Following a cool, wet spring and a near perfect summer, local winegrape growers are embracing the return of harvest and its long hours and hectic schedules. This vintage timing seems to be a return to normal although it feels late to many who experienced one of the earlier harvests on record in 2017.
“No one will ever forget last year but we are all appreciating the arrival of the new harvest season” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. She added, “There has been ample water, and a relatively cool spring and summer which helped prolong the growing season and the grape quality looks really good. As you travel the County you can tell that harvest time is here and the action is picking up.”
Early reports from the vineyards indicate that veraison is underway with some warmer temperatures to provide the right amount of stress at the right time. The cool spring appears to have slowed down some of the growth and held back the degree day accumulation pushing back harvest in many areas some ten days to two weeks compared to recent seasons. Looking ahead, the one constant challenge in all AVAs is the shortage of labor.
Many growers are navigating this shortage by hiring more full-time workers throughout the year versus relying on seasonal help. More and more growers are using the H2A Work VISA program to have a reliable workforce but many are challenged by the housing requirement. Finally, with the increased quality of mechanization, some wineries and growers will work together to mechanically harvest the grapes this fall.
With harvest still weeks away in many Sonoma County vineyards, here are some of the harvest reports from the front lines of some of our AVAs:
Russian River Valley:
Things are shaping up to what appears to be a very good harvest as cooler weather has prolonged the growing season. Although it wasn’t a “wet” winter, there was enough rain into the spring season that the vineyards didn’t get parched going into harvest. The prevailing belief is that the crop will be above average in quantity.
Early indications are for another good vintage with the harvest start some 10 to 14 days behind recent harvests. Crop sizes vary depending on variety. Both Cabernet and Chardonnay crop sizes are a bit above average while Pinot Noir crop size appears to be average, Sauvignon Blanc crop size seems below average. Across all varieties quality looks to be very good. One potential issue is that veraison in red varieties appears condensed meaning, with the right conditions, it may be a very short, very busy harvest when it arrives in the Alexander Valley.
The current outlook is a normal crop which would put it above last year’s harvest. While there was some shatter earlier in the year, the cluster counts appear to balance it out. While the weather has heated up recently, expectations are that the cooler spring slowed down some growth and the vines are catching up with the warmer weather. The expectation is for a later harvest date than the past three seasons.
Key Issues for Sonoma County Winegrowers:
What is your timing for veraison?
This year’s weather has been very conducive to grape growing. The wet March helped as growers welcomed more water. It also pushed back bud break to a more normal time than recent years. The rest of the spring, the weather was nice, even cool.
Has the water supply affected the growth of the vines?
Water supply conditions are normal and irrigation needs have been a little less than normal. Early in the year, the lack of rain concerned some growers that they may have needed to irrigate prior to bud break. Fortunately, March and April were very wet adding plenty of water to the soil profile. Growers have been using new irrigation technologies and efficient water practices for several years to ensure they only water when necessary.
What is the current situation regarding labor?
Throughout Sonoma County, labor has been and will remain the big concern at harvest. During the growing season, pruning, canopy work and vineyard improvements can be staggered for a few weeks with little impact. However, when harvest arrives, getting the fruit picked at its optimum maturity requires immediate access to skilled labor.
What practices or plans changed in light of last year’s fires?
Many growers took extra time this year to trim trees and reduce fire loads around their vineyards. Also, evacuation plans, improved communication and training became part of the routine during the year.