Foothill Growers Happy With 'Normal' Vintage

While labor remains a challenge, relief at a lack vintage "drama" and hopes for normal yields

by L. M. Archer
Grape losses from birds have become more widespread and costly in the Sierra Nevada foothills leading many wineries, including Black Vette Winery in Auburn, to add bird netting on their vines.

Placerville, Calif—Several growers in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a sprawling wine region ranging in microclimates, soil types and elevations, say they are cautiously optimistic about the 2018 vintage.

Amador County
“The season started out on the cool side, but we’ve seen some heat spikes this past month,” said Ann Kraemer, owner and vineyard manager of Shake Ridge Vineyards in Amador County. She added the haze from fires in the Yosemite Valley and Mendocino, Lake and Shasta counties have influenced temperatures since early August and night time temps remain low.

After a completely dry January and February, “consistent” rain totaling almost 26 inches arrived in early spring. Kraemer reports a slightly late, somewhat staggered bud break this year due to a few late frost events in April, but a great flowering that resulted in “very good” set for most varieties, “to the point of worrying about too tight of clusters.” She added she’s held off on irrigation to keep the berry size as small as possible.

With veraison starting the first full week of August, Kraemer says this puts Amador about a week later than last year, which she considers “normal” after earlier drought years. She said she expects harvest to start in September. “By mid-September, we should be going full steam,” she said.

Amador County is home to 56 wineries according to the Wines Vines Analytics database, and Jack Gorman, executive director of the Amador Vintners Association said, “I continue to hear that labor, both for harvesting and crushing, is a growing concern.”

He said most of the vineyards in Amador County are not suitable for mechanized harvesting, “therefore, we are heavily depending on people.”

Lack of a broad labor pool, and a competitive labor environment during harvest, continues to make finding sufficient workers for vineyards a challenge.

El Dorado County
“Speaking specifically about the 2018 vintage, it’s been an interesting year already,” said Paul Bush, the owner and winemaker of Madroña Vineyards in Camino, Calif. in El Dorado County that has a total of 94 wineries according to the databse. “With the exception of the frost event in April, temperatures through the latter part of spring were relatively mild.”

Chuck Mansfield of Goldbud Farms in Placerville, Calif., and member-at-large of the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association adds, “We’re tracking 10-14 days later than 2017 across all measurable moments.”

Ken Buchert, owner of Dorado Canyon Vineyards in Somerset, Calif., said he is about half-way through veraison, with harvest expected mid-September through mid-October. “We’re about one week ahead of everyone, and about one week behind last year.”

He estimated yields will be about average to below average this year, but notes wide variations, as El Dorado County is home to more than 50 different cultivars. “Overall, in 2017 the average yield was 2.3 tons per acre. At my place, I get 2.5 to 3.5 tons per acre, where I grow primarily Malbec and Syrah.”

While there were some frost events in March during bud break, “normal” flowering took place in April and May followed by fruit set in June. Buchert noted the area experienced only five days of temperatures near 100° F this year, compared with 10-12 days last year.

“Powdery mildew is the biggest pest problem in the Foothills and El Dorado County followed by mites, and leaf hoppers,” Buchert said. He prefers to use natural predators such as lady bugs, lace wings or parasitic wasps to combat the problem.

Mansfield, at Goldbud, said he uses organic horticulture spray (stylet oil) as a standard operating procedure to treat leaf hoppers, which he did encounter earlier in the season.

Grape losses from birds remain an ongoing issue. More and more growers are investing in bird netting to protect high value fruit destined for wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties. Labor continues to be tight in El Dorado, due in part to a lack of low-cost housing, an increase in aging workers and smaller vineyards spaced far apart, resulting in more and more “commuter” laborers.

Mansfield said after several years of drought, this year is more “normal” in all aspects of the harvest cycle. “It’s been warmer this year, but fairly steady and consistent. There’s been an absence of drama, which usually leads to a high-quality vintage.”

Calaveras County
Shelby French, executive director of Calaveras Winegrape Alliance says, “We had good spring rain and our canopies are looking full and healthy.”

French said yields appear about average, after less than average in the past three years because of frost. Calaveras County has 41 wineries according to the databse. She said veraison is starting in the Syrah and Tempranillo, but overall is starting late. “We hope for a mild and warm late summer and early fall,” French says, “so we can leave the grape on the vines a little longer.”

Nevada County
Guy Lauterbach of Gray Pine Winery in Penn Valley, Calif., said the 2018 vintage in Nevada County has been pretty “normal.” He reported no pest pressures, and minimal water pressures. “We’re in a dry area, and on a well, so we’re always on the hairy edge of water, but this year we got decent rain in winter, which got into the ground, so we didn’t have to cut back on irrigation like we did during the drought years.”

July temperatures ranged in the upper 90s every day, and the overnight lows in the upper 70s to low 80s, but recent daytime temperatures have cooled to the low 90s and overnights in the low 70s. Lauterbach said he uses a long-time farm contractor to provide labor for shoot thinning and harvest, and said he’s working with smaller crews and longer response times this year. Gray Pine is one of 22 wineries in Nevada County.

He said he expects 3.5 tons per acre this year for his Bordeaux varietals, and remains “cautiously optimistic” about the 2018 Nevada County harvest overall.

Meanwhile, Mario and Linda Clough of Lucchesi Vineyard & Winery in Grass Valley, Calif. report, “From normal flowering and bud break, to fruit set and encouraging cluster counts, we are optimistic for an above average harvest and yields.”

The Cloughs, who have been farming in the area since 2000 at elevations of 2600 feet, report low temperatures in the 50s to low 60s and no highs above 94° F. They do note some lingering smoke from the wild fires but no pest or mildew pressures.

“We are just starting to see veraison,” said Linda Clough. “We expect to get yields from three to four tons per acre, depending on the variety. We grow 15 different varieties and they all ripen a little different.”

Clough anticipates picking Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio the first week of September, and the red grapes around mid- September, starting with Tempranillo.

Placer County
Michele Calbi, the president of the Placer County Wine & Grape Association and proprietor of Black Vette Winery of Auburn, Calif., said the vintage had been marked by the intense heat and nearby fires. She said she expects harvest to start the first week in September, a week earlier than last year. Placer County is home to 27 wineries.

Stewart Perry of nearby Fawnridge Winery said the season started out cooler, with early rain in winter and spring, resulting in successful flowering, bud break, fruit set, and a greater number of clusters. But at 1,400 feet, he said he’s not even close to veraison because of the heat, which has shut the vines down.

Perry, who farms organically and uses no pesticides, has seen some white flies, but no leaf-hoppers this year. Calbi weed-wacks instead of spraying and reported no pest pressures. Both also said birds remain a serious problem in the area. Perry says red-tailed hawks control his bird problem, while Calbi uses netting to prevent both bird and bee damage. “My biggest pests are raccoons,” said Perry, who uses electrified plastic netting to keep the critters away.

Perry, who’s farmed in Auburn for 17 years, expects a little bit better yields this year because of the successful fruit set earlier in the season. “I have Barbera and Syrah here, and I usually average a little less than what we consider to be normal,” he said. “I’m probably around four tons an acre this year.”

Calbi, now in her second harvest of head-trained Primitivo at lower elevations, expects one ton per acre, but four to five tons an acre from her trellised Montepulciano and Sangiovese in her upper vineyards, a better yield than last year.

Currently no comments posted for this article.