Majority of Napa Growers to Replace Vines by 2017

Rootstock event features insights from harvest survey of members

by Andrew Adams
wine grape vineyard red blotch virus
A high rate of Pierce’s disease and grapevine red blotch-associated virus (pictured) is prompting many Napa Valley grapegrowers to redevelop their vineyards.

Napa, Calif.—Pressure from grapevine red blotch-associated virus and Pierce’s disease is one of the main reasons most Napa County wine grape growers plan to redevelop vineyards by 2017.

During the recent harvest, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers surveyed its members about the vintage and their vineyards and found that 86% of those who responded plan to redevelop at least some of their acreage in 2017. About 60% of the members redeveloped acreage in 2015 and 62% said they did this year.

Brittany Pederson, a viticulturist and pest control advisor with Silverado Farming Co. as well as the co-chair of the Grapegrowers’ member services committee, said more growers are moving to 10- and even five-year replant schedules. “Definitely the virus and disease pressure have been a huge portion of that,” she said.

Pederson’s remarks came during a panel discussion in which she was joined by P.J. Alviso, director of estate vineyards for Duckhorn Vineyards and a member of the group’s planning committee, and Matt Reid, winemaker for Benessere Vineyards. The three discussed the results of the survey as well as the 2016 harvest in general during a session of the recent Rootstock conference held Nov. 8 in Napa, Calif.

High PD pressure

In some vineyards, especially those near riparian areas along the Napa River, Pederson said she dealt with some vineyard blocks that had a Pierce’s disease (PD) infection rate of up to 70%. She said the ailment usually peaks every 15 to 20 years. “We happen to be in that spike right now,” she said. “I’m crossing my fingers hoping we’re past the peak of that.”

Growers in both Napa and Sonoma counties experienced a dramatic spike in PD during 2015 as well. The warmer winters of late have also been blamed for the increase in PD.

Red blotch continues to be a threat with some growers having to replant or rogue out infected vines from properties they had already redeveloped because of the disease. However, she said new planting materials now available offer a much greater degree of protection, and the work being done by Dr. Andy Walker at the University of California, Davis, on PD-resistant grapevines is also quite encouraging. The vines already are proving to be a success in Texas, Missouri and other states that had been rife with PD.  

As growers redevelop vineyards to better deal with the challenges posed by disease, they are also quite mindful of designing vineyards to take full advantage of the latest technology that will help them confront their other major challenge: finding adequate labor.

More than half (53%) of growers who responded to the survey said they had to deal with a labor shortage in 2016.

Replant to mechanize

Alviso said he plans any new vineyard to allow for mechanizing jobs such as leaf pulling or even harvesting. He said one of the major challenges in ensuring that enough workers are available to do jobs such as shoot thinning is that living in Napa County and the rest of the Bay Area is quite expensive. While the average starting wage of $14 per hour for vineyard work is competitive, it’s hard to cover the cost of housing, which amounts to more than twice the price of the Central Valley for comparable living quarters.

Alviso said in past years most of Napa Valley’s vineyard workers would come from the relatively close cities of Vallejo or Fairfield in Solano County. Now, they’re driving from Stockton or Modesto. “The housing thing is a big thing,” he said.

His company, and many others, are offering 401(k) plans and full benefits, but money is still the biggest incentive. “Cash on the barrel head speaks a lot to the guys who work for us,” he said. “Housing and the dollars per hour are the biggest things for us.”

Other farming communities in California have housing for migrant laborers, but in Napa County, where undeveloped land is often valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre, that’s a challenge.

Estate wineries have found success by using vineyard workers in the winery through harvest and winter, and Pederson said more vineyard labor contractors are bringing in workers from other areas. “We have a few crews from the Central Valley that are really talented and really great,” she said.

The demographics of the labor pool are also changing. Pederson said the children of vineyard workers haven’t followed their parents into the field. She added it’s interesting to see more women working in vineyards these days, about 30% of Silverado Farming Co.’s workers are women, and some clients have begun to regularly request all-women harvest crews.

From the winemaker’s perspective, Reid said yields were average to just a little lighter than average. According to the survey, 26% found it to be a “light crop,” while 66% reported it to be average and 8% described it as heavy.

In terms of quality, Napa Valley appears to have enjoyed another good year. “I think 2016 is going to be considered yet another quality vintage in a string of good harvests,” Reid said.

Alviso began the discussion with a graph plotting out all of the different start dates for the vintage. The graph ranged from July 29 to Oct. 1 and illustrated while Napa’s reputation is built and maintained with Cabernet Sauvignon, the area is home to a wide range of varieties and wine programs.

He said 65% of those surveyed said they picked earlier, but Alviso said he’s not even really sure what “normal” means anymore. “The defining characteristic of this vintage was how long véraison took,” he said.

In some vineyards there was a range in Brix from 21° to 27°, and it took a while for all the vines to come in to balance. Cooler temperatures helped that process, and a late-September heat spike helped push everything to maturity and brought harvest to an end. 

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