Wine Grape Harvest Almost Complete

Overwhelmingly positive reports from California growing regions

by Jane Firstenfeld
wine grapes harvest concannon livermore petite sirah
Clusters of Petite Sirah are harvested for Concannon Vineyards in Livermore, Calif., where the harvest season is winding down.
San Rafael, Calif.—Our periodic reports from diverse winegrowing regions throughout the spring and summer all indicated a relatively peaceful growing season. As crush winds down, wine grape growers and winemakers throughout California indicate favorable quality and yields.

Brent Amos, winemaker at 3,000-case Las Positas Vineyards in California’s Livermore Valley said Oct. 10 that although only half the fruit was in, he expected 90 tons compared to just 37 tons in 2015. He called quality promising, following a fairly mild year that was generally cooler than usual, which allowed nice, even ripening. Cold overnight temperatures helped fruit to retain more acid.

Las Positas started picking Chardonnay on Aug. 30, five days later than in 2015. Amos expected to finish harvest the last week of October. Although bud break was one of the earliest on record, the later finish for crush is more typical.

Dane Stark, winemaker and proprietor of 3,300-case Page Mill Winery in Livermore, termed the 2016 a relief and a return to normal. “Yields are back up, heat stress is down, and vineyards are more balanced in overall health than the past few years, providing more normal chemistry at the crush pad,” he said. Quality looks exceptional, with white varieties more balanced than he’d seen in a decade, and very promising flavors for red wines. Stark started picking for sparkling wines Aug. 17 and said he expected to finish harvest around Halloween.

The 2016 was “not a harvest of weirdness, but rather a welcome return to normal,” he said. Heat waves were weaker and shorter than expected, allowing crops to mature evenly. With rain expected in the Bay Area this weekend, a late harvest pick of Pinot Blanc grapes may give Stark the opportunity to make a Botrytis wine.

At 5,000-case McGrail Vineyards and Winery, also in the Livermore Valley. president Heather McGrail said she expected more than double the 2015 volume, with estate Cabernet Sauvignon at 64 tons compared to 30 last year. Cabernet berries were small and concentrated with long clusters, she said, predicting a great year for Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. McGrail planned to finish picking Souza and Touriga Nacional on Oct. 15.

Alyssa Barber, assistant winemaker at the 100,000-case Concannon Vineyard founded in 1883, reported that to date, Concannon has harvested 150 tons of grapes and expects to finish with 200 tons by the end of this week. She said that steady, 80° F temperatures provided perfect conditions for concentrating natural flavors.

More from California
A note from Tyler Thomas, winemaker at 25,000-case Dierberg & Star Lane Vineyard in Santa Barbara, Calif., updated a report we published in late July. Thomas called the 2016 harvest healthy in size but not overly ample, with yields slightly above average.

The ripening and harvest seasons were very cool, the first of the previous four in which Cabernet Sauvignon was not harvested in August. Thomas expected to pick with good concentration, with no pressure to push vines too far into the season. He said quality was terrific for the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and that he expected nothing less from the Bordeaux varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon more lush than 2014, less austere than 2015.

Solterra Strategies forwarded comments from clients in Paso Robles. The view from Paso Robles was peaceful. Tom Meyers at 70,000-case Castoro Cellars called the harvest reminiscent of the past several, but with better yields. Meyers said, though, that his team was battling high sugars in both red and white varieties, compensated by rich, ripe flavors and great colors in reds.

Assistant winemaker Sherrie Holzer commented that white wines are very aromatic with tropical fruit, rich and full in the middle but crisp at the finish.

Also in Paso Robles, Eric Ogorsolka at 3,000-case Zenaida said quality looked good. He said sugars were elevated early on, but eventually grapes were well balanced and mature. Joe Barton at 4,000-case Grey Wolf Cellars found high ripeness and concentration, with average to low yields, depending on variety. “It has been a short harvest, (but) we’re getting a chance for some nice hang time if the canopies hold up. Tannins took awhile to develop, so the later heat spikes drove sugars higher at harvest time. The waiting game was tricky this year. Crews got tight because everything started coming off at the same time. “

With tonnage about double from 2015, Kevin Jussila at 2,500-case Kukkula Winery in Paso Robles said harvest was complete Sept. 25, save less than a ton of Mourvedre, but refrained from predicting quality yet. Alta Colina Winery (2,000 cases) brought in its last fruit Oct. 1, closing the door on another early harvest with excellent quantity (averaging 3.4 tons per acre vs. 2.9 tons per acre during the past three years), and the second largest harvest in a 12-year history.

At 18,000-case Halter Ranch Vineyard & Winery in Paso Robles, Kevin Sass said Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and a bit of Grenache Blanc were the only varieties left to pick, calling them “the usual suspects for October.” He reported record phenolic levels in 2016 wines so far, with higher than usual tannins. Sass was grateful for steady warm, rain-free weather for shaping up a perfect ripening fall.

Although rain may arrive this weekend, the sources agreed that the moderate season has been perfect for producing ripe fruit without too much desiccation.

Amazing pace in Napa
The Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG) hosted a well-organized, concise online video press conference Oct. 13. Moderated by Sunset Magazine editor Sara Schneider, the panel included Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci, Caleb Mosley, Michael Wolf Vineyard Services senior viticulturist, and Brittany Pederson, viticulturist at Silverado Farming Co. All are board or committee members at NVG.

The panelists said harvested grapes show great balance, and a cooler season brought resolved tannins and great color. Grapes displayed fresh fruit, ripe flavors and nothing green. “The pace of harvest was amazing. You could pick when you wanted to this year,” Silacci said.

As always, water was a concern throughout California and the west, but with Cabernet Sauvignon as Napa’s signature grape, “We were fortunate this year. Cabernet is thrifty, and we irrigated only when we wanted and needed. We can measure water use precisely,” Mosely said.

Napa growers are employing tools to measure irrigation needs and water application. The use of pressure bombs and improved irrigation systems to promote deeper vine roots are helpful, Silacci said, but walking through the vineyards is key throughout the year.

Low-tech attention like personal vineyard walkthroughs are key, Pederson agreed. All the growers are adjusting to climate change, planting more drought-tolerant rootstock, using onsite weather stations for monitoring and farming “vine by vine.”

New farmworker overtime laws, which won’t begin to take effect until 2019, are of concern, but the Napa growers feel they have advantages. Great resources and deep labor pools will help, although every business faces different challenges.

“Our vineyard workers are our most valuable resources besides our grapevines,” Silacci said. Opus One sends its workers to educational seminars: “It makes sense in the long run,” he added. He sees worker education as key, as well as recognizing high-performing staff members.

Despite the growers’ reliance on hands-on viticultural practices, drones have already found a place in their programs. Pederson said that her company is still searching for the best ways to utilize them, including photos for videos and marketing. Silacci said he looks forward to drones being developed by scientists at the University of California, Davis, that will monitor grape ripeness.

Labor remains a problem, though. Pederson called it a hot topic: “There are a shortage of people wanting to get into vineyard work,” she recognized. Mosely added that finding the right people for the right place, with the right skill set, remains a challenge.

The issue of vineyard redevelopment comes down mainly to pulling aged or diseased vines to avoid transmission of destructive diseases like red blotch. Silacci said that growers are working closely with nurseries, to ensure that mother vines for replantings are tested for disease.

Although consumers and the industry are enamored for “old vines,” aging vines may cause more redevelopment, Pederson noted. “We all want to keep vines in the ground as long as we can; ripping out vines has a bad rap.” He deals with this by retraining vines to wider canopy systems. Silacci commented, “Every 30 years, you have to change your roots.”

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