Wine Grapes Thrive as California Heats Up

Growers report from Bay Area to San Diego; labor still in question

by Jane Firstenfeld
vineyard labor
In the Ramona Valley many vineyards rely on volunteer labor at harvest (seen here at Hellanback Ranch Vineyard), providing respite from the tight labor situation in other California grapegrowing areas.
San Rafael, Calif.—What happened to spring? After a dry winter, warm and then hot weather enveloped California and much of the west. Apart from a few sprinkles in the southern part of the state this week, long-term predictions threaten continued desiccation.

California grapegrowers in regions east and south of San Francisco Bay, however, report they are enjoying a promising season.

Livermore Valley
East of San Francisco in the Livermore Valley, where wine grapes have been a staple for more than 100 years, the heat is untempered by sea breezes or marine layer fog. Tamara Kelly of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association. forwarded Wines & Vines comments from LVWA members.

Mark and Maria Triska own Triska Crane Ridge Vineyards, farming 14 acres of Merlot grapes, and said, “Adequate leaf canopy and watering as needed kept our fruit from getting sunburned. We have just noticed véraison this week in some areas of our vineyard.

“We expect to harvest as expected in mid- to late September, assuming the warm weather continues. Crop size is similar to last year, and we hope for another vintage year.”

Kevin Zollinger, executive vice president of winegrowing operations for 750,000-case Wente Family Estates, acknowledged: “Extreme hot weather is always a challenge, but our vineyards have held up very well. We’ve seen only a small amount of sunburn and little overall damage, thanks to canopy protection and attentive irrigation management.”

Harvest comes whenever Mother Nature is ready; Wente has vineyards outside the valley, as well. “It’s always tough to guess the start date. Statewide, most growers feel they are ahead of normal by maybe two or three weeks,” Zollinger said. Wente’s vineyards in Livermore and Arroyo Seco (Monterey County) are “probably looking at mid-August to end of August for some varieties,” he said.

The crop is looking good, Zollinger said. “Good cluster counts, but a lot will depend on cluster size and final maturation.” He’s not certain if this year will match the volume of last year’s record tonnage of wine grapes in California.

“We took precautions to water sufficiently going into the heat events to mitigate against most heat-related problems,” said Steven Mirassou, owner/winemaker of the 25,000-case Steven Kent Portfolios. “So far, there isn’t any evidence of sunburn or damage.

“We are just starting to see a few pink berries in our Sangiovese block. If there are 60-70 days from start of véraison to harvest, we may end up a week or so early. The size of the crop is substantial across most of our varieties. We will be doing more fruit dropping of those bunches that don't color up completely, but I suspect we will have a harvest similar in size to 2012,” Mirassou said.

Santa Cruz Mountains
Prudy Foxx, owner of Foxx Viticulture Consulting, reported on behalf of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association, calling 2013 “another incredible year. Vintage barely describes it.

“Fruit set is spectacular across all varieties. Clusters are well formed, berry size uniform, and development is progressing perfectly.

“The heat event the first week of July certainly put a sizzle in the vineyards—especially those that are dry farmed. That said, fruit held up well to the pressure. I have seen very little sunburn, especially on the coast side of the appellation. If anything, the heat contributed to improved cluster development and strong canopies.

“There is no sign of véraison at this time, but this would be early. There does seem to be a hint of change, starting in Saratoga (on the inland side of the mountains). I expect to see early signs of color in another week or two everywhere.”

Foxx predicted an earlier-than-normal harvest, with fruit from inland and summit areas around the end of August and early September. “Coast vineyards may expect to see fruit in the bins by mid- to late September.

“There are so many microclimates in the Santa Cruz Mountains that we can be sure to experience a full spectrum of harvest stories. For every vineyard that comes in early, there is one that is sure to harvest Pinot Noir at the end of October.”

Paso Robles
Like the Santa Cruz Mountains, San Luis Obispo County’s Paso Robles AVA encompasses varied inland and coastal climates. Chris Taranto, communications director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said he’d heard, “Some reports of leaf burn, but nothing widespread or notable.”

In general, he forecast that harvest might start about 10 days early, but cautioned: “Things could change if the warm weather subsides. It’s still early to tell, but everyone I’ve spoken to is saying the crop will be of average size, maybe slightly higher.”

Santa Barbara County
Morgen McLaughlin, newly installed executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, forwarded reports from two of the county’s major growing areas.

The summer’s been relatively kind to the Santa Maria Valley. “June 2 saw the first incidence of the morning fog that is so common this time of year. This was accompanied by normal highs ranging from 70° to 74°F. Toward the end of the month, we went through an unusually long but not severe heat spell. We saw highs of 80°F or above for eight days. Typically, our heat spells last two or three days before re-entering our common foggy pattern,” said Chris Hammell, vineyard manager of Bien Nacido Vineyards & Winery.

“Highs during this period never exceeded 94°F. We regarded the heat as welcome and beneficial: Temperatures were not extreme and seemed to have accelerated ripening. Temps have remained at or above normal since.”

The famed Santa Ynez Valley has fared equally well, according to Kurt Ammann, general manager of 40,000-case Dierberg/Star Lane Vineyards. “I can tell you that the heat has not hurt our vines. I do think harvest will start a little early this year. For Star Lane, we will probably start picking Sauvignon Blanc in the middle of August as opposed to early September like most years.

“The crop looks good, but not as big as it was last year. I would say it is a ‘normal’ crop,” he said, acknowledging the impossibility of defining “normal.”

Ramona Valley
Ramona Valley is a relatively new and tiny AVA in the eastern reaches of vast San Diego County. John York, president of The Ramona Valley Vineyard Association and owner of 500-case Hellanback Ranch Vineyard, summed up the season there: “The heat in the Ramona Valley has been intense and relentless. It's also been more humid than normal over the past three weeks.”

Sonoma County grower/winemaker Greg LaFollette, recently addressed the association’s first “Grape Day in the Backcountry.” The noted proponent of “risky winemaking” emphasized the value of not overwatering.

Given the inexperience of some association members, York said, “I was a little concerned that some might not be taking the appropriate measures to guard against the heat wave. Based on my recent visits to several vineyards, it appears that folks are applying more irrigation as appropriate. I did notice some vineyards showing signs of heat stress, though.

“My own vineyard looks good, but I can tell that we will probably get an early harvest, probably around Labor Day. Other vineyards that I source from look less likely to be early.”

In 2007, Ramona and the rest of the east county were victims of a deadly wildfire, a constant peril throughout California, especially in dry years.

This week, York said, “We do have two fires just east of us, up around Julian. So far they seem to be no threat, but after the Cedar Fire in 2003 and the Witch Creek Fire of 2007, we are always on guard when we see the fire attack planes flying overhead. We're on the flight path for the Ramona Air Attack Base, so we know when something's going on.”

Who’ll be working harvest?
Like drought, labor supplies pose a consistent problem in California farms and vineyards.

Because Ramona is both small and located near a huge metropolitan population, most growers are still able to rely on volunteer harvest crews. “We all use volunteer labor in our small vineyards down here,” York said.

“We also help each other, so we're not expecting a big problem with labor come harvest time. What we have noticed, however, is that as the AVA grows and more vineyards are planted, the volunteer labor pool is getting stretched. Many of our customers want to be a part of the harvest, so there are plans to recruit newcomers this year. We are all still mom and pop operations here, so this approach to getting help at harvest time is part of our tradition.”

In Santa Maria, Ammann said, “Labor has been a little tight, but (it) has not reached a critical level.”

The problem is more critical in Paso Robles, Taranto reported. “Labor was difficult this spring in terms of supply, it is better now with much of the hands-on activity at a minimum. There is a concern about harvest, but because there are vineyards that can machine-harvest and smaller ones that hand-pick, it could balance itself out.”

“Labor is always an issue,” said Foxx from the Santa Cruz Mountains. “Some growers have banded together to share crews and are already mapping out a harvest plan. Given that this will be another big year, we are sure to experience peak labor demand and squabbles for harvest crews.

“Early planning and cultivating good labor relations is the best strategy. Patience, tolerance, courtesy and respect for others are vital skills as the pressure builds,” the veteran winegrower advised.

In the Livermore Valley, “Our farming group appears to be on track with their labor supply, although some tasks (i.e. shoot thinning) may be a little delayed,” according to Mark Triska.

Nevertheless, “It appears that there could be a shortage of personnel for harvest as some of the earliest work in some vineyards is a bit behind schedule,” Mirassou said. “Depending upon the severity of the shortage—if there is one—we may have to plan upon balancing harvest: part of the block a little earlier than optimal, and some a little later.”


Posted on 07.18.2013 - 18:08:27 PST
Very little comments have been made from the various AVA's on the severe drought challenges affecting wine grape growers in California.
Although I am an optimist by nature, declaring an incredible vintage year prior to veraison is uber optimistic!
Jean-Pierre Wolff