'Average' Winegrape Harvest Greeted with Relief

Most of California reporting good year with average to above average yields

by Andrew Adams
quivira winery crush sauvignon blanc
Winemaker Hugh Chappelle and a crew sort Sauvignon Blanc grapes at Quivira Winery in Dry Creek Valley. Growers and winemakers across California are saying with some relief that this vintage looks "normal."
San Rafael, Calif.—Winemakers across California are reporting with some relief that this year’s grapegrowing season has been rather unremarkable.

Following two years of cool summers marked by unsettled weather, the mundaneness of 2012 is being celebrated and some are seeing great promise.

Hugh Chappelle, winemaker and winegrower at the 13,000-case Quivira Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley had nothing but praise for this year’s harvest. Chappelle started bringing in Sauvignon Blanc and some other aromatic white grapes near the end of August and said he’s excited about what he’s seen so far. “The Sauvignon Blanc is gorgeous,” he said. “Really bright, crisp acid.…The fruit has been really pristine.”

He said he’s down to his last 20 tons or so to pick of Sauvignon Blanc this week and then he expects a bit of lag time between the next round of harvesting and “gently rolling into reds.” Chappelle said based on crop loads and cluster weights the vintage may finish with a bit heavier tonnage, surprising people with a bountiful harvest.

Dave Crippen, winemaker at Renwood Winery in the Sierra Foothills, also said based on his observations from walking through vineyards, 2012 could be slightly larger than normal. “It’s a pretty good sized crop out there,” he said.

Excessive heat, as it usually happens in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is something of a concern for Crippen, especially as about a quarter of his fruit is from dry-farmed vineyards. Most of the area’s Rhone varieties are getting close to ripeness, and Crippen said he started receiving about 40 tons of Syrah today.

Waiting on the reds
Zinfandel is still only at 22° to 23° Brix, but Crippen said a spike in temperatures forecast for later this week should help move the grapes toward maturity. “That ought to get things cruising,” he said.

The foothills saw sporadic thunderstorms last week, and Crippen said he thinks the winery received about a quarter-inch of rain. Everything was dried out by the weekend, and he didn’t expect any problems.

Harvesting in California started in mid- to late August for sparkling winegrapes and early ripening varieties.

J Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg picked its first Pinot Noir grapes Aug. 14. “I’m excited about this year’s growing season,” J’s winemaker Melissa Stackhouse said in a statement. “The lack of climate drama such as we experienced the past two years means that it’s shaping up to be a banner year for Russian River Valley wine.”

Wineries in the Central Coast also have begun their white grape harvest in earnest, and some have started bringing in red fruit. Growers there reported conditions have been ideal for steady and even ripening.

Halter Ranch Winery in Paso Robles, Calif., produces 8,000 cases of wine per year from 281 acres of vines. Winemaker Kevin Sass said he picked almost 8 tons of Sauvignon Blanc off three acres Aug. 28. He said he plans to bring in some Syrah, Petite Sirah and Petit Courbu for sparkling wine this week.

Sass expects to see the ranch’s typical yield of 2.5 tons per acre rather than the reduced production (just under 2 tons) that the winery saw last year because of frost damage. “That’s about what we average out here, and that’s what we like to have,” he said.

Paso Robles has seen about 450 more degree-days this year than in 2011, pushing harvest dates up sooner. “The past two years we’ve dealt with things not getting ripe, and now here we are two weeks ahead,” he said.

More than a week’s worth of hot weather in August caused some sunburn on vine leaves rather than clusters, which Sass noted as something not seen in the Paso area in recent years. The heat also meant wineries had to use a bit more water than in the past.

Using more irrigation and the heat could be the reason grapes in the flatland portions of the estate tend to lose some of their acidity as they approach 24° to 25° Brix, Sass said. The winery’s Bordeaux cultivars are doing well, and harvest is about a week or two out with Brix levels at around 23°. Those vines, planted in the higher sections of the vineyard, don’t have the same type of issues with acidity.

In the interior of the state, Paul Verdegaal, farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in San Joaquin County, said harvest of the early varieties including Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay for sparkling wine is just about done.

Nothing wrong with average
Verdegaal said the season got off to an average start, it’s been an average year by degree-days and the crop looks to be about average. But that’s not saying ‘average’ is a bad thing.

“It’s an average crop, which is better than the past two years,” Verdegaal said. He noted there has been some minor pressure by spider mites but nothing too extreme.

He said while the European grapevine moth has been eradicated, the light brown apple moth has appeared in a few spots in the northern half of the county and near Lodi, Calif. The moth has been found in the southern part of the county near Manteca, Calif., for a few years.

Verdegaal also said the region has benefited from nighttime and morning lows that have been about 6°F lower than average helping the grapes achieve a balanced ripeness. “The quality looks good. The acids and sugars are progressing at average.”

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