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Laurie Jervis: Light But ‘Exceptional’ 2015 Vintage a Wrap for Santa Barbara County Winemakers

Drought conditions and warm weather cause another early harvest with smaller yields than usual

A fourth consecutive warm winter and drought conditions led to another early grape harvest throughout Santa Barbara County.
A fourth consecutive warm winter and drought conditions led to another early grape harvest throughout Santa Barbara County.  (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

In a typical year, harvest in Santa Barbara County begins around late August or early September. But the 2015 vintage has been anything but typical, grape growers and winemakers say.

On average, this very week — mid October — is the height of harvest season. This year, however, only a few very-late-to-ripen grape varietals remain on vines in the Santa Ynez Valley, and most winemakers’ wines have been barreled down for at least one month.

The downside: The 2015 crop was very light, down an average of 40 to 70 percent across the board, especially when compared to the record-heavy grape yields of 2012, 2013 and 2014.

But the supply, while light, contained a silver lining, said winemakers: The smaller clusters and berries produced less volume, but one with intense flavors due to the reduced skin-to-juice ratio found in smaller grapes.

“The yields are tiny, resulting in very concentrated fruit. Everyone across the board will see a lift in quality,” Ernst Storm, owner/winemaker for Storm Wines and Notary Public Wines, told me in mid-September as he was wrapping up his pinot noir production. 

This year was the fourth consecutive drought year, and like the other three before it, featured an unusually warm and dry winter, winemakers noted.

“These warm and dry winters have progressively resulted in earlier and earlier starts to the growing season, along with progressively earlier harvests. On average, about one week per year — meaning we are now starting (and finishing) harvest about a month earlier than usual,” said winemaker Brandon Sparks-Gillis in an e-mail to me earlier this year in which he compared 2015 to prior year’s conditions.

He and brothers John and Steve Dragonette are the winemaking team at Dragonette Cellars in Buellton.

Warm temperatures drove key water issues.

“Irrigation decisions were also extremely critical, as salt toxicity appeared in many vineyards and many growers were tempted (or even forced) to water during inopportune times to keep that at bay,” Sparks-Gillis wrote. “In each of these three vintages (2012-2014), the weather during harvest was ideal, but the pace was accelerated as multiple varietals ripened at the same time.” 

On Oct. 7, about 20 winemakers and their cellar crew workers gathered to celebrate the near-end of harvest with a taco and beer lunch on the grounds of Melville Winery on Highway 246 in Lompoc. Winemaker Greg Brewer and proprietor Chad Melville greeted guests, who cheerfully congratulated one another on another successful vintage.

That day, winemaker Rick Longoria marveled about how quickly work progressed from harvest to barrel and tank. From his first vintage in 1982 until this one, he said he’s never wrapped up his harvest/cellar work before September’s end. 

“I’ve always wanted to travel back East to see the fall foliage, and this year, I could actually go,” he said with a chuckle.

In the Santa Maria Valley, winemakers Clarissa Nagy of C Nagy Wines and Riverbench Vineyard & Winery, and Wes Hagen, consulting winemaker/brand ambassador for J. Wilkes Wine, described a similar growth season, one that was warm and dry, but with wind during bloom, which produced light clusters with smaller berries — but exceptional quality.

Nagy produces syrah, viognier, pinot blanc and pinot noir for C Nagy. When we spoke on Sept. 16, she recounted how her 2015 viognier had been barreled by Sept. 11, and her pinot noir and pinot blanc at the end of August. 

“Last year, I had (just) picked (those varietals) by then,” she said. In contrast, both were tucked away in her cellar by the same date this year.

While Nagy estimated her yields were 20 to 35 percent less this vintage over last, she emphasized that the fruit is “amazingly good,” and that ““everyone will wish they had more” of it.

Clarissa Nagy of C Nagy Wines at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria with a fermentation bin containing her 2015 Whitehawk Vineyard Syrah. While yields were way down over recent years’ tonnage, the quality of the recent vintage’s grapes is “exceptional,” 
she said. Click to view larger
Clarissa Nagy of C Nagy Wines at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria with a fermentation bin containing her 2015 Whitehawk Vineyard Syrah. While yields were way down over recent years’ tonnage, the quality of the recent vintage’s grapes is “exceptional,” she said. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

The continuing drought weighed heavy on everyone, even given the increasing likelihood of El Nino in the coming winter.

“Yes, 2015 was the year the drought finally caught up with us,” said Sparks-Gillis in an e-mail on Oct. 1.“We were anticipating low-yield conditions in 2013 and 2014, but they never arrived, and, in fact, the yields were unexpectedly up in those years. 

“The other defining difference was that 2015 featured a cool, windy (even a bit wet) May and early June, which negatively impacted (fruit) set in many vineyards. The years 2012-2013-2014 were each more similar than different — nearly perfect growing seasons,” he said.

Thus, while drought absolutely impacted yields this year, “the hardest-hit vineyards were also heavily impacted by shatter from poor conditions (cool, windy) during flowering,” Sparks-Gillis said. Syrah was especially prone to shatter.

“In our vineyards, the hardest-hit was syrah, particularly at John Sebastiano Vineyard (in the Sta. Rita Hills), where our yields were down 70 percent from our (already low) target.” 

In addition, Dragonette’s haul from from Radian Vineyard, also in the Sta. Rita Hills, was about 30 percent below average, particularly in the wind-prone blocks, he noted, and the winery’s sauvignon blanc yield (from Grassini and Vogelzang vineyards in the Happy Canyon AVA) was down about 40 percent.

However, the timing of Dragonette’s first 2015 pick wasn’t much ahead that of last year’s: “Harvest started with sauvignon blanc at Vogelzang Vineyard on Aug. 4 (versus Aug. 9 last year), with for pinot noir, on Aug. 6 (versus Aug. 11 last year),” he wrote.

A fifth year of drought in 2016 will force cover crops, which are planted late in the year to attract beneficial insects and to nourish vineyard soils, to struggle for survival, Nagy said. 

Also of key concern is the parched soil: “The salinity in the soil will build up,” she said. “I hope we get enough rain to flush out the soils.”

Hagen agreed: “The drought and salt deposits at root levels have caught up with us, and we really, really need some rain.”

And from Sparks-Gillis: “We critically need a high rainfall year to cleanse the soils, salt buildup in particular.” 

Hagen described overall yields as “30 to 40 percent off the last few years, with some vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills struggling to get to 2 tons per acre.”

Like the others, Hagen also heralded this vintage’s quality: “Expect wines of great depth and concentration. (This year), we didn’t have the same heat wave as we did in 2010, but we did get some hot days, so the closest comparison I’ll draw is between flavor profiles of 2010 and 2013.  Buy early, not much wine out there!”

Via a Sept. 14 e-mail, winemaker Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood Farm & Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley called her current yields “disappointingly short — I estimate about 60 percent of the 2012 and 2013 tonnages, mostly due to very small cluster weights and some shatter.”

Cabernet Franc, one of Buttonwood’s staples, was still ripening away on the vine in mid September, and when I spoke with Steinwachs again on Oct. 9, it and a couple of other varietals were holding out — close, but still not quite mature enough to pick, she said.

All five blocks of Buttonwood’s Sauvignon Blanc, another varietal for which the vineyard is known, had all been picked by the time Steinwachs e-mailed in mid September.

 “We picked it a bit early to maintain acidity and freshness. Just wish there were more of it,” she wrote.

Buttonwood sources its chardonnay and pinot noir from Hibbits Ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills. 

This year, the chardonnay there ripened sooner, “much closer to the pinot noir than normal; the vineyard was all picked out by the end of August,” Steinwachs noted.

Sara Gummere, owner with her husband Joey of Lompoc-based Transcendence Wines, also spoke of a light yield, and of being finished sooner than any vintage in recent memory.

“For sure, this harvest came early, and as I am sure you have heard, the yields have been lower than usual. However, the vintage is still shaping up to be a great year.  The fruit looks really good despite the low yields,” she wrote in Sept. 14 e-mail.

As had Dragonette’s Sparks-Gillis, Sara Gummere singled out syrah as one of the grape varietals “hardest hit” by drought conditions. “Everything else, although low, was within reasonable yields … Usually we make about 300 to 400 cases of syrah, but this year it will be more like 100 cases,” she said. Transcendence produces about 3,000 cases of wine each year.

And low yields were not limited to Santa Barbara County.

Winemaker Jason Haas, partner and general manager at Paso Robles’ Tablas Creek Vineyard, wrote on his blog Oct. 6 that “ it is clear our hopes for near-normal yields on our late grapes like roussanne and mourvedre will not come to pass. 

“They may be down a little less than the 50 percent reduction we saw in early grapes like syrah, vermentino and viognier, but they'll still be down something near 40 percent,” Haas wrote.

“This will make the 2015 harvest our smallest ever in yield per acre, and our smallest estate harvest in tonnage since frost-diminished 2001, when we had 45 fewer acres in production.”

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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