2015 Harvest in Northern California is Early and Light

From the frontlines of top California vineyards, winemakers are reporting lower yields amidst a record-breaking early harvest.

Isn’t August a little early for the grape harvest? Yes, according to year-long predictions from Napa and Sonoma producers. At the rate it’s going, California’s winemakers will likely complete harvest well before Halloween.

For instance, on August 18, Napa’s Robert Biale Vineyards hosted a 25th anniversary tasting of several of its Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs dating back to 1999. The next day, the producer started harvesting Zinfandel.

On August 24, a surprise lunch was given in honor of winemaker Rob Davis’s 40th harvest at Jordan Winery in Alexander Valley. The organizers and guests probably figured it’d be a good time to catch Davis before he got busy. Too bad he started harvesting Chardonnay at the crack of dawn that same day.

For sparkling wine producers, harvest was just about done. Winemaker Steven Urberg of Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards in Carneros reports “the last of our sparkling Chardonnay grapes came in on August 24th. This means we have wrapped up our sparkling harvest at Gloria Ferrer just days after our usual average starting date, August 19!” According to Urberg, the winery’s Pinot Noir yields are very light, down approximately 35 percent, while Chardonnay is down 15 percent. “The good news is that we are very optimistic about its quality,” he says.

Adam Lee of Siduri, who makes a long list of vineyard-designated Pinots from up and down California and Oregon, said all of the Golden State has been affected by shatter (when grape clusters fail to develop into berries after flowering) and lower yields. The further West you go, the worse it looks. He says Oregon seems to have escaped a similar fate. “Harvest is on average 10 days earlier than usual and yields are down,” he said.

How much yields will be down this year as a total is still to be determined, but anecdotally growers and winemakers have been estimating 25 to 50 percent and, in some extreme cases, 100 percent in certain vineyards. Winemakers Claire Villars-Lurton and Gonzague Lurton of Trinité Estate in Chalk Hill—who also happen to own a handful of chateaus in Bordeaux—say they had initially tried to source from a Sonoma Valley vineyard, but it will yield nothing this year.

With the help of social media, winemakers all over the state informed customers and colleagues of their harvest progress. St. Helena’s El Molino Winery wrote to customers, “What a vintage! Not picking a grape in September feels a little strange! Is it the #newnormal or perhaps #augustisthenewseptember,” reporting a  short heat spell followed by below-average temperatures, with a drop in some yields as high as 40 percent.

Meanwhile, winemaker Bryan Kane (of Howell Mountain Vineyards, Vie and Sol Rouge) chimed in, explaining what early harvesting means for grapes. “If the grapes had enough time to hang and fully ripen on the vine, harvesting early has no negative effects on grapes,” he says. “If the BRIX (the unit we use to measure the sugar content of grapes) gets too high before the fruit fully ripens, you can experience wine with higher than normal potential alcohol levels, gritty tannins from the skins and the seeds, and higher than normal acid levels.”

Things looked better on a vineyard-hopping field trip to many of Andy Beckstoffer’s most coveted spots in the Napa Valley with winemaker Kirk Venge.

Beckstoffer isn’t shy about irrigating to keep his vines healthy through the long growing season, and partly by luck, seems to have escaped most of the shatter being reported elsewhere. “Weaker vineyard sites with poor soil had more shatter,” Venge says. “It depended when flowers were blooming, as there was a cool snap that affected many of them. It’s weird weather at weird times.” The California drought is less a factor in this instance and more specifically about climate change and unpredictable weather patterns.

Though grapes looked good at a stop at Beckstoffer To Kalon in the heart of Oakville, Venge feels that he’d be picking there at the end of September instead of the usual mid-October time frame. He sources To Kalon grapes for several of his projects, including Macauley, Bacio Divino, B Cellars and Renteria.

Also in Napa Valley, winemaker Luc Morlet of Patel was making comparisons to 1997, in that 2015 is a warm year with smaller yields and an earlier than usual harvest, taking place a week or two earlier than usual.

Custom crush facilities are furiously busy, but dealing with a lot less fruit than 2012, 2013 or 2014; they won’t make as much money this year. Nor will growers—who sell by the ton—nor pickers, who typically get paid by the bin but are having to traverse over a greater acreage of space to fill each bin.

According to The Western Farm Press, which looks at a larger swath of California, “mid-season bunch counts had led many observers to expect another sizeable crop this season following three straight years of unusually high production.” In the report, Glenn Proctor, a partner with wine and grape brokerage firm Ciatti Company from San Rafael, California, says this year’s crop looked to be lighter than expected, as much as 30 percent from last year in the Central Valley, the heart of California grape production. That said, compared to the high production of the last three years, 2015 could actually be “historically normal” in comparison, even with a “lighter-than-usual crop.” Proctor also pointed out that bulk wine inventories could make up for any of this year’s shortfall, “strengthening the industry by bringing grape supply and demand more in balance.”

So good news or bad news for California? Depends where you stand and how much 2012, 2013 and 2014 you have in the inventory pipeline, as well as what level of wine you’re trying to achieve. The unequivocal good news is that despite the lower yields this year, the quality is reportedly high, something we all have to look forward to a year or so from now.

A Guide to California's Russian River Valley

Published on September 11, 2015
Topics: California, Editor Columns, News and Trends
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email: vboone@wineenthusiast.net




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