Will Winter Rains Produce Vintage Crop?

SANTA ROSA, Calif.  (August 14, 2017) – Record winter rainfall, a mild spring, a scorching summer and a serious labor shortage are just some of the challenges Sonoma County winegrowers have experienced this year.  Being tested as never before, local winegrape farmers began the 2017 harvest for sparkling wines in some parts of Sonoma County last week with early expectations calling for a high-quality vintage crop of an average tonnage size.

“Though the year is barely half over, we have already witnessed many daunting challenges, but our farmers are amazingly resilient, they persevere and continue farming some of the world’s very best grapes,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.  She added, “There is great excitement throughout the County as activities pick up and the crush begins.”

The first quarter of the year saw a record rainfall hit the County with nearly 58 inches of precipitation falling in Santa Rosa, more than 70 inches throughout the County and rain reported for 21 of the 28 days of February. The rainfall filled the region’s reservoirs beyond their capacity, triggering flooding and landslides which closed numerous roads, inundated hundreds of acres of vineyards and saturated vines particularly along the lower Russian River. In addition, a tight labor supply, increased operating costs, proposed ground water regulations, urban encroachment and a host of local ordinances have had the attention of local winegrape farmers this year.

The long rainy season and mild spring resulted in above-average vegetative growth and vigor. The heavy rains left ample water deep in the soil, so vines were able to handle the subsequent heat waves.  When it came time for the bloom, conditions were ideal and most varietals set well.  With harvest still weeks away in most Sonoma County vineyards, here are some of the harvest reports from the front lines of some of our AVAs:

Russian River Valley:
The harvest of grapes for sparkling wines has begun.  Joe Dutton, co-owner of Dutton Ranch and Chairman of the Sonoma County Winegrowers reports that picking is underway for Pinot Noir for the Gloria Ferrer Sparkling program. The grape harvest each day will be hit and miss for the next ten days to two weeks, but then after that, harvesting will be all day, every day. We are looking forward to a nice harvest. At J Vineyards & Winery, traditionally one of the first wineries to harvest in Sonoma County, picking has also begun, according to Jim Collins, VP Premium Winegrowing and Grower Relations for E. & J. Gallo Winery.  The first grapes picked were Pinot Noir for J’s sparkling wine program.  Overall, the vines weathered the year’s climate extremes very well and everything is shaping up to be a high-quality vintage.

Dry Creek Valley:
Ned Neumiller, grower relations and viticulture manager at Seghesio Family Vineyards, reports that much of the current activity in the Dry Creek Valley is finishing up final canopy management and starting to ready the crop for harvest.  Vine vigor continues to be the largest issue which is made more problematic for some growers due to the lack of labor.  The start of the Zinfandel harvest in the upper Dry Creek Valley will begin during one of the first two weeks of September.  Overall, quality looks to be excellent for Zinfandel with normal yields anticipated.
Green Valley:In the Green Valley AVA, Dutton Ranch’s J. Alfred Steele reports that the harvest is running about 6-10 days later than last year but, given the big canopies from three months of storing carbs from the epic rains, the grapes could ripen quickly and the start of harvest may move up.  Right now veraison is on everywhere and it looks to be another great vintage.  Labor remains the biggest threat in the region this harvest season.

Alexander Valley:
Bret Munselle, a partner of Munselle Vineyards, expects the Alexander Valley harvest to begin between August 24th and the 28th.  The yield looks a little above average while the fruit looks great.  Cautious optimism is the current outlook.  Jim Rickards, owner of J. Rickards Vineyards, reports that the Malbec harvest should begin in late September, Petite Sirah in early October and the harvest will wrap up with Cabernet beginning mid- to late-October.  The vines appear to be doing well throughout the Alexander Valley with the heavy rains now providing vines with additional help in combatting recent heat waves.

Sonoma Valley:
With harvest still weeks away in the Sonoma Valley AVA, all blocks are at least 50% into veraison or well on their way to finishing.  Taylor Serres, of Serres Ranch, reports there was a late start to the season in Sonoma Valley due to the long winter which did leave ample moisture in the soil and paid dividends throughout the growing season. The other primary current challenge in the vineyards this year has been successfully managing mildew issues which have been experienced throughout Sonoma County.  Overall, the quality of grapes looks really good particularly the Bordeaux varieties.  Cluster counts appear to be similar to last year though Cabernet Franc seems lighter than last year. The one concern looking ahead is how fast and heavy the fruit will come in.

Follow the Harvest
If you want up-to-the-minute updates on Sonoma County’s harvest activities directly from our grape growers and wineries, the Sonoma County Winegrowers have created an online Harvest Tracker to help everyone stay informed on what’s happening in our vineyards and cellars. Visit the Sonoma County Winegrowers Harvest Page for the latest news and use the hashtag #SCHarvest on social media.