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California wine harvest: Smaller crush, high quality

Winemakers at a recent Wine Institute press conference in San Francisco gave their assessments of the earlier-than- normal growing season, region by region.

In view of some 40,000 new acres of bearing vineyards and high inventories already throughout California wineries, several said they welcomed the shorter crop and some said quality compares with the 1997 vintage.

The industry earlier girded itself for as much as 500,000 tons more than the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s harvest-end estimate. Even so, a global sea of surplus wine awaits navigation in the coming months.

Cal Dennison, senior winemaker at Guinness UDV Wines, San Francisco, said grapes in Lodi and the Sacramento Valley, where crops were shorter after a hot spell in May and June, were harvested rapidly and the wines are likely to win many awards.

Redwood Valley’s Gregory Graziano, owner of Domaine Saint Gregory, said overplanting has occurred in Mendocino and Lake counties and oversupplies of grapes have toppled prices. However, the third-generation grower-vintner added, new acreage of Rhone and other varieties are "a real bright spot" for Mendocino County.

For Monterey County, Chris Glynn, grower relations representative at Gallo’s Anapamu Cellars, gave the year high marks for Chardonnay, as well as red varieties, because of longer hang-time for complete maturity as sugars accumulated.

New vineyards

Glynn said several new vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Mouvedre are coming on-line this year and next, especially in the southern part of the county.

Napa Valley growers coped with challenges of short rainfall in the winter and spring, followed by a warm March and damaging frost in April, according to Richard Ward, partner at Saintsbury, Napa. Some vineyards lost half their crop, but a slow growth period later promised balanced components in the wines.

Ward, a specialist in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, said the area’s whites "are precociously aromatic and intense while the reds are concentrated in color, tannin, and flavor and destined for graceful long lives."

Valerie Vanni, owner of Solis Winery at Gilroy, said the San Francisco Bay region, where growers cultivate improved relations with a surging urban population, saw cool weather in September and October that promoted average yields but "better-than-normal" quality.

Canandaigua’s Mark Gabrielli at Madera said an April frost, the first in years, in the San Joaquin Valley thinned an average crop to less than normal, but later weather fostered small berries, packed with flavors, tannins, and color.

Harvest was early, and many varieties matured simultaneously, challenging winery efforts to conserve limited energy. In addition to on-farm energy-saving innovations, quality-conscious valley growers concentrated on water and canopy management.

From the 2,000- to 3,000-foot elevation Sierra Foothills, Edgar Coulson of Coulson Eldorado Winery at Camino said harvest was two weeks early, and dry-farmed vineyards yielded 10 percent to 25 percent less.

The crop formed high sugar, high acid, and low pH, but longer hang time moderated acid levels as mature flavors developed. Winemaker consensus, he added, is that early varieties are average and later varieties are superior.

Sonoma County yields

Yields in Sonoma County slipped about 10 percent after one of the driest seasons in memory, Laurence Sterling, partner in Iron Horse Vineyards at Sebastopol, told the gathering. Fruit, however, flowed into the crushers evenly and in good condition.

Sonoma County growers, mindful of preserving the long-range viability of the their industry, continued to diligently apprise their urban neighbors of vineyard practices.

The earlier-than-normal harvest on the South Central Coast saw growers, keen on energy conservation and wine quality, employing deficit irrigation to manipulate berry size for intensity of color and flavor. Don Ackerman, viticulturist at Meridian Vineyards at Paso Robles, said the techniques, although they limit yield, are pleasing to both growers and vintners.

From Temecula, the largest of Southern California’s five viticultural areas, Peter Poole, president of Mount Palomar Winery, brought good news that several of his colleagues rate wine quality as the best they’ve seen in 15 years. Practices such as cover crops, foliar nutrient spraying, and leaf pulling are credited for the gains.

Rallying against losses to glassy-winged sharpshooters and Pierce’s Disease, Temecula growers also lost traditional winery markets as buyers rejected the certification process of the bulk grape movement protocol required to ship grapes outside the area.

In response, said Poole, growers are catering to the quality needs of local vintners to hold some outlets for their grapes. Bulk wine production and custom crushing and pressing have picked up as a result.

Further, Poole noted, some relief from the insect and the deadly disease it vectors has been achieved after a two-year campaign. The insect’s populations are low, and research trials have been moved elsewhere.

Treatment of targeted citrus groves has eliminated the need to ground-spray vineyards, and native parasitic wasps have "made a large impact on sharpshooters," he said.

Wasp value question

The outcome of releases of imported wasps released by the University of California, Riverside, however, remains to be seen.

California’s 847 commercial wineries, predominantly family-owned and operated businesses, shipped 445 million gallons to domestic and foreign consumers in 2000.

That year California sales of 393 million gallons accounted for 70 percent of the total of 565 million gallons of domestic and foreign wines consumed in the United States.

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