Ideal Season Shapes Up for Sonoma Grapes

Water sources replenished; light harvest expected as first grapes picked

by Jane Firstenfeld
wine harvest sonoma gloria ferrer
The vineyard crew at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards welcomes the first grapes of the season on Tuesday: Pinot Noir from the Home Ranch. Photo: Ashley Urdang/Gloria Ferrer
Sonoma, Calif.—Abundant, consistent winter rains replenished reservoirs, rivers and aquifers, leaving moist soils to fuel a mild growing season in Sonoma County vineyards. From the Carneros district in the southeastern county to Russian River Valley in the northwest, producers of sparkling wines are just beginning to harvest.

In the final week of July, Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) reported that vines benefited from moderate temperatures and bright sunshine throughout the spring and summer months, contributing to a balanced, optimal growing pace for wine grapes.

Véraison was still as low as 10% in some vineyards and as high as 70% in some blocks, Kruse said. Grapegrowers were reporting that a majority of Pinot Noir blocks in Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast were roughly 30%-50% through véraison; Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley is roughly 15%-30%; Merlot in Dry Creek Valley is 60%-70%, while Zinfandel in that region is around 50%, and in Sonoma Valley véraison has started for Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Overall, véraison is tracking normal for this time of year,” Kruse summarized, adding that she anticipates an average-sized crop for 2016.

Irrigation practices
Although a heat spike last week caused many growers to begin their normal irrigation programs, not all have irrigated this year. Duff Bevill of Bevill Vineyard Management reported that roughly two-thirds of the vineyards he farms have not been irrigated yet this season.
“Our growers use a wide variety of innovative tools and sustainable farming practices to monitor vines and soil moisture within the root zone to determine the precise amount of water needed at any given time,” Kruse pointed out. “Soil moisture probes, evapotranspiration monitors and other data analysis measurement tools help provide real-time information on each vine. This ensures that we only irrigate when absolutely necessary for vine health and that we’re making every drop count.”

Requiring specialized skills and experience, vineyard labor remains a challenge in Sonoma County as it does throughout the California wine industry. Growers feel the pressure of a shrinking workforce and higher demand, and the SCW closely monitors this situation.

Winemakers weigh in
Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards started picking Pinot Noir for sparkling wines early on the morning of Aug. 2 at Home Ranch, its Carneros estate vineyards, winemaker Steven Urberg said. Company vineyards in Bennett Valley stretch out the harvest; when Chardonnay is ready in the next two weeks, “It’s all hands on deck,” Urberg said.

Although Gloria Ferrer maintains a vineyard crew of 16 and is still looking to hire, finding qualified labor is an extreme challenge. “We’ve never had it this difficult,” Urberg noted. The problem is not new, but it is getting worse, he said. Lack of affordable housing exacerbates the problem, he said. Although crews from other areas are interested in the Sonoma harvest,  “There is no housing here,” Urberg observed.

After Sonoma’s light crop in 2015, he said, “Anything is abundant,” but with light cluster counts for Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir close to average, he predicted his crush would be 12%-15% less than the historic average.

Starting with an early spring, early bud break and early bloom, fruit set was solid, and maturity is even. Urberg said 2015 was the earliest harvest in memory, and this year is running about five days later. After an early battle with mildew was knocked out, the fruit looks “great.”

Cline Cellars, Gloria Ferrer’s Carneros neighbor, is not known for sparkling wines, but it does produce 850 cases of Nancy’s Cuvee, a “really dry” sparkler available only in the tasting room. Many of its 800 acres of grapes are in the Petaluma Gap AVA.

Director of winemaking operations Charles Tsegeletos said he hopes to start bringing in the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Nancy’s Cuvee next week.

Tsegeletos was shopping for grapes in Amador County on Aug. 1, and he started picking Palomino grapes from 75-year-old vines in Contra Costa County today.

He said that the “coastal” crop from Petaluma Gap would be perhaps 10% larger than 2015, but cited the old farmer’s adage for crop prediction: “Pick it and weigh it.” No one really knows until the harvest is in.

As to labor, “Everybody’s having a hard time,” he said. Cline is talking with labor contractors to fill its needs.

Meanwhile in Guerneville, Calif., in the Russian River Valley AVA, Korbel Champagne Cellars started crushing organic Pinot Gris grapes from Lodi, Calif., on July 29 for the band’s California Brut.

According to Margie Healy, vice president of communications, Korbel doesn’t expect to crush any grapes from its 1,000 acres of Russian River vineyards until next week. Director of winemaking Paul Ahvenainen said he foresees a quick harvest.

Korbel expects crop yields to be average to a little below for some varieties, and the company is looking to crush 13,500 tons for its 1.5 million cases of California sparkling wine in 2016.

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