California Wine Harvest Warms Up

Picking starts late for still wines, as sparkling wine harvest wraps up

by Paul Franson
Mildew Chardonnay
California's relatively moist and cool growing season encouraged powdery mildew in a minority of locations. Chardonnay cluster on left is affected, while another cluster from the same vine escaped.

Napa, Calif.--With grapes for sparkling wine largely picked, growers up and down California are just starting to harvest grapes for still wine. Most appellations report the grapes are one to two weeks behind average, yield is down from average (and way down from last year’s bumper crop) and quality is good with light disease and pest pressure. Some areas diverge from the average, however.

Here's a look at the progress of the growing season in nine major winegrowing districts.

Central Valley
Starting with the biggest area, the San Joaquin Valley farm advisor Paul Verdegaal reports that the season started 10 to 12 days behind with a light crop, 10 to 15 % below average, 50 to 75 % behind the monster crop in 2009.

“It’s been start and stop, but now seems pretty intense. I think we’re catching up,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll go late.”

He says that disease and pest pressure have been light even though it’s been relatively cool. “There’s been some powdery mildew, but growers are treating it and it’s in check.” He even thinks the late rains last spring might have washed mildew spores off the leaves, reducing mildew.

He adds, “We’ve seen some sour rot due to large berries, particularly with Zinfandel, but that’s not unusual. There’s been some heat damage, but not too much. Vine mealy bug continues to spread, however."

And he adds, “Quality looks good, but the price (that growers are getting from wineries) isn’t great. Growers will get through, however.”

Lake County
In Lake County, Randy Krag of Beckstoffer Vineyards in the Red Hills AVA expects to start picking Sauvignon Blanc tomorrow morning. “That’s about 7 to 10 days behind average,” he says. He adds that quality is great. “We here are in a fortunate position; we haven’t had some of the problems other areas have been suffering with.”

He also hasn’t noticed any unusual amounts of disease pressure, which is generally true in that high location. He does expect a little rain this weekend, but doesn’t appear concerned. “We typically finish harvest at the end of October, and we often have rain.”

In Lodi, Stuart Spencer of the Lodi Winegrape Commission reports that harvest was probably 2-3 weeks late getting started this year with the whites. “It’s looking like the reds are catching up, and will not be that far behind – partly due to a light crop.”

Spencer says that so far Sauvignon Blanc picked out really light, well below average, Pinot Grigio was irregular and looks to be below average. Chardonnay seems to be yielding slightly better, and more likely to have an average size crop. “All of these are going to be well below last year’s record sized crop.”

Growers are just starting on the reds, but he anticipates a light to average size crop across the board.

He says that at this point, quality looks outstanding. “Most of our vineyards don’t have the degree of fruit exposure you see on the North Coast, and subsequently we’re seeing little sunburn.”

He adds that growers have been able to manage mildew pressures, and the only real pest issue is the regulatory requirements resulting from the European grapevine moth sightings last month.

“Vintners are excited about the potential fruit quality, and we’ve heard good things about what’s already been crushed,” he concludes.

Mendocino County
In Anderson Valley near the Pacific Coast, Kristy Charles of Foursight Wines and until recently executive director of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, says picking is one to three weeks behind average. Crop levels are a little lighter than average, she says. Some grapes have been picked for sparkling wine, but not much else. She says that a few growers experienced sunburn, but that hasn’t been a widespread problem. “The flavors are fantastic,” she claims. “I don’t know if it’s due to the cool season but it’s great.”

In the warmer Ukiah Valley of Mendocino County, Paul Dolan of Mendocino Wine Co./Parducci Vineyards, says things are mixed. “The reds look great. Crop loads are about average and the color is fantastic due to the cool weather.”

His concern is Chardonnay. “We’re behind the 8 ball. Sugars are only at 19-20 degrees; they’re usually at 23 to 24 and we’re picking them by now.” He says they’re about three weeks late. “I’m concerned because the vines seem to be shutting down. We’ll pick at lower sugars – that’s not so bad – but may push into November. That’s fine if the weather holds up.”

In general, he finds yields are average. He’s also not seen any unusual crop damage problems. “We got a little sunburn, but nothing like in Sonoma County.”

Monterey County
In Monterey County, Richard Smith farms 3,000 acres from Bradley to Gonzalez, including the grapes for his own Paraiso Vineyards. “We’re two to even three weeks late,” he says.

He expects to harvest at lower sugar levels this year, 23-24 degrees Brix instead of the usual 25 to 26. “Hang time is hang time. The flavors are developing with well balanced chemistry, slightly lower sugars and slightly higher acidity.” He says the Pinot Noir is at 20.5 degrees rather than the normal 25 to 26 at this time.

He thinks the yield will be low because berries are small.

Smith laughs about disease pressure: “Every year is a high-pressure year for mildew in Monterey.” But he says most growers have it under control. One concern is that growers without contracts may have been trying to save money on prevention and ended up hit hard.

Larry Bettiga, the farm advisor for the upper central coast, concurs. “People have picked a little for sparkling wine, but mostly they’re just waiting around. Harvest will be very late this year. We just hope the weather holds out.”

He thinks the crop will be below average to average in volume, depending on the location and variety. He’s also seen some sunburn and vine stress from the heat spikes.

Jon Ruel
Jon Ruel of Trefethen Family Vineyards near Napa city, said the harvest was late, but the weather has turned warm and sunny.
Napa Valley
Napa Valley Grapegrowers held a briefing for the media on Aug. 11 to discuss the harvest, but it turns out it was about two weeks early – for that’s how late many of the grapes are.

Napa Valley hasn't been consistent, however. Jon Ruel of Trefethen Family Vineyards in the cooler Oak Knoll appellation just north of Napa city says his crew has picked all of the sparkling wine grapes, about 10 days later than average.

He started on the Chardonnay grapes for still wines on Sept. 9 and surprisingly found the yields a little higher than last year. He picked some still Pinot Noir on Sept. 10.

Nevertheless, he says, “There are plenty of grapes out there. Fortunately, the weather has been fantastic. We’ve had less marine layer (morning fog) than usual and it’s been warm and sunny but not hot.”

One odd phenomenon is that many varieties of grapes all seem to be at about 20 degrees Brix right now, including ones as different as Cabernet, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

He expects the Chardonnay to come in about 10 days late, the Cabernet 5 to 7 days.

Overall, he expects the Chardonnay crop equal to 2009, the Cabernet down a little, partly because they removed extra fruit to ensure ripening.

Ruel expects to pick at 23 to 24 Brix this year, a moderate level that should mean lower-alcohol wines that still have ripe flavors.

Growers up valley in Cabernet Sauvignon territory generally report the harvest will start about two weeks late. Many suffered sunburn due to late-season leaf pulling followed by a heat spike. Fortunately, growers seems to have nipped the European grapevine moth in the bud (literally) but only time will tell.

Paso Robles
For Paso Robles, spokesman Christopher Taranto of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance says the grapes are running two to three weeks late. There’s been a little picking at some wineries, but that’s all.

It’s been cooler than usual but sunny so there’s been good photosynthesis and sugar accumulation. Taranto also says that yields seem up a little over last year, but that could be partly because early spring frosts last year affected that year’s crop.

“By all account, it looks like a good year. As long as the heat comes at the end of September and in early October, all will be well.” He says that the major worry is frost. Temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit were expected tonight, and it's still summer.

So far, growers in Paso haven’t reported much sunburn or pest problems. They are a bit concerned about mold with the early morning fog, but so far, hot days have burned off the moisture.

Santa Barbara
It was the coldest July on record in Santa Barbara and was paired with daily marine layer fogs that growers, winemakers and residents alike usually experience only in May (“May Gray”) and June (“June gloom”).

Fortunately, August and September have been warm and sunny. “The cool summer has delayed harvest a few weeks, but we’re now starting to pick the early whites and sparkling wines,” notes Jim Fiolek, Santa Barbara County Vintners Association’s executive director. “The longer time on the vine and lower temperatures during the growing and ripening season has led to beautiful varietal flavors and balanced sugars.”

“We’re about 10 days later than last year”, says Marilyn Honea of the Honea Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley. “But the fruit is stellar, so I guess that worrying paid off!”

Sonoma County
Sonoma County Viticulture Farm Advisor Rhonda J. Smith says the crop there is late -- two weeks for some varieties/regions -- therefore more people will be harvesting in November assuming the weather allows. Overall, she says, the crop is lighter.

She adds that both powdery mildew and botrytis bunch rot are diseases that were and are currently (the latter in the case of Botrytis) challenging. “Not every grower experienced control problems, but the incidence was far greater than ‘normal' due to the mild weather.”

In addition, Smith says that fruit was damaged by heat -- but not across the board. Most vineyards experienced very little (5%) to none; however others saw a quarter of the crop with damage. A small minority suffered more severe losses.

To date Sonoma County has trapped 57 European grapevine moths, she added.

Nick Frey of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission says the pace is slow this week but will begin to pick up volume next week. “Sugars are not increasing much with this weather.”

He reports for Sonoma appellations:

Dry Creek Valley – some Zinfandel harvested last week, Sauvignon Blanc is being harvested. Malbec harvested now as well as Syrah for rosé.

Alexander Valley – mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but it is coming in slowly. Early vineyards are well below 2009 levels in yields in most cases.

Russian River Valley – Sauvignon Blanc and some Pinot from the Westside Road area is coming in. Pinot color is excellent on those early harvests, berries and clusters are small. Dutton Ranch had first Pinot harvest Tuesday in the Graton area.

Carneros and Southern Sonoma Coast areas still picking for sparkling wines, just beginning for still wines. “Yields are variable, but overall I expect we will end up well below 2009, but above 2008,” he says.

Posted on 09.17.2010 - 11:02:13 PST
It IS an odd year when California is harvesting in sync with NY. Along the Niagara Escarpment we deal with cool weather and rain every year - disease pressure is ever present. I find it interesting to read about this from the California grower's perspective, where these conditions are (in general) unusual. Maybe we need an east/west coast technique sharing forum to handle global climate changes.
Duncan Ross
Lockport, NY USA