State’s winegrape harvest in full swing


Issue Date: September 6, 2017
By Steve Adler
Clarksburg winegrape grower Mike Heringer uses a refractometer to check the brix (sugar) level of some petite syrah winegrapes. Growers use brix to determine the optimum time to harvest their grapes.
Photo/Steve Adler
Chardonnay grapes are harvested at dusk in a Heringer Estates vineyard in Clarksburg. Most winegrapes are harvested at night to preserve their sugar levels.
Photo/Steve Heringer, Heringer Estates, Clarksburg

Harvest crews up and down the state are converging on winegrape vineyards as this year's less-than-bountiful crop reaches maturity.

The consensus among growers and winegrape business executives is that the 2017 winegrape crop will come in at slightly below normal. While the yield is down from normal, the quality appears to be excellent, according to early harvest results. Last year's grape crush came in at 4.2 million tons, up nearly 10 percent from the previous year. This year's crop is expected to exceed 4 million tons, but fall short of last year.

"To date, there has been nothing terribly remarkable about this year's harvest," said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. "Pricing is relatively in balance, and this year's harvest looks like it is not going to knock pricing either up or down. It looks like we will be ending up with a good quality crop, and it looks like smooth sailing from here on out."

His assessment was supported by Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno, which represents growers primarily in the Central Valley and North Coast. DiBuduo said it appears there will be buyers for all of the 2017 crop of winegrapes.

"Overall, I think it will be a good year for quality of the fruit. This is based on rainfall and the growing season," he said. "Growers had to spend extra money on labor to remove canopy because of the rain and extra money in crop-protection materials to control things like powdery mildew."

There are more than 110 varieties of winegrapes grown in California, and vineyards can be found in 49 counties, covering some 560,000 acres. California ranks fourth in the world in wine production, behind Italy, France and Spain.

The California wine market is stable, according to a report by the Ciatti Company of San Rafael, a leading wine broker. They state: "With a big 2016 crop and increased acreage in the ground, cabernet at the Valley end of pricing has softened in price a little; pinot grigio pricing has softened due to its own big 2016 crop; zinfandel has softened a little but not as much as perhaps expected, with cabernet available at a lower price than zinfandel in some areas. Pricing on merlot, syrah and chardonnay hasn't necessarily weakened; inventories are fairly tight across the board."

A major topic of conversation among winegrape growers is the tight labor supply, which is prompting growers to switch to mechanical harvest wherever feasible.

"I think there were three purchases of mechanical harvesters in Temecula this year, so things are going mechanized. After we are planting so many acres, we will be in the market for a machine harvester, that's for sure," said winegrape grower JD Harkey, who is with Drake Enterprises in Temecula. The company planted 150 new acres of vines over the past two years and has plans to add an additional 100 acres in 2018.

Clarksburg winegrape grower Mike Heringer said modern mechanical grape harvesters are very sophisticated and as a result, the freshly harvested grapes retain their quality and are better in some instances because the grapes can be delivered more quickly.

"We can machine pick at night and deliver the grapes at their coldest temperatures, retaining the quality in the bin. Sometimes with hand picking, you are out in late morning when temperatures rise and the grapes might be at 70 degrees," he said.

On the North Coast, Sonoma winegrape grower Mike Sangiacomo said his crews are finishing with their sparkling winegrapes and are shifting to other varieties, with white varieties first, followed by the reds.

"The wet winter helped with good vine health, but some of the cool, wet days during bloom had an impact on fruit set. We are picking up now because of this heat and we may be a little bit ahead of normal with harvest," he said. "We didn't get a great set because of the weather. The vines are very healthy and the quality of the grapes looks good, but it is a below-average crop for us, down from last year."

Templeton grower John Crossland said harvest activity is ramping up on the Central Coast as well. He said in conversations with other growers in the Paso Robles area, the crop appears to be light.

"It looks like this will be an average crop at best. Cluster rates are coming in lighter than we thought they would have been," he said. "This heat wave could cause some sunburn concerns, but overall the vines are doing very well.

"It was great to see the strong, healthy vines as a result of all the rain earlier this spring. We are 100 percent dependent on groundwater, so we would like to see a couple more winters like the last one," Crossland said.

One development that has caught everyone's attention is an increase in glassy-winged sharpshooter numbers. In the Temecula area, the pest is finding a home in abandoned lemon groves, which is frustrating for winegrape growers who have an effective program in place to keep the sharpshooters out of the vineyards.

Then in mid-July, the San Luis Obispo Agriculture Commissioner's Office found a glassy-winged sharpshooter in a residential lemon tree. The pest, which carries Pierce's disease, a destructive citrus tree killer, has so far not been found in a vineyard, the commissioner's office said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.