California Winegrape Harvest 2010

Triumphs and tragedies from Santa Cruz, Paso Robles and Lodi

by Kerry Kirkham
Jerold O'Brien at Silver Mountain in the Santa Cruz Mountains said the season's been a real rarity.

San Rafael, Calif.—Grapegrowers and winemakers across California agree that the 2010 growing season has been the strangest on record. For some, it was fascinating; for others it was devastating. One thing is for certain: It was an immense challenge for everyone. Here are updates on three important California growing regions:

Santa Cruz County

Chardonnay and Merlot have been harvested in Santa Cruz. Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are still hanging. Jerold O’Brien, general manager of 6,000-case Silver Mountain Vineyards, has been making wine in Santa Cruz for 32 years, and has been growing grapes for 30 of those years.

“I’ve never seen a growing season like this,” O’Brien told Wines & Vines. There was more powdery mildew pressure than ever before, the worst O’Brien has ever seen. “A cool moist spring, followed by a cool summer, led us to believe we were going to have an outstanding crop with amazing flavors coupled with low alcohol and sugar levels,” he said.

A heat spike last week proved to be devastating for some. O’Brien feels the vintage will be fine, just not what he anticipated. “What was unusual about the heat spike was that it was hot at night too. The low temperature in the morning was in the high 70ºs, so the grapes never had a chance to cool. We ended up losing a lot of acid. Typically we start harvest last week of August through the last week of October. We didn’t harvest anything until 11 days ago. Within one week we got in half the grapes all at once,” he said.

“Prior to the heat spell, the grapes were physiologically ripening; flavors were starting to mature without signs of a lot of sugar. With the spike, Brix shot up 3 to 4 points within two to three days.”

Prudy Foxx has been a viticulture consultant for 28 years. Foxx Viticulture, Santa Cruz, is affiliated with 200 acres and closely involved with managing 100 acres. Foxx said she’d never seen a year like this, describing it as “fascinating,” with every possible kind of pressure.

“Santa Cruz is both mountainous and coastal, so there are radically different microclimates. This year it was cold on the summit, making thick skins on the grapes, which makes for great color,” Foxx said.

Foxx said she kept grapes healthy through rigorous canopy management. While it was tempting to strip leaves because of the fog and cold, she knew some areas were prone to temperature spikes.

“During the three-day temperature spike, which got as high as 110ºF, we saw as much as a 7-point increase, from 22º to 29º Brix in three days. It rolled back to between 25º and 26º through watering and waiting for the vines to recover for a few days,” she recalled.

Foxx was impressed with the resiliency of the fruit under extreme conditions, but applied extra measures to not overstress vines. “The key is to be patient and let the vines recover from heat spikes.

“Deciding whether or not to water is a very site-specific decision. If the conditions demand it, you have to do it. It doesn’t mean that the grapes will have any less quality,” Foxx said.

Mildew wasn’t an issue for Foxx this year. She credited this to JMS Stylet oil, which she starting using in 2002. Foxx applies it post-bud break and before fruit set. “The key is getting control early in the spring with good coverage. Sulfur is a repressant, but won’t kill mold spores. It’s cheaper to use and is good for light pressure, but JMS will kill the spores, so it’s essential in years like this,” she advised.

Tonnage this year was light to average, and site-specific.

Paso Robles

Richard Sauret, president of the Independent Grape Growers Paso Robles Area (IGGPA), has been farming winegrapes in the Central Coast Paso Robles area since 1952. He said that this has been the most difficult year on record.

“Harvest has picked up in the last two weeks. White varieties have all come in, and Merlot is starting to be picked. So far, 35% of crop has been harvested, with the majority still in the vineyard,” Sauret reported. “The weather has been terrible. It is potentially detrimental to thin-skinned varieties such as Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. Cabernet Sauvignon may still come in OK. Strong winds would be great,” he said.

On Wednesday morning Sauret was getting calls about bunch rot. The biggest problem had been a 24-hour period on Wednesday, when the grapes were wet. “Prior to the three-day hot spell last weekend, we had two-and-a-half weeks where there was already bunch rot from cool foggy damp weather. There was a large canopy this year, and canopy management should have started much earlier to let air circulate. It may have helped in conjunction with fungicide. Timing is so important,” he cautioned.

Similar reports have been widespread throughout Paso Robles.

Stacie Jacob, executive director of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, commented, “With such diverse micro-climates, some harvests are normal and some are not. So using broad-brush strokes, we’re about 10 days to two weeks behind schedule. Mother nature is throwing lots of curve balls this year. We may end up having lower- alcohol wines because of slow ripening,” she said.

Many growers in Paso Robles were unable to secure contracts, so vineyard management costs were minimized. Now those growers are looking to sell on the spot market, since they had no buyers.

Jerry De Angelis, Ph.D. in organic chemistry and consulting winemaker at The Crush@Paso Robles, makes between 12,000 and 13,000 gallons of Paso Robles wine annually. He reported that this harvest has been light. Prior years he processed between 160 and 170 tons of Paso Robles fruit; this year, it’s between 75 and 80 tons.

“It’s a good year for wine quality because of extended hangtime. So the fruit that did survive is good quality. Colors and flavors are amazing,” he reported.

Mark Battany, viticulture farm advisor, University of California Cooperative Extension, said, “Overall, there was good spring growth with heavy powdery mildew pressure. It was a mild summer, with no major heat until late September. Harvest is tracking a couple of weeks late for most people in the area.

“The economy has had an impact to some of the problems we have. Extending spray intervals or using things like sulfur, which is cheaper and less effective, has made things worse with the erratic weather and delayed harvest. The story is similar in most parts of California, especially the coastal areas,” Battany said.

Markus Bokisch and colleague sort Tempranillo grapes from Bokisch's Las Cerezas Vineyard on September 17.


Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, shared a sunnier outlook about harvest 2010.

“Lodi growers are accustomed to heat spikes, using water to cool things down and maintaining the canopy to get good airflow and dappled sunlight. The weather has been magnificent, highs forecasted in the 80ºs and 90ºs F for the week ahead make it perfect ripening weather. There has been a nice breeze. It has also been fairly dry so we don’t’ really have any mold issues,” he said.

“As it is we are about 75% through harvest. All the whites are in, and we’re making good progress on the reds,” Chandler said.

“Harvest started two to three weeks later on whites, with normal harvest dates for reds. A fairly modest crop and a warm Indian summer is guiding the way for advancing sugar levels. Harvest was average to light in most instances, but Lodi growers report that sugars levels are ideal, balanced with low pHs and high TAs,” he said.

Chander concluded, “This year is the vintage of the century for Lodi, where quality is off the chart.”

For the past 12 years, Liz Bokisch of Bokisch Ranches LLA, has managed 1,000 acres with her husband Markus Bokisch in the Lodi appellation. Bokisch Vineyards makes 2,000 cases of Spanish varieties including Albariño, Garnacha, Tempranillo, Graciano and Montastrell.

By Sept. 10, all of the whites were in: Pinot Grigio, Verdello, Albariño, Grenache Blanc and Riesling. “TAs and pHs have been great. It has been a stellar year,” Bokisch said.

“For reds, getting the sugars up has been troublesome. There has been some thinning going on, dropping fruit so clusters can ripen. We took the steps necessary in early September, because we knew we could run into trouble due to the cool weather, “ she said.

Red varieties were picked as early as Sept. 1, with a lull the third week of September. Harvest was bustling the last week of September after the heat spike. The first week of October was busiest for the reds. Some harvests are expected as late as Oct. 16. Grenache, Petite Syrah, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and some Petite Verdot and Montastrell are still hanging. Bokisch expects to wrap up harvest by the end of next week.

Kelly Brakel, president of the Lodi District Grapegrowers Association and a grapegrower who oversees 3,500 acres, said, “With water we were able to deal with the heat spike. We had no issues with fog. It was a cool year but there was sunlight every day. Our vines are used to the Lodi heat. With the quality of grapes being delivered as a whole, the vintage is turning out to be really nice. We’re right in the middle of the reds and everything is going well. So far everyone is happy.

“As far as tonnages go, last year was huge. This year some harvests have been light, some average. Overall, it has been an average year.”

The only thing unusual about this harvest according to Brakel has been the arrival of the European grape vine moth.

After two moths were found in traps in the Lodi area in late July quarantine was established in a 5-mile radius around the find. Growers, producers and trucking operations had to sign compliance agreements with San Joaquin County.

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