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You Call This a Harvest?

Crush in California is a whole lot of nothing so far as winemakers play waiting game
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 14, 2011 10:45am ET

California winemakers don't usually have time to talk this time of the year, but this week they're chatty. The 2011 harvest is more or less underway. Sort of. Let's just say that grapes have been picked, a few anyway, mostly whites and for sparkling wine.

Yep, the season is running late again this year, and while the size of the crop is generally small, winemakers aren't complaining, at least to anyone willing to quote them. And anything is better than last year. The only thing that vintage 2010 lacked was locusts.

"It's looking like another compressed, nail-biter of a harvest," Carlisle winemaker Mike Officer said. When all the grapes ripen at once—instead of the tidy six- to eight-week schedule winemakers prefer—it leads to madness.

The season has been running late all year, plus some areas like the Central Coast had severe spring frost and it rained in June during bloom, which created mildew and botrytis in the vineyards. Long story short: It's a small crop and several weeks behind schedule.

"Last week's heat wave made some numbers jump, but this week's cool down has things stalled again," said Brian Loring of Loring Wine Company, who harvests mostly Pinot Noir from Central and Northern California. He postponed his first Pinot harvest from Tuesday until Friday. "Sugars were there and seeds nice and brown, but acid levels were through the roof."

Justin Smith, winemaker of Saxum, is facing a similar experience with Syrah and Grenache. "We are still really behind despite the nice heat we have had over the last couple weeks," he said. "We will probably pick a few hilltop Syrah blocks in a couple weeks but won't start really rocking until mid-October."

Michael Scholz, winemaker of St. Supery in Napa Valley, began harvesting Sauvignon Blanc last week but doesn't expect to bring in the last of it until October. "Reds are a long way out, but look good on the vine. I doubt that we will see much action with the red harvest until next month."

On California's Central Coast, Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards started night harvesting Pinot Noir in Rosemary's Vineyard on Monday and said they were bringing in only a ton to the acre. "We like what we're seeing so far," Talley said, "The colors, flavors are great."

For now winemakers are mostly just waiting. "Lots of stuff is hanging at fairly low Brix—between 19 and 21—and it's not moving much," said winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri, who harvests grapes throughout the California Coast.

Robert Biale winemaker Steve Hall is eyeing one Zinfandel vineyard for harvest soon, Old Crane near St. Helena, which is just above 22 Brix; close but not quite. Ridge Lytton winemaker John Olney said most of his Dry Creek vineyards are hovering around 20 to 21 Brix. "A couple of days in the 90s is all it will take," Olney said.

Officer may harvest some Zinfandel in Sonoma and Dry Creek valleys later this month, but said, "October will definitely be crunch time. We may even be harvesting DuPratt Zinfandel from Mendocino Ridges in November, if the weather holds of course."

If the weather holds. And that's a big "if" considering the last few harvests. Smith sums up what every grower and winemaker is thinking when he said, "I'm just hoping we don't get a crazy mid-October storm like we got in 2009. That might really put the kibosh on things."

Let's hear from other winemakers and growers out there. How are your vineyards doing? What have been your biggest challenges? When do you expect to wrap up harvest 2011?

Victor Alvarez
Placerville, CA USA —  September 14, 2011 1:04pm ET
Hi Tim,

So far so good in our area of El Dorado county. With fog-less mornings and warm (even hot) afternoons the vines are making up ground from what initially was a very late year. Yields look only slightly lower than normal. Sauvignon Blanc and other whites are starting to come in this week and we expect Zins and Syrahs to be ready towards the end of the month or early October. Hoping now for continued dry weather to finish-off a season that has thus far not had any dramatic swings in temperature. MC
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 14, 2011 2:23pm ET
Joel Peterson of Ravenswood adds:

"The first grapes arrived from Lodi on Friday September 9th. Their brix level was 24.5, the condition was generally very good. (And) because it has been a year without extremes, we had a very even ripening curve and the acids/pH’s have generally been holding up nicely.

We expect the North Coast Zinfandel pick, specifically Sonoma County, to begin toward the beginning of next week. The crop levels in Sonoma are anywhere between 15-25% off average.

Cabernet and Merlot are still some weeks off."
David Rossi
Napa, CA, USA —  September 14, 2011 2:43pm ET

Picking Pinot Noir in Chalone September 22nd and some Sonoma Coast Pinot a week after that. Anderson Valley is just getting started with Pinot in the 20 brix range. Won't pick Anderson until first or second week of October. Carneros probably first week of October. It really varies but we are picking close to last year, but with improved ripeness.

In contrast to last year at this time, fruit looks great and the weather outlook is good for next two weeks. Last year some rain in Sonoma about Sept 19th.

Too early to call it the vintage of the century?(just kidding).

David Rossi, Fulcrum Wines
Tablas Creek Vineyard
Paso Robles, CA —  September 14, 2011 6:11pm ET
Thanks, Tim. This sounds about right for us, too. The April frosts were the big event for us. They knocked back the early sprouters like Viognier and Grenache and generally set back the beginning of the ripening cycle by 3-4 weeks. But since it's warmed up in mid-June the weather has been pretty much ideal: lots of sun, lots of warm days in the 80's and 90's, cool nights, and no big heat spikes.

We're looking to start with a few things at the end of this week, and should start in earnest in early October. I have more detailed notes on what we're seeing, varietal by varietal, with photos in a blog post I put up yesterday: http://bit.ly/nFsPVY

Jason Haas, Tablas Creek Vineyard
Russell Bevan
Sonoma Mountain —  September 15, 2011 10:35am ET

We are excited about our earlier ripening vineyards. The Oakville Cabernet looks amazing and is gaining extra hang time. On the flip side our cooler sites our prematurely aging me. We have some cool climate Cabernet Franc and Syrah that might be ready in mid November if we don't get some heat. If the heat never comes and instead we get some rain, then the wines will lack the pinch of pixie dust we strive for.

On the plus side, we have been extra aggressive in the vineyards since early June when we opened up the canopies. Our cooler sites might not get as ripe as we like, but we will not have any herbal of green flavors as the grapes have had so much more sun exposure than we would normally allow.

All the best,
Russell Bevan
Bevan Cellars
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 15, 2011 11:54am ET
Thanks for the comments. It's another overcast and foggy day here in Sonoma County. I'm hearing that some Napa winemakers - looking at the long range forecast - are concerned Cabernet and Syrah will never fully ripen. Are they alarmists or do they have a real concern?
Jonathan Lachs
Fair Play, CA —  September 15, 2011 2:37pm ET
Tim, thanks for asking. We won't be under way until early October, for sure. Up here in our estate vineyard at 2,500 feet in sandy soil, for ripening, varietal seems to be playing a less important role than elevation of the vineyard block. Our highest elevation blocks look like they're going to make it (earlier bud break, more sun, drier soils). The lower elevation blocks are lagging, some are still finishing up veraison, even with 1/2 normal crop! In some blocks, we have Cabernet, Syrah, and Zin ripening faster than Grenache and Viognier. Go figure. Crazy year.
Ryan Hodgins
Boonville, CA —  September 15, 2011 4:56pm ET
Hi Tim,

Our first pick is almost always Ferrington Vineyard Gewurztraminer. I've tentatively called the pick for next Tuesday the 20th - three days earlier than last year, but still ten days later than normal. We have a week of perfect ripening weather in the forecast and I expect our first Pinot to come in the week of the 26th, and most of the Savoy harvest between October 3-10th.

Ryan Hodgins
Breggo Cellars and Savoy Vineyard
Nathan R. Carlson
Arroyo Grande California —  September 15, 2011 7:37pm ET
We are starting slowly in Pinot Noir, bringing in about ten percent of the estate in order to secure a portion of fruit with an early-ripeness profile. 23.7B, 3.30 pH on the first pick, then 25.0B, 3.35 on the second site. We are going to sit tight and look for more physical signs of ripeness - browner seeds, softer skins, etc... prior to continuing. Very low yields, 0.65 tons/acre on 5X8 spacing - we think we will finish the year below last year's 1.6 tpa ranch average for Pinot.

N.R. Carlson
Center of Effort wines
Greg Flanagan
Bethel CT —  September 15, 2011 10:14pm ET
Tim and wine makers/growers-

WOW. Feel like I am behind the scenes and getting nervous about pulling some bunches too early!

This is awesome!

Being an avid reader of WS and a passionate consumer of wines around the world....I can honestly say this blog exchange is cool!

Given us lay persons a peek into the "real time" workings of the industry is not only educational but interesting! I almost feel as though I am watching a horse race. Keep me/the readers posted!

Bravo work guys!
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 16, 2011 11:13am ET
Greg, thanks for the comment. One of the goals of my blog is to give readers an inside look into wine and the industry. Cheers.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 16, 2011 11:22am ET
Here are some late-arriving insights from Chuck Wagner of Caymus and Mer Soleil:

"The 2011 vintage is hard to get a handle on. The crop is mixed in yield probably due to weather during bloom. Generally we are about 10 days behind normal.

The weather was the second coolest in many, many years. More than half of Caymus Cabernet sites in Napa have the poorest set that we have experienced in our the 40 years. However there are some vineyards that have a great set. I think it was the luck of the draw. those who pruned in our area early got hit with an ultra-poor set. Those who pruned later have good volume of fruit. Low yield is good for quality, but only to a degree.

Generally, Sauvignon Blanc is a mess of a low crop. We are currently harvesting Rutherford SB at 50 percent of last year's yield, which was a medium-sized crop. As for Chardonnay in Santa Maria Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands, the crop is medium yield
and looking excellent. However we will need another month of fair weather to get ripe.

Quality is an unknown. Like my father used to say about the weather, “There are only two people that can forecast the weather, damn fools and newcomers.”
Russell Bevan
Sonoma Mountain —  September 16, 2011 2:33pm ET

After last year many people knew that they had to manage the 2011 vintage differently, by the end of May the writing was on the wall. If you hung a full crop and didn't adjust your canopy hoping for things to catch up, knowing you had a less than stellar 2010 in barrel, shame on you.

Russell Bevan
Bevan Cellars
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  September 17, 2011 12:35pm ET
Finally picked our first fruit of the year - 7 tons of Pinot from Russell Family Vineyard in Paso Robles. Kept it sitting in our refrigerated truck overnight (at a chilly 35 degrees) and will process it today.

I can't wait to open the back doors to the truck. All the fruit we get from Erich Russell (whether it's Pinot, Cabernet, Mourvedre, or Grenache) makes the box of our truck smell like someone had been baking berry pie. It's all deep fruit aromas mixed with baking spices. One of the best smells during harvest :)
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  September 18, 2011 11:21am ET
While I am only a homewinemaker....I do manage our clubs crusher destemmer so I do have some idea of what is going on. Some overripe foothills viogner came in yesterday, Lodi tempranillo and low foothills zin are planned for next week. Otherwise, foothills, Sonoma, Paso Robles and napa Bordeaux, rhones and zin are still hanging with nothing (and I mean NOTHING) planned until the first or second week of October and maybe later. But our reports confirm the above- all of the fruit looks great and if the weather holds this year could produce epic wines. If not, well then % $#&=$&*%(*!!>-#&(:. Thanks for the blog and thanks to the pros for your updates . And brian, I agree.... can't wait for the smell in my garage of soaking and fermenting grapes!
James Macphail
Sonoma County, CA —  September 19, 2011 12:18am ET
Hi Tim-

Still tracking about 2-3 weeks behind 'normal' (whatever that is these days) in almost all appellations - Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia and Russian River for both MacPhail and Sequana Pinot Noir. But, feels better than the 3-4 weeks behind in 2010.

Liking the hang time that we are getting due to last weeks 'cooler' weather (low 80's). Starting to see some lignified stems - exciting because this means another year of some whole cluster fermentation. Crossing fingers Mother Nature holds it together for us Pinot folks til late October (good luck Russell!). Forecast is good this week, though a little warm in some local areas - low to mid 90's - so harvest will most certainly jump start later this week. All in all turning out to be a promising year with the lower yields, smaller berries and extra hang time. Happy harvesting everyone!
Russell Bevan
Sonoma Mountain —  September 19, 2011 1:37am ET
Dear James,

Whole Cluster? You and Thomas soooooo need to come back to Vinify for a field trip. We can learn you a thing or two;-)

Tu amigo,
Russell Bevan
Frank Ostini
Buellton, CA —  September 19, 2011 10:43pm ET
We pressed our first Pinot Noir pick from Bien Nacido after a two week fermentation at Terravant Winery in Buellton. We press the Julia's Vineyard tomorrow. Our Sierra Madre is just starting to ferment as it was harvested last Thursday. We pick at Bien Nacido again tomorrow, and start our first of 3 picks from Fiddlestix in the Sta. Rita Hills tonight. Friday we pick Kick On and Rio Vista, and then we will be 55% in the winery. The warm weather this week should make everything progress in a nice way. We are seeing beautiful fruit flavors at lower sugars, dark colors with small berries, and we are waiting to pick just long enough for the acids to come in balance. It all looks very good from here in Santa Barbara County.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  September 20, 2011 11:05am ET
James and Frank - thanks for joining in and updating us on your harvest. It should be interesting.

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