Tuesday, May 24 , 2016, 9:40 am | Partly Cloudy 61º

Santa Barbara County Grape Harvest Off to Record Early Start

Warm weather and low rainfall cited as sparkling, white wines lead the way

By Laurie Jervis, Contributing Writer |

A season of warm days and nights and record low rain has precipitated what many winemakers are calling the earliest Santa Barbara County wine grape harvest on record.

Warm January days, combined with vineyard soils already dry from lack of moisture in 2013, triggered early bud break in grape vines — in January, in some cases — easily two months earlier than average.

Soil warmth prompts metabolic growth, so the plants kicked into gear.

Viticulturists held their breath, fearful of March and April frosts that would decimate the tender green shoots, but the temperate spring morphed into a balmy summer.

While the bulk of the past two weeks' grape picks have been pinot noir and chardonnay earmarked for sparkling wines, some producers in Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, the county's warmest region, have started select harvests of sauvignon blanc, a grape picked early while its acidity levels are hearty.

Karen Steinwachs, winemaker for Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard in Solvang, has yet to harvest sauvignon blanc from the property's 11-acre block. But her pick date is looming.

On Aug. 6, Steinwachs sampled the sauvignon blanc and found it to be at 19 degrees brix, she said.

"That puts its harvest about three weeks out, which would be our earliest ever," she said, and would break Buttonwood's previous sauvignon blanc harvest record: Sept. 5, 2013.

Buttonwood sources pinot noir for its sparkling wine from Hibbits Ranch Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, and those grapes were harvested Aug. 5, another record early pick, Steinwachs noted.

Bird-netted rows of pinot noir grapes growing in Lindley Vineyard on the westernmost edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA near Lompoc are a sign of this year's early harvest. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

While Buttonwood's various red grape varietals have yet to complete veraison, "they're further along than they've ever been at this point," she said, and thus are likely to be harvested sooner rather than later unless temperatures cool significantly.

Laura Booras, general manager at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery in the Santa Maria Valley, said on Aug. 6 that crews would begin picking chardonnay for sparkling wine at midnight that day, and start with the pinot noir, also for sparkling wine, on Monday, Aug. 11. 

"Last year, we started picking for sparkling wine on Sept. 7, so this year we're exactly one month early," Booras said. As with sauvignon blanc, "'sparklers' need acid, so we're picking for acidity now."

The estate pinot noir and chardonnay grapes Riverbench will harvest for its still wines need a bit more time, roughly one and a half to two weeks, she predicted.

Out on the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, winds are steady, fog consistent, and the average daytime temperatures among the lowest in the county.

Yet even the winemakers around Lompoc foresee harvesting up to three weeks sooner than in 2013.

Just east of Lompoc, Jake Lindley, owner and winemaker of Lindley Wines with his wife, Francesca "Frankie" Lindley, said his pinot noir bud break occurred on Feb. 5 of this year.

Lindley Vineyards, planted to pinot noir and chardonnay, is located on Sweeney Road and is the westernmost in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

On Aug. 7, Lindley estimated the couple's estate pinot noir harvest will be earlier, "maybe two weeks ahead" of last year, when the couple started picking on Sept. 19 and continued over five days, he said.

The pinot noir growing on the northern edge of the hilly vineyard will likely mature soonest because those rows abut a neighboring property, creating a shelter from the relentless wind. 

"Right now, those grapes are tickling 20 brix, so we're looking at picking around the first of September," Lindley said. "The crop from those protected rows is looking really healthy and good."

Thanks to another warm, dry season, he anticipates a "huge" crop for 2014, more than double the eight tons the couple harvested from the 6.5-acre plot last year.

Further south on Sweeney Road but still within the AVA lies Cargasacchi Vineyard, where Mark Cargasacchi, owner and winemaker of Jalama Wines, sources family grapes for his "Carg" Pinot Noir.

Cargasacchi said he likely will pick pinot noir there by the end of August, which would make 2014's harvest "the earliest of 14 vintages from that vineyard," roughly three weeks earlier than previous years.

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected].

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