So Far, an Average Wine Harvest in Central Coast

Growing sparkling market has several estates picking now, watching and waiting on still wine

by Jaime Lewis
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
Harvest begins at Sanford Winery & Vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA of the Central Coast. The upcoming vintage is expected to bring average yields along a normal timeline. Photo: Sanford Winery & Vineyards/Facebook.

San Luis Obispo, Calif.—An average harvest is projected to kick off in California’s Central Coast as early as next week, with picks for the area’s growing sparkling wine programs already well underway.

Growers throughout the region predicted harvest to continue at a normal pace and deliver average yields. While the rains of winter did bring relief from the drought, it also resulted in increased mildew pressure, which is also being reported by growers in other regions of California.

For Mike Sinor, owner and winemaker at Sinor-Lavallee Wines, Pinot Noir for petillant-naturel was the first fruit to be picked Aug. 11 at his Bassi Vineyard, 1.2 miles from the ocean in the San Luis Obispo County AVA. (Fourteen miles south in the Arroyo Grande Valley AVA, Laetitia Vineyard & Winery started harvesting for its sparkling wine program on Aug. 15.)

“Yields were average,” says Sinor, who also farms Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah at Bassi Vineyard for still wine. “Nothing too high or low. We have a section that tends to have a little more mildew pressure and that’s the section we pick first for pet-nat, so that we don’t lose it to mildew. I’m proud of that execution — it worked really well.”

At harvest, Sinor said Brix was 18.4 degrees with a pH of 3.18. Sinor-Lavallee Wines experimented with 60 cases of pet-nat last year, and hopes to produce as many as 200 cases this vintage.

Another average year
An average harvest in the Central Coast would mean about 500,000 tons, which is what the region saw last year. The 2016 vintage was a welcome return to normal after 2015 when a cold and windy spring disrupted fruit set and resulted in yields of 50% of normal throughout the region.

Sinor is also director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery, whose Margarita Vineyard occupies the southernmost edge of the Paso Robles AVA. Varieties for Ancient Peaks’ still wines include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Sirah. With regard to the harvest at Margarita Vineyard, Sinor said 2016’s average rainfall called for slight farming changes after years of drought.

“Having the ground saturated with water caused it to be colder later; bud break was later than the normal zone,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing the berries are pretty small — there are more clusters out there — but it looks like it’s an overall smaller berry year which is exciting to me as a winemaker, for skin-to-juice ratio.”

Further north in Paso Robles’ El Pomar District AVA, Matt Merrill of Pomar Junction Winery projects to start picking Syrah for rosé as early as Friday, Aug. 25 “depending on how the numbers look,” he said. “We’re trying to get it somewhere around 21 Brix, and a sample just came in at 20.2, so it’s right on the doorstep.”

Merrill added that Tempranillo for rosé is also looking close, as is Verdelho at 23 Brix, targeting 24 degrees, but the acids still remain high at a pH of 8.

Waiting on heat to get rolling
“Harvest seems about normal compared to last year and the year before, which were both early,” he said. “It’s been cool the last week so it’s hard to say if it will get knocked back. If we get a good heat spell, things will definitely start to roll in the next ten days.”

While current temperatures are mild in the mid-80s, it’s forecasted to reach 100F° in 15 days. “If that happens, we’ll be moving quickly.”

In the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, Sanford Winery & Vineyards general manager and winemaker Steve Fennell said the harvest crew had already picked some fruit for sparkling and plans to pick more this week. “In terms of sparkling it was a fairly normal year,” he said, citing Brix in the range of 18.5 to 19 degrees at harvest. For the winery’s sizeable rosé of Pinot production, the fruit will come in around 21-22 Brix with a pH of 3.2.

As for still wine, Fennell projects to start harvesting early next week, as well. Barring any high heat before harvest, he foresees all markers being met normally, including yields, sugars and acids. One standout among the Pinot Noir crop is small berry size, which is showing as intense color, even in early samples. “This was definitely a year where we dealt with high mildew and botrytis pressure,” he said, “but the grapes are coming off really clean, which is a testament to our farming.”

With contracts in Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties, the general manager of Mesa Vineyard Management, Gregg Hibbitz, has an even broader view of the Central Coast’s harvest status. “In warm climates like Paso Robles, southern Monterey County and Santa Ynez, this is as close to an average crop as we ever see, using multi-year averages for blocks,” he says. “When we did crop estimates, every one came in within the average range, plus or minus 5%.”

In cool climate regions like Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Edna Valley, Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands, however, the crop, he says, is “definitely light.”

“Things like Chardonnay were not particularly fruitful, and in other cases where they were, their cluster sizes were sketchy.”

As for areas leading the harvest, Hibbitz said a late-August pick of Sauvignon Blanc is the norm near Paso Robles. “We started picking Sauvignon Blanc in Shandon today (Aug. 22) — that was the first fruit for still wine we’d picked, and the first significant truckload quantity-wise,” he said. “Most of Paso Robles proper is probably going to start next week with the heat coming at the weekend. I expect to be busy early next week.”

Outside regional averages, in Santa Barbara County, Hibbitz saw extreme disease pressure this year. “The theory is that it was a good rainfall year and the vines grew vigorously, early, and as people were starting to pull leaves there were cases where mildew started rolling in. It was definitely more of an issue than in prior years.”

He also adds that, outside regional norms, Paso Robles experienced an unusually hot June and July. “It will be interesting to see how that translates to crop. We’ll know the answer to that before too long here.”

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