Grapevines Resume Normal Timeline

Growers in Napa and Sonoma counties estimate average to slightly smaller yields following some shatter

by Andrew Adams
Several vineyards in Napa County, Calif., suffered shatter because of cooler weather, pests and some light June rain.
San Rafael, Calif.—A few months ago it looked as if this year’s harvest in California’s Napa and Sonoma counties might be wrapping up by the middle of September, as another warm winter triggered early bud break, and prompted vines to push much earlier than normal.

Thanks to a cooler-than-normal May and unsettled weather in June, however, the reports of an early harvest are now being replaced with a sense of things returning to normal—or just a week or two early.

Some areas also experienced problematic set and cluster development because of windy, wet weather that also raised the risk of Botrytis and rot, especially for later in the year. A weak system that came through before the July 4 holiday brought more humidity and some thunder showers as well.

Lengthy bloom period
The Napa Valley Grapegrowers reported in mid-June that a lengthy bloom period had created a “wide variability” in developing clusters. “Because of the variability in this year’s fruit set, crop thinning at the time of véraison will be even more important to even out the maturity of the clusters,” said Allison Cellini, NVG member and viticulturist at Cliff Lede Vineyards.

Cellini told Wines & Vines that she’s pleased with set at Cliff Lede despite reports of heavy shatter throughout Napa County. “We have found our cluster formation to be looser and berry size to be relatively smaller than the last couple of years,” she said.

She added that véraison began across the winery’s estate vineyards in the Stags Leap District AVA during the last week of June. Ripening is about a week earlier than last year, which was already an early year.

Variable conditions during set could reduce yields in 2015, which is not great news for growers, but it likely won’t be much of an issue for the wine industry statewide due to record-setting harvests during the past few years.

In Carneros, June rainfall was blamed for poor set at several vineyards. George Richmond, a viticulturist with Nord Vineyard Services (which owns and manages vineyards throughout Napa County), said cooler weather caused some problems, but it wasn’t just because of the weather. “All the way from American Canyon up to Pope Valley we could tap out 10, sometimes 25 thrips into our hands with one shake,” he said.

The bugs can damage the grapevine rachis, preventing stems from elongating fully as well causing sticky caps. “I got lucky and treated the thrips immediately and believe we might have saved a call to crop insurance in most places we farm,” he said. “I think the thrips were widespread and brought on by cool weather and early bud break, because every time I mentioned it to another grower they would find them right away also.”

Véraison has begun in several vineyards in Napa County, and if the rest of the season plays out “normally,” harvest should begin in mid-August.

Slightly smaller crop than previous years
In Sonoma County, John Balletto, the president and principal of Balletto Vineyards, which includes more than 500 acres of vineyards in the Russian River Valley, said he’s starting to see véraison in the Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, which looks to be about 7 to 10 days early. “Crop set is hit and miss in the Pinot Noir, especially in West (Sonoma) County, I think the crop is off 10% to 15% from last year,” he said. “The Chardonnay crop looks better and more uniform, and about normal to 5% below last year.”

Eric Pooler, who oversees nearly 300 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties as the director of winegrowing for Boisset Family Estates, said 2015 is shaping up to be 10% to 25% lighter than previous years, depending on appellation and varietal. He said some severe shatter that reduced potential yields by more than 50% occurred in later blooming vineyards. “Although clusters are still starting to fill-in, cluster structure is open and berry size is variable,” Pooler said. “These factors are related to ongoing impacts of the drought and cool weather during bloom.”

One small upside to the drought is that the vines have lighter canopies requiring little leaf pulling that has helped create “labor efficiencies.” Some of the early ripening vineyards are exhibiting véraison in Napa Valley, while the Boisset Pinot and Chardonnay vineyards in the Russian River Valley are at about 10% véraison.

Pooler said he began irrigating early this year based on how the vines looked, porometer readings and data from soil probes. Irrigation typically consisted of short sets once or twice per week depending on temperature, soil type and rootstock. “We received enough rainfall in December to fill our reservoirs and recharge our aquifers that we're not facing any major obstacles in terms of harvest,” he said. “The lack of precipitation has actually given us a wonderful level of restraint, and I think that the crop looks nicely balanced (with only) minimal cluster thinning necessary.”

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