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West Coast Wine Grape Harvest Almost Over

November 2016
by Jane Firstenfeld

 San Rafael, Calif.—Wines & Vines’ periodic reports from diverse winegrowing regions throughout the spring and summer indicated a relatively peaceful growing season. As crush wound down in mid-October, wine grape growers and winemakers throughout California and the Northwest indicated favorable quality and yields.

For Dane Stark, winemaker and proprietor of 3,300-case Page Mill Winery in Livermore, Calif., 2016 was “not a harvest of weirdness, but rather a welcome return to normal.” Heat waves were weaker and shorter than expected, allowing crops to mature evenly.

“Yields are back up, heat stress is down, and vineyards are more balanced in overall health than the past few years, providing more normal chemistry at the crush pad,” he said.

Stark started picking for sparkling wines Aug. 17 and at press time said he expected to finish harvest around Halloween.

At 5,000-case McGrail Vineyards and Winery, also in the Livermore Valley, president Heather McGrail said she expected more than double the 2015 volume, with estate Cabernet Sauvignon at 64 tons compared to 30 last year. Cabernet berries were small and concentrated with long clusters, she said.

Alyssa Barber, assistant winemaker at the 100,000-case Concannon Vineyard founded in 1883, reported that Concannon had harvested 150 tons of grapes at press time and expected to finish with 200 tons by Oct. 15. She said that steady 80° F temperatures provided perfect conditions for concentrating natural flavors.

More from California and beyond
Tyler Thomas, winemaker at 25,000-case Dierberg & Star Lane Vineyard in Santa Barbara, Calif., called the 2016 harvest healthy in size but not overly ample, with yields slightly above average.

The ripening and harvest seasons were very cool, the first of the previous four in which Cabernet Sauvignon was not harvested in August. Thomas expected to pick with good concentration, with no pressure to push vines too far into the season. He said quality was terrific for the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and that he expected nothing less from the Bordeaux varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon more lush than 2014, less austere than 2015.

The view from Paso Robles was peaceful. With tonnage about double from 2015, Kevin Jussila at 2,500-case Kukkula Winery in Paso Robles said harvest was complete Sept. 25, save less than a ton of Mourvedre, but he refrained from predicting quality yet.

Alta Colina Winery (2,000 cases) brought in its last fruit Oct. 1, closing the door on another early harvest with excellent quantity (averaging 3.4 tons per acre vs. 2.9 tons per acre during the past three years), and the second largest harvest in its 12-year history.

At 18,000-case Halter Ranch Vineyard & Winery in Paso Robles, Kevin Sass said Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and a bit of Grenache Blanc were the only varieties left to pick, calling them “the usual suspects for October.” He reported record phenolic levels in 2016 wines so far, with higher than usual tannins. Sass was grateful for steady warm, rain-free weather for shaping up a perfect, ripening fall.

Tom Meyers at 70,000-case Castoro Cellars called the harvest reminiscent of the past several, but with better yields. Meyers cautioned, however, that his team was battling high sugars in both red and white varieties, compensated by rich, ripe flavors and great colors in reds.

Amazing pace in Napa

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG) hosted an online video press conference Oct. 13 to update viewers about the progress of harvest 2016. The panelists said harvested grapes show great balance, and a cooler season brought resolved tannins and great color. Grapes displayed fresh fruit, ripe flavors and nothing green. “The pace of harvest was amazing. You could pick when you wanted to this year,” said Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci.

As always, water was a concern throughout California and the west, but with Cabernet Sauvignon as Napa’s signature grape, “We were fortunate this year. Cabernet is thrifty, and we irrigated only when we wanted and needed. We can measure water use precisely,” said Caleb Mosley, senior viticulturist for Michael Wolf Vineyard Services.

Napa growers are employing tools to measure irrigation needs and water application. The use of pressure bombs and improved irrigation systems to promote deeper vine roots are helpful, Silacci said, but walking through the vineyards is key throughout the year.

Low-tech attention like personal vineyard walkthroughs are key, agreed Brittany Pederson, viticulturist at Silverado Farming Co. All the growers are adjusting to climate change, planting more drought-tolerant rootstock, using onsite weather stations for monitoring and farming “vine by vine.”

View from the Northwest
Meanwhile in Oregon, high temperatures caused some worry during the final week of September. Highs neared 100° F in the Rogue Valley, prompting harvest crews to start picking before dawn.

While irrigation so close to harvest is typically frowned upon, some growers in Southern Oregon watered vines to reduce stress caused by the unseasonable temperatures.

Farther north in Eastern Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, Jean-Francois Pellet at 13,000-case Amavi Cellars/Pepper Bridge called the vintage “stunning.” Beginning with early bud break and the warmest April on record, the growing season was consistent and slightly cooler than 2015, with no more than five days above 100° F. He said the long-term forecast was favorable.

Pellet said he expects great flavors, soft tannins and complex wines with moderate sugars.

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