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Market for Grapes Tight as Harvest Begins

September 2017
by Wines & Vines Staff

North Coast, Calif.—Multiple sparkling wine houses in Northern California reported the start of harvest Aug. 5-7, and several other producers of bubbles scheduled their own picks in the week that followed. After several years of early harvests, many growers in California reported that 2017 was a return to normal in terms of timing and yields.

The Allied Grape Growers predicted California’s 2017 harvest would come in at around 4.2 million tons and hold at that level through the 2019 vintage. Wine and grape brokerage The Ciatti Co. also predicted a harvest of between 4 and 4.2 million tons in its August industry report.

Todd Azevedo, broker for The Ciatti Co., said premium growing regions like Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties had very little availability with the exception of Zinfandel. “Everyone wants that premium product,” he said, adding there were more options on the spot market for red fruit from the Central Coast including Paso Robles, Calif., and the southern Salinas Valley.

Steve Fredricks, president of Turrentine Brokerage, said availability in mid-August was the lowest it’s been at harvest time in many years. He told Wines & Vines there was some available Central Coast Chardonnay and Paso Robles Cabernet, but, “There are not a lot of grapes without a home right now.”

The industry’s long-running labor shortage has proved acute this year, with growers struggling to find manpower to deal with excessive vegetation and mildew from a damp spring.

On the west side of Lodi, Calif., in the Mokelumne River sub-AVA, Michael David Winery of Lodi, Calif., picked Chardonnay from its Bare Ranch property on July 24. The 1.5 acres of Chardonnay were bound for sparkling wine and yielded slightly less than 10 tons measuring 16.6° Brix.

On the North Coast, Rack & Riddle (R&R), the custom-crush sparkling specialist producing 1.3 million cases per year at wineries in Healdsburg and Geyserville, Calif., brought in its Chardonnay crop Aug. 10 from a North Coast appellation.

On Aug. 14, R&R picked its first Pinot Noir in Carneros-Napa, followed by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Solano County. Subsequently, Carneros-Sonoma Pinot Noir was expected, then Mendocino County and Alexander Valley Chardonnay.

Penelope Gadd-Coster, executive director of winemaking at R&R, said the final pick was likely to come three weeks later with Sonoma-Carneros Chardonnay.

The quantity of winter rainfall has made this an interesting growing season, Gadd-Coster said, with more than average powdery mildew and vines maturing one or two weeks late. The mildew necessitated early leaf thinning to keep airflow going through the canopies.

In Solano County, Calif., some expected a below-average harvest because of rainfall and a late start. Despite mildew, quality in all growing areas looks good, she said, with nice fruit emerging now that the weather has cooled down from an early summer heat wave.

Grapes were starting to deliver balanced chemistries in mid-August, Gadd-Coster reported, with TA and pH aligning properly.

It’s been a year for patience, but every year brings its challenges, she said.

Domaine Chandon (600,000 cases) brought in its first load of Chardonnay from Clarksburg on Aug. 4, followed by Pinot Noir at its home estate in Yountville on Aug. 6. Later in the week, Carneros Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier came in, according to winemaking director Pauline Lhote.

The fast-ripening harvest will keep sparkling winemakers on their toes, Lhote said. The powdery mildew has made for a challenging year, but the vineyard team had stayed on top of it. “We harvest between 18° and 20° Brix…looking for bright acidity.”

Labor a major challenge
It’s not surprising that labor, too, has presented challenges. Although Domaine Chandon is not planning more mechanization, “If anyone is interested to work in the cellar, they should contact us,” Lhote said.

Roederer Estate (95,000 cases) in Anderson Valley planned to start harvest Aug. 15, according to vice president/winemaker Arnaud Weyrich. The first grapes in were Pinot Noir for estate sparkling from the Philo, Calif., area. Weyrich expected about 15 tons at first, with 50 tons Aug. 17 with Pinot Noir from Boonville. These microclimates in the foggy coastal area traditionally tend to ripen the earliest.

Weyrich, too, reported mildew problems because of the cool spring and labor-scheduling issues, which the winery deals with through early preparation and discussion with labor contractors. He’s not yet planning to go for more mechanization but is on the lookout for new and improved equipment.

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers reported the heavy winter rains were a “welcome gift from Mother Nature” that helped return the valley to a more “typical timeline, reminiscent of pre-drought years.”

The Sonoma County Winegrowers also reported a return to a normal harvest schedule although the long rainy season and mild spring “resulted in above-average vegetative growth and vigor.”

J. Alfred Steele with Dutton Ranch in the Green Valley AVA of Sonoma County said in a winegrowers’ harvest report that ripening could speed up because the vines have big, healthy canopies and plenty of energy. “Right now, véraison is on everywhere and it looks to be another great vintage,” he said. “Labor remains the biggest threat in the region this harvest season.”

Bret Munselle, partner in Munselle Vineyards in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County described the general feeling among growers as “cautious optimism” as yields appear to be slightly above normal and of good quality.

In Sonoma Valley, Taylor Serres of Serres Ranch noted challenges with mildew but added quality overall looks good. “The one concern looking ahead is how fast and heavy the fruit will come in.”

Other parts of the United States 
Harvest started early in Texas, where Dr. Justin Scheiner, assistant professor and extension viticulture specialist in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University, reported that, overall, the state had good growing conditions and harves t should be from one to three weeks ahead of schedule. “We had an early bud break, no spring frosts and really good conditions. It was a fairly mild summer until the last couple of weeks when the weather got hot.”

According to Scheiner, the very southernmost part of Texas, the Rio Grande region, finished harvest in early June. Vineyards in the Hill Country west of Austin were at the peak of harvest during the first week of August, while the High Plains in northern Texas were not too far behind. Harvest in Texas will probably “end by mid- to late September,” Scheiner said.

Sugar levels vary by the variety of grape, Scheiner noted. “Whites are averaging between 21° and 24° Brix, and the reds are between 23° and 26°.” He said with the recent heat and dry weather, some grapes will get to 28° or even 30° Brix, and pH levels could also be challenging. “A pH of 3.5 would be perfect, but over 4.0 is not uncommon.”

In early August, growers in the Northwest were still reporting on véraison, but they expected 2017 to be a return to normal.

The past two years have seen growers prepping crush pads for harvest as August began, with the earliest-ever pick of grapes in Washington state occurring Aug. 7, 2015. This year’s relatively normal timing of véraison has many growers around the region looking to receive their initial grapes about 10 days later than the mid-August kick-off reported in 2016.

Rex Hill viticulturist Karen Peterson reported that fruit set looks a little larger than last year, following a long, cool spring that made a decisive shift to summer with the solstice. Daytime high temperatures leapt from the mid-60s to the mid-90s in the course of a week in Newberg, Ore., while in southern Oregon and the Columbia Valley of Washington state, daytime highs had been consistently above 85° F since mid-June.

“It’s been kind of a wild ride, temperature-wise, this summer,” said Ross Allen, co-owner with his wife Jennifer of 2Hawk Vineyard and Winery in Medford, Ore.

While a wet winter gave vines the moisture they needed for vegetative growth, the sharp shift to summer temperatures made it tough to sustain the development needed to feed and shade the developing clusters. With vines shutting down during the day, and nights warm rather than cool, there’s been a narrower window for canopy development.

“This year it was just like flipping a switch, where you’re going from a younger, developing vine and trying to get your canopy development, to a lot of extreme heat very, very quickly,” Allen said.

“Fruit quality looks really good this year,” said Christian Grieb, winemaker at Treveri Cellars in Wapato, Wash. “It doesn’t quite seem to be the bumper crop of 2016 that we had, but there is still plenty of healthy fruit hanging out there.”

With véraison beginning on his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, in line with long-term averages, Grieb said he expects to begin harvesting on or around Labor Day

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