Monterey Growers Praise Harvest, Plead for Rain

More wineries from outside county using Monterey designation on labels

by Jane Firstenfeld
zabala vineyard
The rocky riverbed soil at Zabala Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco AVA didn't receive much rain this year. Photo courtesy of Mercy Vineyards
Monterey, Calif.—With some 40,000 acres planted to wine grapes, Monterey County’s wine industry remains less known among consumers than Paso Robles or Santa Barbara to the south or the fabled vineyards of the North Coast. Yet the region continues to grow and build awareness both in the domestic market and internationally. As in much of the California wine country, 2013 is proving to be a boom year.

Pinot Noir growers from various regions of Monterey County are reporting slightly above-average yields in 2013, and the growing number of wineries within the county mean more fruit is going into local brands. This year's full bins are not due to fertile conditions, however, as growers told Wines & Vines their dry soils are pleading for rain.

The annual Crush Report issued by the California Department of Food and Agriculture in cooperation with the USDA National Agricultural Statistics breaks down grape production by “district,” so extracting exact figures by AVA or county is not possible. According to the 2012 Crush Report, California’s District 7, which includes both Monterey and inland neighbor San Benito County, crushed 299,179.6 tons of wine grapes in 2012.

Of these, 171,302.6 tons were purchased by wineries. Chardonnay accounted for some 103,330.5 tons, selling for a weighted average price of $1,120.26 per ton; 54,147.3 tons of Pinot Noir were crushed, selling for an average price of $1,659.76.

Judging by the price, these grapes are not destined for cheap bottles, and a growing percentage will be designated Monterey County on the label. According to media specialist Amanda Reade at the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association (MCVGA), “Many of the larger wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Livermore grow grapes here, so they’re now acknowledging Monterey on the label instead of just ‘California.’”

“Wente actually was the first winery to start growing Chardonnay in Monterey,” Reade acknowledged of 750,000-case Wente Vineyards based in Livermore, Calif.

As a whole, Monterey County growers sell about 55% of their grapes to California wineries based elsewhere, according to Reade. She reported that the percentage decreases year by year as Monterey County wineries begin making their own wines.

A local buyer reports
Mike Kohne, who owns 3,000-case Mercy Vineyards with Mark Dirickson, has since 2008 contracted with small, family grapegrowers in the Arroyo Seco AVA. Mercy’s operations span the county, from the corporate headquarters in pricey, gated Pebble Beach, to the winery itself in industrial Marina on the coast, to its tasting room in the quaint, inland village of Carmel Valley.

The partners, who met while working for wine magnate Bill Foley in pre-“Sideways” Santa Barbara County, set up shop in Monterey when Kohne left Alameda’s Rosenblum Cellars after its acquisition by mega-corporation Diageo.

Mercy Vineyards sources all its fruit from what Kohne called “a very finite section of the dry river bed” in a contiguous section of Arroyo Seco. The brand does not own any vineyards. “We liked this part of Monterey County because of its meager soils,” Kohne said.

From the Zabala vineyard, for example, “We are ecstatic to get 1.5 tons per acre of Pinot Noir.” Benefitting from long-term contracts, “We don’t go through battles of pricing” every year. Although he would not disclose exact prices, Kohne indicated that Mercy pays roughly double the “average” prices for wine grapes quoted in the Crush Report.

This was a very dry year throughout California, Kohne said, and except for sporadic drip irrigation, “This year everything was pretty much dry farmed.”

Still, 2013 was “a kind year, in the sense where the indicators you have throughout the season, where you have to make tough decisions, those windows, were this year nonexistent,” he said. “Mother Nature made all the decisions.”

Throughout the season, measurements showed that grapes had “great pH with acidity. We never had to compromise.” The rocky soils of Arroyo Seco mean vineyards there are hand tended and gently, carefully hand harvested.”

Mercy is not planning to expand production, even in more abundant years, Kohne said. “We fluctuate based on half-ton bins, on how much every grower is going to give us. We’re happy to shed some light on this diamond in the rough,” the rocky AVA of Arroyo Seco.

A grower’s tale
Paraiso Vineyards cultivates some 3,000 acres of Monterey County vineyards from Gonzales to Bradley, Calif., 20 miles north of Paso Robles. “We’re one of the biggest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growers in the county, with about 600 acres in the Santa Lucia Highlands,” said general manager Jason Smith.

This was, according to Smith, “the best growing year since 1997—one of the largest and best quality harvests—because Mother Nature cooperated. Monterey County experienced a “nice spring bloom and moderate weather.” Soledad, below the Santa Lucia Highlands, averaged temperate temperatures of 75°-85°F during much of the growing season.

Smith expected his harvest to be 75%-80% completed by last week. “It could have been done even before, if I had the space,” he said.

Paraiso has long been considered a prime grapegrower, and this year, despite a bountiful harvest, all the grapes have found winery homes. “Tanks are still going in at wineries,” Smith said last week, while some wineries are continuing to bottle last year’s vintage, “literally bottling while the harvest is going on.”

Fermentations, he said, have gone through smoothly and quickly. During a notably dry year, “For us, the biggest concern in Monterey County is leaching the soil with drip irrigation instead of sprinklers. You’ll get salt sitting in the root ball. What we do to mitigate: If you see a storm come, we will pre-irrigate so you get half an inch of water. It doesn’t always work.”
Last year, there were good rains starting during harvest. This year, “Pinot Noir is very good around here, mostly an average-sized crop, with clusters at least 50% bigger than in 2011,” Smith said.

When grape buyers ask the growers to thin, he said, “It’s only done half what they wanted. The plant balances itself: That’s why this was such a good year. Mother Nature has allowed us to ripen, which would not have happened in 2011.”

He called 2012 a “normal” year, with a crop size about double of 2011. “In the Highlands, in 2011, if we made it to 2 tons per acre, we were lucky. In 2012, 4 tons was probably normal. We did nothing different in 2013, but will probably average 5 tons per acre.”

Even with a highly regarded 20,000-case wine label of its own, Paraiso sells most of its grapes: This year, sales will probably be close to 20,000 tons. All of these are sold under contract; most prices based on the district average, which has increased over the past three or four years, Smith said.

With its reputation for fine Burgundian varieties, Santa Lucia Highlands grapes are destined for “mostly appellated Santa Lucia Highlands. I don’t think you’ll find a grape in a ‘California’ blend from here.
“Honestly, it was a great year for California and Monterey grapegrowing,” Smith said. “But I would like some rain.”

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