Optimism reigns as winegrape harvest starts
By Steve Adler
Winegrape grower Diego Olagaray of Lodi checks a cluster of petit syrah grapes that are still several weeks away from harvest.
There is a very good crop set in this five-year-old petit syrah vineyard in the Lodi area. The grapes will likely be harvested near the end of September or early October.
An expected boost in the size of the California winegrape crop comes at a critical time, as wineries compete for this year's grapes. Forecasts project the 2012 crop at 3.7 million tons, up 9 percent from last year.
"There was strong demand early at strong prices for California grapes," said Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno. "The growers did not have to beg for better prices and in many cases there were multiple wineries seeking the same growers. So it has been an interesting year for the growers and me to be marketing on this kind of basis. I would have to say the vast majority of grapes are already sold or committed."
DiBuduo said another important aspect of the larger crop this year is the opportunity it gives to wineries to utilize more California grapes in their wines rather than turning to imports.
"The more grapes we can send to the California wineries, the better it is for the California grower," he said. "I believe it will help the wineries go back to domestic grapes for their wine and push back a little on the imports, where they had to go last year in order to keep their shelf space."
DiBuduo said both wineries and farmers suffered from last year's shorter crop.
"The wineries went to bed hungry last year, but so did the growers because they didn't have the grapes to sell. Their income was affected, also," DiBuduo said.
In addition to the 3.7 million-ton winegrape crop, the California Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service projected table grape production of 1million tons, down 3 percent from last year, and a raisin crop of 1.9 million tons, down 13 percent.
An informal survey of growers around the state supports the crop projection for winegrapes.
Grower Diego Olagaray of Lodi said while recent high temperatures caused some concern, because of water availability for irrigation in his district the hot weather shouldn't have much impact.
"It has been a good growing season since bud break, a complete opposite of last year," he said. "Last year was very challenging with the frost and cool weather. Looking at historical numbers, this year has been right on target for the average for degree days. The grapes aren't as big as last year's crop, but it is still a nice crop."
Olagaray said he expects to begin harvesting his early grapes—pinot grigio—around the end of August. Because he also grows later varieties such as petit syrah, he will likely still be harvesting in October.
Tom Murphy, who farms some 20 miles southeast in Farmington, had a similar report.
"At this point in time, the vineyards look to be in very good shape as they go through veraison, with healthy canopies and clean fruit. I am optimistic that 2012 will be one of those respected quality vintages," he said. "Following two short crop years, I have been quietly anticipating a better-than-average crop for most varieties in the Farmington area. Cluster counts early on indicated such. However, it doesn't appear that clusters are going to size up to what I would consider normal. As a result, I am anticipating this year's crop to be more average in size."
In Fresno County, winegrape grower Ryan Metzler said this season is a "180-degree" shift from 2011.
"There are no real issues to report on quality for this year's crop; everything seems to be solid," he said. "The Thompson crop appears to be shorter than hoped for, while most of the winegrapes seem to be hitting the averages we would want to attain for them to be sustainable."
Harvest is already well under way in the San Joaquin Valley and Metzler said most varieties are running five to 10 days ahead of last year. Because his winegrapes are harvested with machines, labor isn't a major concern, he said.
Farther south, Tulare County grower JR Shannon said winegrape harvest is in full swing. Crop size has been generally average, except for low yields in the Traver area where spring hailstorms cut a two-mile-wide swath for a 10-mile stretch.
"This is a good, normal start time, where the past two seasons have been two to three weeks late," he said. "The Central Valley is seeing very attractive prices for all our hard work, and our return on investment will be as good as or better than last season."
Monterey County grower Paul Johnson reported that grapes being grown in the Salinas Valley have excellent quality and said yield may be slightly higher than average.
"We got little to no mildew; the berry size looks good. For the most part the clusters are smaller, but they have medium to large berry sizes," Johnson said. "For the past couple years, our harvest was later than normal, and this year I would say we are pretty much on schedule."
In Napa County, Lee Hudson described this year as a "cake walk" when compared to the challenges he faced in the past four years.
"To date, 2012 has been picture perfect; timing on all key phenological stages has been impeccable. The crop is in balance, and harvest appears to be early to average," he said. "This is all very encouraging.
"The timing has been perfect, problems minimal, crop size moderate and the quality appears to be excellent," he said.
Hudson said harvest at his ranch will begin around Sept. 1 and last about 45 days, weather permitting.
Looking ahead, DiBuduo said the California winegrape sector should be in a strong position in the world wine picture for several years.
"We don't have an oversupply of winegrapes. We don't have an oversupply of available ground to plant more winegrapes. Winegrape sales have been strong, and California wine sales are strong both domestically and overseas. And I think without a doubt that we will be able to keep up the demand for the next three to five years," he said.
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.