he predicted good crop load superior to 2015.

The Livermore Valley growing season was slightly behind Paso. By mid-July, winemaker Julian Halasz at Darcie Kent Vineyards said he expected his grapes to start véraison in about a week, slightly early for the region.

At Las Positas Vineyards, on the other hand, winemaker Brent Amos reported that véraison began with Chardonnay, he added that Sangiovese and Barbera followed, again slightly earlier than in 2015.

Larry Dino, owner of Cuda Ridge Wines, said his center valley vineyard blocks are planted in rocky soil and tend to be some of the earliest vineyards to be harvested, providing a good barometer of projecting harvest. Overall crop size looks to be above average; fruit set is much better than in 2015.

In El Dorado County vineyards, véraison appeared about a week later than 2015, but ahead of historic normal, according to Greg Boeger at Boeger Winery. Crop load for this part of the Sierra Foothills appeared heavier than last year, but still within the realm of average.

Seasonal vineyard labor remains a major concern for growers and wineries in every area of the state—more difficult than ever and getting worse, according to Urberg at Gloria Ferrer.

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