'Last Straw' for Lodi Grape Growers

Heat spike topped off 'extremely challenging' season marked by mildew in some varieties

by Jane Firstenfeld
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
Loaded bins ready for transport at Mohr-Fry Ranches in Lodi, Calif., where about 50% of the total grape harvest has been picked

Lodi, Calif.— “Last week’s heat was the final straw to a very difficult year. Burn was already prevalent throughout the area due to heat spikes in June and July. The heat last week just put the final touches on what was already a difficult season,” said Craig Ledbetter, who manages vineyards in Lodi for Vino Farms LLC.

After a year that started with non-stop rain, flooding some area vineyards for months and setting off a strong mildew invasion, some growers didn’t even have a potential crop this vintage, Ledbetter said.

Mildew was the No. 1 challenge for the season. Although his team combatted it with extra spray passes, in most occasions they also had to drop a substantial amount of fruit. “We have never seen a season like this and hope we never see another one like this,” he said.

Nevertheless, harvest is well underway and Vino Farms has to date brought in roughly 20,000 tons of grapes in the Lodi area, including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. Ledbetter said he expects to start bringing in Cabernet Sauvignon in the very near future.

He said he'll harvest another 5,000-7,000 more tons, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Malbec, Syrah and Petite Sirah. Ledbetter expects crop quality to be variety specific. Chardonnay had a major mildew issue, which will make it a difficult quality year. Zinfandel is also showing large amounts of rot.

Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc have better weathered the season without mildew or rot affects, so Ledbetter expects good quality, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes also look good. “Quantity is entirely a different story. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris are the only varieties that I have harvested that have had normal crop levels. I do think Cabernet Sauvignon has a good chance to come in at normal as well,” he said.

Bruce Fry, grower for Mohr-Fry Ranches, reported that crush has been off and on since his team started picking Sauvignon Blanc on Aug. 11, 10 days later than in 2016. They’ve also brought in Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, about 50% of the expected total.

Quantities are about 20% lower than expected for Zinfandel, 10-15% off for Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Viognier, but quality is excellent for most, although Zinfandel suffered from Botrytis, and mildew also challenged all varieties. Late in the summer, mites became very active and demanded treatment in several vineyards, Fry said.

The wet winter made it difficult to get into the vineyards in the spring for normal disking, mowing and mildew prevention, he noted.

Chad Joseph is winemaking consultant for Harney Lane Winery, Oak Farm Vineyards and Dancing Coyote Wines. His crush began Aug 12, but accelerated due to the recent “unprecedented” heat wave.

To date he’s helped his clients process more than 400 tons, including Albarino, Fiano, Gruner Veltliner, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Grenache Rosé, Grenache, Merlot, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer. He expects 300 more tons, “as soon as we get tank space available to receive the fruit.”

The earlier white varieties were comparable to recent vintages.  Chardonnay was lighter and ripened quickly, Joseph observed. Thinner skin (Zinfandel) red varieties were strongly affected by the heat with break down due to rot, and Pinot Noir ripened sooner than expected. “Time will tell if the quality is as good as it has been in recent vintages,” Joseph said.

The extra winter rain created more vigorous vines, and concurrent problems especially in Zinfandel. The early September heat wave caused rapid ripening, more dehydration and lack of true maturation, Joseph said.

“Mildew and pests in my area were apparent early on, and we addressed those vineyards," he said. "We currently are trying to just get ripe fruit in before it begins to develop more problems.” 

Labor a struggle
Ledbetter also addressed the perpetual and growing problem of agricultural labor, which he predicts will remain a huge challenge. “Labor is short and will continue to be in all areas of California. Labor is going to follow the money and so whichever crop or area can pay the most is who is going to get it,” he said.

Although Lodi vineyards are already comparatively mechanized, he noted that even finding skilled tractor drivers has become very difficult. There is also a shortage of skilled mechanics to take care of the machines.

Fry said his operation had to raise its hourly pay rate, and supplement with contracted labor to finish pruning and shoot thinning earlier in the season. But everything except his old vine Zinfandel is machine harvested.

Joseph also said labor is a huge issue. “We are scheduling tonnage, but it is not being delivered on the hand-picked side. The machines are able to deliver and are the way of the future. It’s apparent that crews must transition to night picking on vineyards that can only be hand harvested—i.e., older vines," he said. "Given the extreme temperatures we experienced, it’s got to be done at night when temperatures are cooler. That’s better for the grapes going to the winery and the people harvesting.” 

He termed the harvest extremely challenging, comparable only to 1998. “Overall, it will be a vintage to remember, with some wineries making great wines — but there are definitely problems out there.”

In the indomitable spirit of farmers everywhere, Ledbetter summed it up: “It’s been a very difficult year, and Vino Farms is very much looking forward to 2018.”

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