All in all, the 2014 wine grape crop was a good one for the Clarksburg AVA and Yolo County wine grape grower Tim Waits.
Yields from Waits 75 acres of Pinot Noir and 60 acres of Petite Sirah at his Lake Winchester Vineyard located near Clarksburg, Calif. were down about 15 percent below average.
This was not unexpected, he says, given the large size of the two previous crops and the tendency of vines to produce fewer grapes as they recover following a year or two of higher production.
However, sugar levels were higher.
“Everything had brix readings of 26º to 27º,” says Waits who planted his first vines in 2004.
“My winery customers and I thought these were the best grapes we ever harvested.”
He attributes this, in part, to fewer clusters and smaller-than-usual berries on each cluster.
“The ratio of skin to juice was a little higher which made for more inky dark and rich-tasting wine,” Waits explained. “Also, with a smaller crop, the grapes ripened earlier providing more time for flavors to develop before harvest.”
The 2015 season will be the first one he will harvest from the 38 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 2013. In this block, the trellis was designed to take advantage of the natural vigor of the site by having two cordons and much closer plant spacing than his earlier Pinot Noir and Petite Sirah plantings.
“By having more than one cordon, we think we can transfer the plant’s energy more directly to the fruit,” Waits explains. “We will also limit the clusters to one per shoot to get the highest quality fruit.”
He added, “This trellis allows for a better canopy and more fruit on the vine. In addition to higher yields, it should increase grape quality.”
In response to strong demand from wineries, he plans to add another 35 acres of Petite Sirah vines to his operation next year.
A cooler AVA
In November 2013, Waits finished his third, two-year term as president of the Clarksburg Wine Growers and Vintners Association. Association members’ vineyards represent about 8,000 acres of the total, 18,000 acres included in the Clarksburg AVA, which is located in the California Delta about a 20-minute drive southwest of downtown Sacramento.
One of the appellation’s distinguishing features reflects the influence of marine weather patterns from nearby San Francisco Bay on the California Delta. It produces cool breezes which help lower the average temperature during the day.
As the day turns into evening, Waits says the cooling continues more quickly than any other area in the Sacramento Valley.
“Generally, we’re about four to five degrees cooler than Sacramento and about 10-20 degrees cooler than the Central Valley,” the grower said.
“It’s more like the Napa and Sonoma areas. This enables us to grow a wider variety of grapes than many places. For example, it’s very difficult to grow top quality Pinot Noir in warmer climates including the Central Valley. However, here we produce grapes for some very good Pinot Noir wines.”
Prior to establishing his vineyard 11 years ago, Waits tasted a broad range of wines produced from grapes grown in the Clarksburg AVA to select the varieties he wanted to grow.
“By far, the best in my mind was Petite Sirah,” he recalled. “Since I also enjoy Pinot Noir wines, I planted some of those vines under a planting contract.
“Later, another winery wanted to contract for Clarksburg Cabernet Sauvignon. Everyone seems to love the varietal, and I was ready to undertake the challenge of growing a world-renowned varietal.”
His varietal selections have proven well-founded. All his grapes are grown under contract, except for a few tons he saves from each block for vineyard promotional use each year.
Waits says the demand for Pinot Noir remains strong while the demand for Petite Sirah regularly exceeds supply.
Cultural, conservation practices
In some places of the Clarksburg area, the vine mealybug appears from time to time, as do leaf hoppers controlled with vegetable oil sprays as needed.
Favorable weather last year helped minimize disease pressure in his fields. Walking the rows several times a week allows him and his vineyard manager to jump on any signs of diseases before it becomes a problem.
A strict regime for controlling powdery mildew using timely applications of foliar sprays and sulfur dust using the Powdery Mildew Index is critical to vine health. The index assesses risks of the disease based on air temperature and spraying frequency needed to spray to protect the vines.
After each year’s harvest, Waits plants a blend of rye grasses and peas as a cover crop in his fields. The cover crops are disked in the spring to add nutrients and improve soil structure.
“An annual cover crop helps provide vines with the energy to produce even better fruit,” Waits said. “It should help to raise levels of manganese which have been low.”
The cover crop supplements his drip applications of commercial sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and foliar micronutrient sprays.
Negotiating a better deal
One of his primary goals as a grape grower is to secure a buyer for the crop before harvest. However, based on his experience in other industries, Waits is not convinced that conventional contract terms calling for a fixed price over a number of years is in a grower’s best interest.
“A long-term contract may seem like a good deal in the beginning, but it won’t necessarily be a good deal at the end,” he said.
“You’ll probably make a pretty good gross profit for the first few years of production. But, invariably, costs will continue to go up each and every year. Unless quality is sacrificed, profits in the later years are compromised.”
Avoiding this by relying only on short-term contracts is not the answer either, Waits contends.
“Then, you’re always out scrambling for buyers,” he said.
Strike a balance
“I’m suggesting that growers and wineries strike a balance between an agreeable price and the contract length. This means negotiating a contract that allows for some sort of escalation in the price of grapes to cover increased expenses or allows release without a penalty.”
Waits concluded, “You may not get exactly what you want but you should be able to compromise on a reasonable proposition.”
“It seems that wineries should want growers to make a fair living wage for producing the quality of grapes desired.”