November 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines

West Coast Harvest Numbers a Mystery

by Paul Franson
Small harvest in Paso Robles
While the California wine grape harvest may be down 5%-15% from normal, some North Coast yields are down 25%, and Paso Robles reports a nearly 50% loss.

Napa, Calif.—The 2015 California grape harvest is short, but it’s not clear how short. Estimates range from 50% or more off normal in parts of Paso Robles to just a little lower than average in some areas.

After three bumper crops, the lower numbers may even be welcome in some places.

Nat DiBuduo, president and CEO of Allied Grape Growers, generally has a good handle on crop size, as his organization represents many growers in both the Central Valley and coastal counties.

DiBuduo is currently estimating the California wine grape harvest at “somewhat below 3.8 million tons-—lower than the new normal of 4 million tons.” (Last year’s crop hit 3.9 million tons, and 2013 was 4.24 million tons.)

The California Association of Wine Grapegrowers reports that DiBuduo said white grapes harvested in the San Joaquin Valley had average to below-average yields, but some varieties (such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio) are in higher demand.

In spite of shorter crops, some growers are already pulling out vines and likely to plant nut trees, DiBuduo said. “Vines planted two or three years (ago) are coming into production, and there’s still plenty of wine in tanks to meet the demand for less expensive wines.”

Bill Berryhill with Berryhill Family Vineyards farms wine grapes in the northern San Joaquin Valley in Stanislaus County, Calif., and near Clements, east of Lodi, Calif., in San Joaquin County. He expects yields to range from normal to down 10%.

Stuart Spencer is program manager for the Lodi Winegrape Commission and owner and winemaker at St. Amant Winery. He said, “In Lodi it looks like it’s going to be a light average year in 2015. Depending on the field—and there was variability across Lodi—most growers came in a bit below an average size crop.

“Some of the younger fields performed fairly well, and some of the older fields not so well. From what we’ve been hearing, the crop in Lodi didn’t come in as light as it did in the coastal and foothill regions. That said, in 2014 Lodi had a fairly average size crop compared to other regions, coming off the very large harvests of 2012 and 2013. Quality across the board in 2015 looked to be exceptional with high acids and good flavors and very few problems with the fruit.”

Also in Lodi, Aaron Lange of LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards said crop size is ranging from average to below average.

Glenn Proctor, president of Ciatti and Co. brokers, added, “The Lodi/Delta areas of the state will play different than the lower Central Valley, so we need to be careful not to group them all together.”

Of course, the impact of the shortage depends on yields of the grapes wineries need. “An excess of southern San Joaquin Ruby Cabernet doesn’t make up for a shortage of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir,” noted Steve Fredricks, president of Turrentine Brokerage.

One region that seems especially hard hit was Paso Robles, a prime source for wines in the hot low-teen retail price point, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.

Some vineyards were a total loss, and most yields in the region were off by 50% or more. Growers who suffered a 30% loss are considering themselves lucky in a year that at first seemed merely earlier than normal but proved instead to be dramatically light.

Dr. Lowell Zelinski, founder of Precision Ag Consulting, attributes the low yields to unseasonably cool temperatures in May that prevented the pollen tubes in vine flowers from fully forming, thereby interfering with fertilization. The cold temperatures also caused widespread retention of flower caps that also prevented pollination.

Years of drought, which have exacerbated salt accumulation in the root zone, as well as hail in mid-June and a freak storm in July that dropped 3-4 inches of rain all played a role in the reduced yields.

Monterey County, Calif., is consistent with other regions in having smaller yields this year, said Amanda West Reade, spokesperson for the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association. After several years of bumper crops, the 2015 wine grape harvest in Monterey County may be anywhere from 20% to 40% smaller than recent large vintages. Unusual weather patterns and ongoing effects of the drought are mostly to blame.

In Napa Valley, growers expect lower yields than in the past three years, but as elsewhere, all reports from the vineyard indicate that fruit quality is said to be good.

An early bud break and erratic weather during bloom created some variability in fruit maturity, and as a result, crop yields are lower than in past years. “Yields are down from the past three years, but those years were big crops. We’re only off 15% to 20% of normal,” said PJ Alviso, a member of the Napa Valley Grape-growers and director of estate viticulture for Duckhorn Wine Co.

At Trefethen Vineyards, which farms 600 acres of vines, CEO Jon Ruel said, “Although the yields will vary across regions and varieties, I haven’t heard anyone say they had a larger than usual crop this year. For us, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were down about 20% compared to target yields. Riesling and Malbec were just fine. Cabernet Franc was the lightest: almost 30% off target. But thankfully our Cabernet Sauvignon was only about 10% low.”

Ruel added, “Talk around the Napa Valley is that the Cabernet overall may end up as much as 30% lighter than last year.”

The reasons for the light crop include dry springtime soils and variable temperatures during bloom.

Winemaker Matthew Crafton at Chateau Montelena Winery in Calistoga, Calif., said, “Last year was our biggest on record, so I don’t think it’s a great one for comparison. We saw a fair amount of variability in vineyard yields this year based on vineyard location, variety and rootstock. I would say a good range is 20% to 30% off average. Everything tastes great; I just wish we had more.”

Early estimates project that the total Sonoma County grape crop could be 30%-35% smaller than last year’s harvest of more than 255,600 tons, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers.

“One of our longtime grapegrowers likes to describe farming as a dance with Mother Nature, and she is always leading,” says Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Balletto Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma County farms 650 acres of vineyards spread throughout the Russian River Valley and western Sonoma County. According to a report from the California Association of Winegrape Growers, Balletto said yields were off for several key varieties: Chardonnay down 10%-15%, Sauvignon Blanc down 20%-40%, Pinot Gris down 20%-25%, and Pinot Noir down 25%-30% in some areas (and down as much as 50% in western Sonoma County).

Also from CAWG, Mike Boer, who owns vineyards at Stipp Ranch in Ukiah, Calif., and is an integrated pest management consultant for vineyards in four North Coast counties with Ag Unlimited, reported, “The quality looks great throughout the North Coast, but early indications are the crop will be light across the board for all varieties.”

He said the timing of bloom was a factor in crop reductions in Napa and Sonoma counties, but to a lesser extent in Lake and Mendocino counties. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the final North Coast crop about 17% to 25% off from average this year,” Boer said.

Paul Ardzrooni of Ardzrooni Vineyard Management, who farms a large percentage of vineyard acreage in the Anderson Valley, said, “The unfavorably cool weather in May forced a longer duration of bloom time, resulting in significant shatter and poor fruit set in most vineyards in Anderson Valley. Our earliest harvest on record began the first week of August with two heat spikes to follow, condensing the major portion of harvest into a short five weeks. We harvested 66% and were down 34% of the five-year average, overall.

Kristy Charles of Foursight Wines added, “Some growers double-pruned for the drought (to set back our frost season by a few weeks), like in our Charles Vineyard in Boonville. This allowed bud break to be closer to average in mid-March. However, between the low crop load and warm summer, the season sped along, and we ended up starting our harvest Aug. 15. The last blocks of estate Pinot Noir came in the first week in September for Foursight. Quality is excellent; quantity is very low. There will certainly be a scarcity of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from 2015.”

It was an early harvest for Oregon, as in California. “Most of our wineries are reporting that the size was comparable to last year, which was a record for us with a 39% gain over 2013,” said Michelle Kaufmann, communications manager for the Oregon Wine Board. “However, a few regions had frost damage and are reporting lower yields. Because of that, we are unable to estimate if 2015 will be on par with 2014, higher or lower.”

Official tonnage numbers for Washington state won’t be released until January or February, but preliminary estimates suggest this year’s harvest is indeed smaller than 2014, said Michaela Baltasar, spokesperson for Washington State Wine. “Many growers are talking about smaller berry size, and though this will mean lighter tonnage, it also indicates intense, flavorful fruit. Wine-makers are very excited about the quality of the 2015 vintage.”

In the Walla Walla Valley of Washington, Heather Bradshaw of the Walla Walla Wine Alliance reports that tonnage will probably be a little down due to an early freeze, but the grapes look good.

Glenn Proctor of Ciatti and Co. noted that the shortage would affect the inventory on the bulk market—especially in the coastal areas. “We have already seen the overall bulk inventory available for purchase that Ciatti lists start to decline over the past month as various wineries that had excess inventory for sale have pulled it off the market and are now using it themselves.”

He added, “Also, we have seen an uptick in overall bulk activity and specific activity around Pinot Noir, Cab Sauv and Sauvignon Blanc for the 2014 vintages.”

Proctor continued, “It’s not yet clear how it will it affect the price of grapes. “We had three large vintages, so overall we still are in a more balanced position on supply in general. I think in general it will help to stabilize the market and potentially tighten some varieties, but it is early.”

Proctor also noted that people have been ripping out vineyards in the Central Valley at the rate of 20,000-plus tons per year of wine and raisin grapes, but new acres of wine grapes were planted in the Central Valley just three to four years ago. “They are now coming into production—likely with higher yields than the vines they are replacing—and the everyday value wine category (below $10) has been flat over the past two to three years. So the supply is most likely in line with the expected demand.”

Fredricks concurred, “Yields are higher than they once were due to changes in varieties, rootstocks, trellising and management. And winemakers are flexible about yields per acre, particularly in short years. 2015 will balance the past few years, but there’s less Cab than planned, particularly under $10.”

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