Grape Harvest Racing Along in Sonoma County

Heat, scarce labor putting pressure on picking decisions; fruit quality described as good

by Andrew Adams
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
Most of the grape varieties vulnerable to extreme heat, like these Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Dry Creek Valley, had already been picked before the recent heat waves.

Santa Rosa, Calif.—Several days of record heat have put pressure on growers and vintners in Sonoma County to bring in the 2017 wine grape harvest.

Many reported they are near or at the mid-way point of harvest and while the rising temperatures raised concerns many also said they had picked the most sensitive varieties before temperatures surged past the century mark over Labor Day Weekend and this most recent weekend. The heat sped up the harvest that is being described as slightly less than normal in size and coming to an end in mid-October.

“In general everything weathered the heat really well,” said Clay Mauritson, owner and winemaker of Mauritson Wines near Healdsburg, Calif. He said abundant winter rains enabled the vines to produce good canopy coverage and the plants were quite healthy going into the extreme heat. A spell of 100-degree weather early in the growing season also helped acclimate the vines to the high temperatures.

He said Bordeaux varieties are “looking good” and he’ll begin picking those (depending on the weather) in about 10 to 14 days. “There was some dehydration after the heat, but the vines rebounded beautifully with the cooler weather that followed,” he said.

Mauritson is almost done picking Zinfandel, some of which was picked prior to the heat. “We definitely saw some shriveling in the fruit that was not picked but it was highly dependent on location,” he said. “One of the saving graces is the fruit has great acidity.”

He said he expects the heat and other factors could reduce the total Zinfandel crop by 20% and Sauvignon Blanc was about 15% less than normal.

Mauritson’s brother Cameron runs the family’s separate vineyard management company Mauritson Farms that is one of five Sonoma County vineyard companies planning to build farmworker housing for employees hired with a federal H-2A visa. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is considering a proposal by the companies to build two structures that would house nearly 80 workers. The county has already approved plans for other worker housing. The H-2A program requires employers to provide housing.

More machine picking needed
Andy Smith, winemaker and partner in DuMOL Vineyard and Winery that is located in Windsor but buys grapes from both Sonoma and Napa counties said the “most important aspect of the season” was the scarcity of labor. “You needed to schedule five to seven days ahead of the desired pick date to ensure a slot,” he said.

This has put even more pressure on winemakers to “project intuitively” on how the plants will ripen. “Gone are the days of turning up at a vineyard, sampling and expecting to harvest two days later,” he said. “Early and frequent sampling was key to anticipating the harvest.”

He added that the labor shortage means more vineyards need to be machine harvested and if he was making $30 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (instead of DuMOL’s average of more than $70 per bottle) he would be machine picking everything out of preference and not just necessity. "I don't think the labor issue would be less acute but at least one could decide a field is ready to harvest and then get it in 24 to 48 hours nice and cold in the middle of the night and not have to wait for five to seven days before a crew was available," he said. "The machine technology is so good now it makes sense to me for that price category and below." 

Smith said he was able to pull all his Pinot and Chardonnayin 10 days before the heat and while quite stressful (it would normally require three weeks of work) it has proved to be worth it. “Despite a very tough mildew season, good healthy fruit,” he said. “Little bit of rot in tight cluster cones but no problem really.”

Stephen Hawkes, owner of Hawkes winery and vineyards near Geyserville, said 2017 is proving to be another early year for all varieties and Cabernet, which he hasn't yet started picking, is still looking good. Hawkes has purchased a mechanical harvester that will pick almost all of his grapes. He said there are fewer workers than in previous years and those who are available are older. "Looks as if the era of seasonal labor is coming to an end," he said. "That may be a good thing for everybody." 

Balance returns after sugar spike
DuMOL also makes a Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon and Smith expects to start picking that later this week when he’ll also begin the winery’s Russian River Valley Syrah harvest. He said the Syrah and Cab did spike in sugar during the heat wave but have now rehydrated with sugar and acid returning to balance.

In the Dry Creek Valley, winemaker Chris Russi said Comstock Wines had just passed the halfway point. He said most of the more sensitive varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel had been picked prior to the heat and the grapes still on the vine fared reasonably well. “A couple of lots we brought in just after the spike had elevated sugars and acid, which tells us it had significant evaporation through the skins,” he said. “No major issue with quantity reduction here at Comstock.”

On Sept. 7, the Sonoma Winegrowers released one of the group’s regular harvest reports on the entire county. The group noted a “limited supply” of workers this year but said most growers did not report it being a critical shortage. The sparkling wine harvest is largely complete and Cabernet picking expected to begin throughout the county later this month with harvest ending in mid-October.

According to the Sonoma County crop report, county growers produced 226,442 tons of wine grapes in 2016 from 60,000 bearing acres. The average price per ton last year was $2,590, with the total harvest value pegged at more than $586 million.

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