California Harvest for Still Wine Begins

Monterey and El Dorado wineries pick Sauvignon Blanc and other grapes

by Jane Firstenfeld
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
Picking for still wines has commenced in Monterey County and other parts of California. Most growers are reporting average yields and good quality but some mildew pressure.

San Rafael, Calif.—Three weeks after North Bay wineries started picking sparkling wine crops, grapes for still wine production are now trickling in for other growing regions.

Kim Stemler, executive director of Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association (MCVGA) reported that in the last week, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio from the south part of the county were picked. “Additionally, there is a smattering of Pinot Noir and Grenache being harvested for rosé programs.”

MCVGA member Scott Caraccioli said Caraccioli Cellars started its sparkling harvest at Ecolle Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands the first week of August. Caraccioli started harvest for its still wine programs in late August, at its vineyard and others.

Constellation Brands vineyard director Jeff Pomo said, "Although we've harvested a little already, the first and second full weeks of September are when it will really ramp up in the Salinas Valley."

Total tonnage looks a little lighter than average, Stemler said. She estimated a total harvest of 170,000 tons for Monterey County — slightly less than 2016.

Greg Gonzalez, vineyard manager for Scheid Vineyards also said the crop appears light-to-average, although on average, clusters are large and look better than last year’s. Pinot Noir grapes look good. The climate in Hames Valley, in southern Monterey County, has been very temperate, providing ideal conditions for ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes.

The harvest size may be reduced, but growers predict a high quality vintage. Caraccioli saw heightened expression of fruit, coupled with integrated acidity, which should lead to wines that drink well in their youth and have the capacity to age.

“Right now, flavors are developing fast and running ahead of Brix and acids,” said Jason Smith, president of Valley Farm Management and Smith Family Wines. Winemakers are often choosing to pick earlier than last year, he said.

Smith noted “a more typical rain pattern this year” that provided excellent root flush. The mild spring led to a good bloom. “These combined to set the tone for happy, health vines,” he said.


Reports of mildew pressure
Andy Mitchell, at Hahn Family Wines, said the Salinas Valley had very high mildew pressure. Even the southern AVAs in the vast county, considerably warmer, needed mildew protection this year.

An estimated 90% to 95% of wine grapes in Monterey County are mechanically harvested. Smith observed that although all agriculture is experiencing a labor shortage, the wine growing industry comparatively can more easily turn to mechanization than some other fruits and vegetables. “In addition to increasing mechanization, we have balanced the work of the crews to keep them busier consistently throughout the year and see less attrition in labor.”

Mitchell added, “Although there’s a labor crunch, we’re in a good position. If labor is short, we can turn to our mechanical harvester in almost all but our steepest vineyards.”

El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills is home to 94 wineries. One of the best-known, 20,000-case Boeger in Placerville, reported it had already picked some early white varieties in Gold Hill. “Our harvest will start in earnest the first week in September,” said owner Greg Boeger.

Everhart Cellars/Hart 2 Hart Vineyards owner Sherrie Everhart added that harvest would start Aug. 30, with Orange Muscat and some Zinfandel for a dry, crisp low alcohol white wine. In the coming week, early red varieties including Tempranillo, Primitivo and Syrah will be ready, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot from the Estate Pilot Ridge Vineyard.

The crew expects a very busy September, with tonnage slightly up from 2016 across the board and certain varieties including Zinfandel on the heavier side.

Chemistries are tracking like a good, normal year, with sugars climbing steadily and pH and acid slowly coming into range. After years of drought and stress-related effects, vines appear healthy and thriving. Canopies are balanced and fruit loads are mildew and pest-free.

The wet winter replenished groundwater, and the cool spring delayed bud break and slowed growth. Combined with a hot July, this delayed veraison and increased hang time by as long as two weeks, which the growers expect to translate to higher quality grapes.

Everhart anticipates a labor crunch when harvest comes into full swing by mid-September. The winery schedules harvest weeks ahead to assure it can get a crew, then fine tunes its picks and harvest plans a day or two prior to harvest dates.

“Our winemaker is also drawing from a labor pool of river rafting guides from Argentina and Costa Rica who are here locally through October on work visas and need (and want) work midweek,” Everhart said. “He’s setting them up with our vineyard management company to be hired on to a harvest crew, and he thinks this will help tremendously if a statewide labor shortage pulls workers to other areas.”

Like other sparkling wine producers, 1,400-case Gwinllan Estate in Fair Play began picking Pinot Noir in early August, according to Gordon Pack. Pack expects Chardonnay will be the next variety in.

Tonnage from the first block was 15% larger than in 2016, and other varieties are also showing increased crop load. The wet winter caused larger canopy growth with more mildew pressure.

Pack performed selective leafing to open airflow. Sugars are similar to last year, he said, while acid is a little lower due to the excessive summer heat.

Too hot to handle
Most of California is sweltering in record hot weather, so although vintners in Lake County and Livermore Valley had indicated harvest would start this week that may have changed.

The heat wave has already taken a toll on the Livermore Valley. The Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association (LVWA) yesterday announced that for the first time in 36 years, its Harvest Wine Celebration on Sunday, Sept. 3, is cancelled out of care and concern for guests, volunteers and winery staff. The LVWA considered the excessive forecast heat a safety risk it was not willing to take.

The event will not be rescheduled, and tickets will be refunded. Livermore Valley tasting rooms will remain open over the Labor Day weekend.

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