California Wine Grape Haul Estimated
at 4 Million Tons

Winery capacity becomes an issue in North Coast region as state experiences second large harvest in a row

by Andrew Adams
central valley harvest
A worker harvests Sauvignon Blanc in a vineyard near Madera, Calif. The harvest in California’s Central Valley, the state’s largest wine grape producing region, was described as average to slightly above average.
San Rafael, Calif.—The wine grape harvest in California is expected to be around 4 million tons, nearing the record haul of 2012, according to early estimates.

Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, said the group’s early estimate holds that California will record another large harvest led by a large haul in the area near Lodi, Calif.

This year’s harvest could have been much larger, DiBuduo said, but many wineries had to hold off picking and even rejected some vineyards because they didn’t have the tank space. “It could have been a lot bigger if the wineries could have taken the grapes,” he said.

Zinfandel challenges
The issue was especially acute in the North Coast, where DiBuduo estimates about 25% of the potential Zinfandel crop was either left on the vine, dropped or flat out rejected by winemakers. DiBuduo said he heard from growers that winemakers were not taking any Zinfandel from vines with red leaves. Yet he said these are the same blocks of old vine Zinfandel that wineries have eagerly purchased in past years, making him think they just didn’t have the capacity. “Overall that’s what they have been buying for years,” he said. “The vines didn’t have any more red leaves this year than last year.”

California produced 448,039 tons of Zinfandel in 2012, and the average price for the variety was $884 per ton. Zinfandel accounted for slightly more than 10% of the state’s total wine grape production, coming second only to Cabernet Sauvignon by volume, according to the state’s harvest report.

Tegan Passalacqua, winemaker and vineyard manager for Turley Wine Cellars, which is based in St. Helena, Calif., but makes several vineyard-designate Zinfandels from throughout the North Coast, Lodi and Sierra Nevada foothills, said he encountered a higher-than-normal level of uneven Zinfandel ripening, especially in vineyards in Lodi and Amador County.

He said he thinks between vineyard sorting and sorting at the winery, he didn’t use about 10% of his total Zinfandel tonnage. Based on what he saw in the Lodi area, Passalacqua could see about a quarter of the total crop going unused, he said.

In a typical year, based on the number of degree-days in 2013, everything in the area should have been picked by August. “That just wasn’t what Mother Nature had intended,” he said. Mite pressure stalled some vineyards at around 19° Brix, while other vineyards only reached 24° Brix and struggled to finish in the cooler temperatures of mid- to late October. Over cropped vineyards appeared to suffer the most, he said. “Even if you got things ripe you just got sugars, and that’s pretty much it.”

For Turley and other growers, Passalacqua said another challenge came in the middle of the Zinfandel harvest, when blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon started to ripen and tanks that had been scheduled for Zin had to be filled with Cab. He described this as just “a minor wrench in the works,” however.

After two consecutive years of large crops, Passalacqua said he couldn’t envision a third one. Turley wrapped up its harvest last week with a Zinfandel pick at Meade Ranch, on the southern tip of Atlas Peak in the Napa Valley. Passalacqua remarked that if it fit a winery’s style, 2013 was an excellent year for extended hang time.

More tanks needed
DiBuduo said wineries in the coastal regions could have made more of an investment to handle the state’s large harvests. “There are a still a lot more improvements to be made to get this product through on a timely basis,” DiBuduo said.

Growers have made the effort to develop more vineyards to compete with imports for U.S. market share, and now wineries need to have the tanks to process that increased production, he maintained.

The state’s largest wine producers have expanded their production facilities in the Central Valley, but coastal wineries have been slow to expand. “The valley wineries are making adjustments, but it just may not be enough,” he said. “We’d love it to be a perfect world, but it never is.”

Large harvest for Lodi, Central Valley about average
Despite some of the challenges with ripening in the Lodi area, DiBuduo estimates the region could produce a large if not record harvest. “We’re stating that it could be the second-largest wine crop in Lodi this year,” he said. Lodi is at the heart of California’s Grape Pricing District 11, which includes northern San Joaquin County and southern Sacramento County. “We think District 11 could hit a new production record,” DiBuduo said.

The area’s Chardonnay harvest could be a down a little because of some mildew issues, but everything else appears to be coming in larger than 2012 levels. District 11 growers produced 767,400 tons of wine grapes last year.

In the southern San Joaquin Valley, DiBuduo said the crop appears to be average or larger than last year. “We had a good consistent crop, so we think it’s slightly above average,” he said.

In 2012, District 12, which encompasses southern San Joaquin County and Stanislaus and Merced counties, produced 339,444 tons of wine grapes. District 13, comprised of Madera, Fresno, Alpine, Mono, Inyo counties and northern sections of Kings and Tulare counties, yielded 1,215,393 tons of grapes, the largest haul in California.

Nathan Cardella is the winemaker and owner of Cardella Winery in Mendota, Calif., near Fresno. Cardella produces estate wines from 10 acres of vineyards but also oversees a large farming operation that includes 550 acres of high-volume vineyards producing fruit for one of the largest wine companies in the state.

He described the past harvest as anything but normal—but not in a bad way. “Everything was just early, early, early,” he said. Cardella said he harvested his estate vines in August, which he has never done before, and all his other crops ripened at a different pace this year. “I don’t know, it was just a weird year with everything,” he said.

Cardella grows Syrah, Sangiovese, Barbera, Merlot and Ruby Cabernet for his estate program and plans to make 4,500 cases of wine this year. The Ruby Cabernet came in during the middle of September. Cardella said despite it being such an early harvest, grape quality seemed excellent. “My Syrah harvested at 28° Brix with no raisining, no shrivel, and the pH was not that high,” he said.

The estate vines are cultivated for quality, and Cardella said he’s aggressive with pruning, crop thinning and irrigates with less water. Such steps trim his Barbera yields down from about 14 tons per acre to 9 tons. Cardella noted his 2010 Barbera won gold for best Barbera in the state at this year’s California State Fair Wine Competition.

Cardella harvests his estate fruit by hand. “One of the reasons we harvested so much in August was because there was a big strain on labor,” he said. “We were scared we couldn’t get labor out there again.”

The machine-harvested, high-volume vineyards mostly came in at the high end of their average yields, Cardella said. His French Colombard yielded around 17 tons per acre, and the Ruby Red produced 19-20 tons per acre.

Cardella said his major challenge this year was a lack of water. He said his property is in the Westlands Water District, which received only 20% of its normal surface water allotment. That meant he had to use pumped groundwater and could not irrigate on his preferred schedule. Some crops received water when they didn’t need it, while other plants didn’t get water when they needed it. “We were at the mercy of the water this year, which was pretty stressful, as you can imagine.”

Despite the water challenge, Cardella just planted 120 acres of vines this year and will develop 160 next year. “We’re planting more vineyards. We’re bullish on grapes.”

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