Southern California Wine Harvest Early

California vineyards dispatch regional reports, starting down south

by Jane Firstenfeld
vina robles harvest
The picking crew at Vina Robles fills bins with freshly picked grape clusters during a night harvest.

San Rafael, Calif.—The 2014 wine grape harvest got an early start in many regions throughout the state, as predicted by early bud break and an extremely dry summer. With the able assistance of area associations, Wines & Vines polled growers about their experiences, starting with those in Southern California.

    More to come

  • Next week we will publish reports from other parts of California including Monterey, Livermore, the Sierra Foothills and North Coast.

San Diego/Ramona Valley
Carolyn Harris, vice president and general counsel of the Ramona Valley Winery Association just east of the city of San Diego, and owner of 600-case Chuparosa Vineyards, reported, “Here at Chuparosa we completed our 2014 harvest, pulling in 10 tons of entirely ripe estate fruit for reds as well as a dry rosé blend from our 4 acres between Aug. 8 and Sept. 7. “The remnants of Hurricane Norbert hit us with a deluge Sept. 6 and 7.

“Zinfandel harvest was the earliest yet, by two full months—August, not October. The thin-skinned varietal was hurt by the tropical storm, but we pulled in what we could as soon as possible.”

She forwarded an association report dated Aug. 15.

“This is the earliest harvest in Ramona Valley’s young history,” said RVWA president Victor Edwards, who farms on the east side of the AVA and produces 500 cases at his Edwards Vineyard & Cellars.

“Drought conditions are continuing, but wine grapes are a very low water-use crop. The much-needed March rains came at the right time for many varieties, but those in early bloom suffered losses in crop set as a result of the timing, or from the unusual Santa Ana winds during spring. The earlier harvest dates should help us get our crops in prior to fall rains.” He credited high temperatures during the past winter and spring for speeding things up with an early bud break.
“We’ve harvested our Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay—almost all of our white grapes—beginning Aug. 1, which was very early,” said Jim Hart, winemaker at 3,000-case Milagro Farm Vineyards and Winery

“We’re working on harvesting for a rosé next, and the rest of our reds will follow.” He explained that he prefers to pick at night so that the crop comes in cooler, and it is crushed immediately, usually at 7 a.m.

Mike Kopp of 500-case Kohill Winery agreed that harvest dates were advanced, beginning with his Viognier, harvested during the last week of July. Kopp said the 2014 crop “appears to be about average in tonnage, depending upon variety, and of good quality—despite the drought and strong winds during bloom.”

Temecula Valley
Just north in Riverside County, Peggy Evans, executive director of Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, forwarded comments from two members. “We had a big 10 minutes of wind and flooding on Sunday, Sept. 6,” Evans said. The hurricane remnants “took out a few trees along the way, but that’s it.”

Jon McPherson from 56,000-case South Coast Winery reported that picking began as early as July 18 for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wine. Our whites were all pretty much picked within a month’s time and 2.5 to 3 weeks ahead of ‘normal,’” he said.

“We’re completely finished with whites other than a bit of late harvest Muscat. We’re looking at finishing somewhere around the first of October, so we’re probably 60%-70% complete. We’ve been bringing in some red varieties for a couple of weeks now,” McPherson said.

“One of our wineries even picked Zinfandel on Aug. 13.. Granted, the light fruit set allowed for an earlier ripening, but that’s the earliest anyone can remember. Tempranillo, Cinsault and Grenache have all come in as well,” he said.

“The concern for us with the drought is more long-term if it affects water costs and availability. The lack of rain definitely didn’t allow our vines to carry very big crops; some even went into shutdown mode. The lack of well water combined with the cost of purchased water made everyone very cautious with irrigating,” McPherson added.

“There have been some notable imbalances in the hanging fruit. Sugars are there, but actual ripeness is slower, so we’re just waiting for things to ripen. It’s actually been kind of nice not to have to pick everything at once,” he noted.

“The drought surely has played a huge factor with both the timeliness and the ultimate discrepancy in the yields. Some have reported lower elevation vineyards being down 10%-15%; some of the higher elevations have been off up to 25%. Yet others have reported crop levels being relatively consistent with past years. They’re reporting high quality, great fruit characteristics—just not as much,” McPherson concluded.

Jim Hart from 5,000-case Hart Winery reported, “As early as the first week of August we brought in Arneis, some Sauvignon Blanc and some Viognier.” For perspective, “Historically, we pick Sauvignon Blanc the last week of August.”

Hart managed early canopy through irrigation. “In normal years, late winter and early spring rains lead to denser canopy development,” he said. “But some feel the wines may actually be better as a result.”

The long, relatively slow ripening has actually been a good thing from a labor standpoint, Hart said. “Not having to pick every single day (and) being able actually to schedule crews has worked to our benefit. A lot of wineries pick on the weekends, too, which allow for a greater workforce.”

Paso Robles
From the vast Paso Robles region in San Luis Obispo County, Christopher Taranto from the Paso Robles Wine Alliance relayed reports from several members.

“At Luna Matta Vineyard we began picking Aug. 21. Others were picking Aug. 4, and I am happy I was not one of them,” Stephy Terrizzi reported. On Paso’s west side, Luna Matta is planted exclusively to Rhône and Italian varieties.

“We picked Fiano (an Italian grape variety) first. The Syrah had all been picked as of Sept. 2. All the Sangiovese has been gone since Sept. 8. Our Nebbiolo is being picked this coming Friday (Sept. 12). The earliest we have ever picked Nebbiolo is Sept. 23. Grenache is also leaving the property this coming Friday.”

“Labor has not been a problem at Luna Matta. We pick at night under lights mounted to a Kawasaki mule. The owner of the vineyard invented the system, and it works great. We have switched from a generator to a battery system, and it is great to hear the night noises instead of a blaring motor,” Terrizzi said.

“Our crew starts between 2 and 4 a.m., and we are typically finished by 6 or 7 a.m., when the crew moves on to their next vineyard.”

To date, harvest has been smooth, Terrizzi said. The pHs seem high, and the TAs seem very low across the board—even the Italian varieties. The skins don’t seem to be on the ripening time zone. I have read about bumper crops but have yet to see above-normal croploads. We are certainly below normal tonnage so far.

“The brutal wind, combined with the drought, have made tiny berries and smaller clusters. We have half the tonnage of Grenache we usually have due to shatter from wind damage,” she said.

“I anticipated we might have some sunburn on the Nebbiolo this year, and I tried some shade-cloth experiments. The shade-cloth pushed back véraison, and I still have some green berries out there. Hopefully, the next 10-day forecast of high heat will push them over the hump,” Terrizzi said.

Richard Hartenberger, winemaker/owner at 7,000-case Midnight Cellars, added to the conversation. “Our first grapes arrived Aug. 22. First in were Albariño and Vermentino from the east side of Paso. We are about 15% in. Depending on the weather, we will probably be all in by mid-October.”

Volume so far has been the same or larger than last year, he said. “Drought is a definite factor. So far, labor has been available when needed, but there is a long way to go.

When the growing season began, “The major concern was obviously the drought and water availability,” but so far these factors have not had much effect. “We always have less water at the end of the season than at the beginning, so it will be interesting to see how we end up,” Hartzenberger said.

Vic Roberts, owner/grower/winemaker at 5,000-case Victor Hugo Winery, was picking Viognier earlier this week. “The fruit is great, but labor to pick it is not,” he said.

“The first grapes harvested in Paso that I’m aware of was some Sauvignon Blanc, which I believe was crushed the week of Aug. 11. The harvest is about two weeks earlier than normal, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising as bud break for most vineyards was about 2.5 weeks early. Early bud break was driven by a warm January/February and very little rainfall resulting in soil temperatures warming sooner than normal.
“My estimate is the region is about 30% harvested. I would guess late-ripening red varieties in cooler microclimates will probably drag on into the last week of October,” Roberts observed. “Volume is hard to estimate at this point, but I’d guess we’ll be down 15%-20% overall from last year. Of course, the decrease will not be spread equally across the multitude of different varieties we grow in Paso.”.
Drought continues to be A major factor throughout the state. “The biggest factor in lowering yields is the drought and the resulting salt accumulation in the vineyard soils. The declining water table limits some vineyards’ ability to drip irrigate as much as desired and further exacerbates the problem,” Roberts said..
“For those of us who exclusively hand harvest, if our first day of picking is representative, we expect it will be a long, tough harvest. We’ve heard rumors of severe labor shortages the last few years but have not experienced anything dramatic until today,” Roberts said. “Hopefully, it is just a few rough days this week and not truly indicative of the balance of harvest. The bright side is that what we picked tastes great, has good numbers with adequate yields. The balance of vines yet to be harvested look very healthy despite the drought.”.
Vina Robles (35,000-cases) harvested its first grapes Aug. 29, Sauvignon Blanc with “expressive flavors,” according to winemaker Kevin Willenborg. “About 85% remains to be picked as of Sept. 9. Assuming the weather holds to average” the winery will finish about mid-October with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Willenborg expected lower yields compared to the last two vintages—closer to historical averages than two boom crops. “Some heat at bloom adversely affected berry set in Cabernet Sauvignon in some blocks. Cluster sizes are generally smaller overall—drought might be playing a factor. Harvest labor has been progressively tighter over the last few years—challenging yet achievable,” he said.


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