Mendocino Growers Optimistic for 2018 Harvest

Conditions a return to normal, several growers report resorting to H2A process for labor

by L.M. Archer
The winemaker and vineyard manager for Bonterra report 2018 has brought excellent conditions in the company's organic vineyards that include Butler Ranch, seen here, located north east of Anderson Valley.

Ukiah, Calif.—From ideal flowering and “nearly normal” bud break, to favorable fruit set and encouraging cluster counts, Mendocino County growers and vintners are optimistic for “a great vintage” in 2018. 

Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard near Laytonville, Calif., has been growing grapes in remote northern Mendocino since 1993. He reports a nearly ideal flowering and somewhat early but “nearly normal” bud break due to mild, almost cool temperatures, adequate rainfall, a lack of wind events, and minimal frost. “Overall, the weather has been really excellent,” he said. Bewley estimates a veraison date of Aug. 5, sparkling wine harvest on Sept. 1, and still wine harvest Sept. 10-15.

Alder Springs Vineyard boasts 57 grape varieties, 153 clonal selections and 13 to 15 root selections. Crop averages vary according to cultivar, with a preference for lower yields. “We’re seeing fairly good set in most blocks,” Bewley said. “I’m not hearing about above-average yields.”

He said it appears Chardonnay will be the first variety harvested, and added he’s seen only minimal pest pressure. The grower relies on natural predators and applications of non-aggressive, “soft” products such as stylet oil only when needed. He also notes no wildfire smoke impact this year.

But Bewley does say that labor continues to be a problem, leading to his involvement in the H2A worker program. “Our situation with labor is okay, but it’s also super cumbersome and expensive,” he said. “At least we can get our work done in a timely manner.“

Bonterra Organic Vineyards’ winemaker Jeff Cichocki and vineyard director Joseph Brinkley offered equally favorable reports from their inland Mendocino vineyards in the Sanel and Ukiah valley areas. “By all indications so far, 2018 is on track to be a great vintage. We’ve gotten a fair amount of rain—not quite to average levels but certainly superior to the drought years — and very little frost," Cichocki said. "We’re already seeing better fruit set in terms of cluster counts. Overall, we’re highly optimistic this vintage will deliver excellent quality.”

Fruit set occurred at the end of May for whites and early June for reds. Veraison is expected to occur mid-July for the whites, and late July for the reds. Except for a few heat spikes, temperatures have ranged between the mid to-upper-90s, and nights into the low 60s, which contributes to even ripening and superior acid retention.

Bonterra proactively sprays organic material to thwart pest pressures during warm weather and employs prudent leafing and canopy management to alleviate sun damage and mitigate mildew. Cichocki said he expects higher Chardonnay yields in 2018, with overall yields for both whites and reds “on par with typical years.”

Adds Bonterra vineyard director Joseph Brinkley, “As biodynamic farmers, we use grazing sheep to ‘mow’ our cover crops. Each time herbaceous crops regrow, they infuse new roots and organic matter into the soil, providing vital nutrients. Overall, the stage is set for excellent quality come harvest time.”

Scharffenberger Cellars and Roederer Estate, part of Maisons Marques & Domaines’ portfolio, provide equally complimentary perspectives on the 2018 vintage regarding sparkling wine.

“So far, we are pleased with what we are seeing,” reports winemaker Jeffrey Jindra of Scharffenberger. “Despite a fairly dry winter, spring rains wetted the profile, and laid the foundation for a good season. Even with a cool and windy bloom period, fruit set was fairly successful, and the vines are carrying a good crop in most blocks.”

Bob Gibson, Scharffenberger’s director of vineyard operations, agreed. “We are trending 8 to 10 days behind last year, expecting our first day of harvest with Pinot around the 26 of August on Redwood Grove Vineyard.”

GIbson reported the later maturity date is more “typical,” and said he expects a 15% increase in Pinot compared to last year and a 6% decrease in Chardonnay. He added yields could change slightly, depending upon lag phase cluster weights.

Jindra says the mild temperatures remind him of 2010 and 2011, both “curveball” vintages, so he intends to stay attentive.

Roederer winemaker Arnaud Weyrich concurred about yields. He uses the average cluster weight for the past five years to compute estimated yields. “The Pinot looks better than average,” he said. “Our current calculations look like 15% more than last year. Chardonnay seems down.”

Weyrich attributes the lower cluster average to cool, stormy and rainy conditions during flowering in April and May, resulting in uneven berries.

Because Roederer Estate picks at 19° Brix, the sparkling estate is typically the first to harvest grapes Anderson Valley. “The overall feeling is that we are back to some sort of normalcy,” Weyrich said. “Right now, we’re looking at starting on the estates around Aug. 20. Compare that to last year, when we started harvest the first week of August, and by the first week of September we were done.”

Weyrich pointed out that degree days are still a little bit behind, in part due to the late March bud break and a cool April and May. He also notes minimal hail, frost, fog and insect pressure this year. Mildew, however, remains a concern.

“Everything else is pretty good,” he said. “The east and west end of the valleys still differ a solid week between bloom. Boonville area encountered bloom approximately May 28-30, and the west side near Navarro followed suit June 5-8.”

Labor also proves a challenge for Roederer Estate this year. The ranch once relied on in-house labor, with occasional contractor outsourcing for peak seasons. However, in 2018 they employed outside contractors to provide H2A labor from Mexico. According to Weyrich, the contractor does the legwork and completes the paperwork for the incoming workers, and the ranch provides dedicated housing.

“Because we start early, we also finish early,” said Weyrich. “So these workers will be able to work for the contractor picking grapes for other ranches later in the season. I think it’s a win-win for us, and for the other ranches as well.”


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