Lake, Livermore Grape Crop Spared Heat Damage

Harvest moving along despite severe labor challenges for some

by Jane Firstenfeld
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
A bin of Cabernet Sauvignon is unloaded on the crush pad at McGrail Vineyards and Winery in the Livermore Valley.

San Rafael, Calif.—Two major, landlocked Northern California wine producing regions were well prepared for the searing heat wave Labor Day weekend. Livermore Valley and Lake County growers reported their harvests are coming in on schedule, and some are reaping heavier tonnage than in recent years.

The Livermore crush began late in August: Steven Kent Winery picked 50 tons of Sauvignon Blanc grapes during five days starting Aug. 26, winemaker Steven Mirassou reported. The harvest began eight days later than the previous two years. Mirassou expected to begin harvesting Sangiovese Sept. 13. Tonnage for Sauvignon Blanc was up 14% compared to 2016. “If you are on top of your spraying regime, you shouldn’t have much in the way of disease pressure,” he said.

Steven Kent prepared for the heat wave by watering to make sure the vines and grapes were well hydrated. The excessive heat shut down the vines, “so there was no photosynthesis, and thus, no ripening,” Mirassou said.

Sugars remained consistent before and after the heat event, and so far chemistries appear consistent with normal years in Livermore Valley, typically one of the warmer areas in the Bay Area.

Part of Alameda County, Livermore Valley is located to the southeast of the San Francisco Bay. The region has about 4,000 acres planted to vineyards, and leading varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Petit Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc. Alameda County is home to 104 wineries according to the Wines Vines Analytics Database.

Phil Long, owner and winemaker at Longevity Wines, said his Chardonnay is already fermented in the winery, and Zinfandel came in Sept. 8. Chardonnay tonnage was a little short; Zinfandel seemed plentiful. Normally, Pinot Grigio would have followed the Chardonnay pick, Long said, “But due to bird damage and lack of ‘ownership’ on the vineyard manager’s part, we were shorted our fruit.”

Tom Heineman at Bent Creek Winery said he expects a slight increase in tonnage, despite dropping some fruit to increase quality. He said the clusters have few raisins, and Brix and pH are right in his desired zone.

The winter rain was beneficial, reducing mineral salts that accrued in the soil during the drought. Bent Creek vineyards produced a heavy canopy this year, and Heineman said he had to pull leaves twice to reduce the shade on the grapes. “We had no mildew or diseases.” 

Birds again were a major pest culprit this season, according to Mark Clarin, winemaker at McGrail Vineyards and Winery. Following the heat wave, higher than normal humidity caused early rot problems in some varieties. “The good news for us is our Chardonnay is in the door and our Bordeaux varieties are thick-skinned, small berries and loose clusters. They are very resistant to Botrytis and the like,” he said.

Acid and pH have been good so far, he said. Clarin speculated that this may be due to concentration from dehydration. Brix have fluctuated during heat spikes, and overall have been lower than expected, “But it is early,” he said.

General manager Heather McGrail noted that Chardonnay tonnage was lighter than last year by about 50%. Sauvignon Blanc was equal to last year tonnage and Cabernet is predicted to be a little shorter than 2016, but not much.

Wente Vineyards viticulturist Niki Wente said Sauvignon Blanc tonnage is a little higher than last year, and Chardonnay about the same. After a heat-spurred stall in sugar accumulation, the winery has had time to regroup and give flavors a respite to develop. The unique growing season delivered vigorous vines and a healthy canopy, and disease pressure was lower than in previous years, she said.

Summer at the lake
Clint Nelson, vineyard manager for Beckstoffer Vineyards in the Red Hills AVA of Lake County said the growing season started a week or two late because of a cool, wet spring. The warm summer and sporadic heat waves brought his crops back to a similar timeline as 2016.

Nelson said he was cautiously optimistic that Cabernet Sauvignon yields will be average to slightly above. “The main driver was a great fruit-set and a full soil profile from the wet spring,” he said.

While expected yields still appear good, Nelson said the vintage had already thrown several curve balls his way. “To counter the impacts of the wet spring, we attempted to dry down soil moistures by withholding initiation of irrigation well into July,” he said. “Since then we have had to ramp up applied water in an effort to avert vine stress caused primarily from high temperatures and other abiotic factors.”

He noted the company’s irrigation team deserved recognition for working long days and weeks prior to the heat waves. “We were successful in avoiding any significant yield losses associated with shrivel and dehydration.”

Lake County is home to more than 9,000 acres of vineyards and produced nearly 34,000 tons of grapes in 2016, according to the state crush and vineyard reports. There are 39 wineries in the county, according to the winery database, and the region is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Director of North Coast vineyards for Shannon Ranches in the High Valley, Red Hills Valley and Big Valley AVAs, Bruce Merrilees said his team has been picking many white grapes and planned to start harvest for Cabernet Sauvignon around Sept. 15.

Sauvignon Blanc yields were about average throughout Big Valley, and a little light in areas of the Red Hills. The fruit is coming in nicely clean: Grapes got through mildew season and veraison with no signs of bunch rot. The late season heat was hard on the vines, Merilees said, but irrigation and cooler temperatures offered a little reprieve from vine stress.

Jonathan Walters, director of farming operations for Brassfield Estate in the High Valley AVA, said harvest was running at about the same pace as last year. Yield is up from previous years, clusters are sound and quality looks high. Heat affected some of the white varieties, but Walters said he hopes the remainder of harvest will enjoy “normal” temperatures.

Sweating over labor
“Labor is a disaster,” Long, the owner of Longevity Wines in Livermore, said. In addition to trying to predict the weather and ripening he’s also had to find workers who are taking advantage of the tight market. “Last year it was bad enough with crews choosing what vineyards to pick. This year they are even harder to find,” Long said.

“It has become increasingly difficult for small wineries to find crews who can harvest the grapes when they are ready,” said Heineman at Bent Creek. “The current political climate has made the situation even more difficult. We do not use mechanical harvesters.”

For larger operations, it’s not quite so dire. “We have hard working, dedicated teammates and partners who are determined to (safely) get the job done,” said Wente Family Estates viticulturist Niki Wente. “We have two new selective harvesters that have been doing a beautiful job at delivering the winery clean fruit. We use these two machines where we can.”

At only about a quarter of the way done, Wente has not experienced any issues obtaining needed labor.

Brassfield Estates maintains “a perfect mixture of hand crews and machines,” Walters said, and hand pickers are getting the fruit off fast.

Nelson at Beckstoffer acknowledged that labor has been and will continue to be an issue. Beckstoffer mechanically farms vineyards when feasible, but still relies heavily on crews to maintain its vineyard blocks. “The writing is on the wall,” Nelson said. “Labor availability and quality are issues farmers across the state will continue to deal with in future years.”

Mirassou said that labor crunches in Livermore Valley most typically appear in late September and early October, when there is more immediate competition among wine regions for harvesting. He also suggested that legalization of cannabis, and growth of that industry may also impact wine growers.

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