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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 2:21 am | Fair 46º


Santa Barbara County’s Wine Grape Harvest Finishing with Lighter Yields, But Solid Quality

Winemakers talk about the impacts of wind, rain and heatwaves on this year's crop harvest

Justin Charbonneau of Temperance Cellars examines a bin of petit verdot grapes waiting to be crushed and destemmed Wednesday at Dascomb Cellars in Lompoc, where he also works as assistant winemaker. Click to view larger
Justin Charbonneau of Temperance Cellars examines a bin of petit verdot grapes waiting to be crushed and destemmed Wednesday at Dascomb Cellars in Lompoc, where he also works as assistant winemaker. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

In late August, the timing that many winemakers now call the “new normal,” Santa Barbara County’s pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc grapes were maturing and harvest was
smoothly underway.

During the growing season, producers recalled, frost risks were minimal, but wind, rain and cooler temperatures during vines’ bloom time led to shatter, which means smaller and fewer
clusters per grape vine.

And then came Labor Day weekend, when daytime temperatures soared above 100 degrees across the Santa Ynez Valley and westward to the cooler-climate Sta. Rita Hills and Lompoc.

Record-setting heat continued for days.

While early September heat is common, this year’s spike was unusual in that temperatures remained into the mid-80s overnight. Winemakers watched and worried as the heat forced up grapes’ brix (sugar) levels while optimal maturity was still weeks away in some cases.

“At midnight one night I was doing punch downs on grapes we’d already brought into the winery in Santa Maria, and it was 85 degrees outside,” said winemaker Will Henry, who co-owns
Lumen Wines with fellow winemaker Lane Tanner.

“That heat was unprecedented within the last five years.”

While brix levels rose, the days and nights of unrelenting heat caused grapes’ acidity levels to “drop out fast,” Henry and other producers said.

“The heat did affect the acidity in the grapes,” said Karen Steinwachs, general manager and winemaker at Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard.

“Normally, even with heat spikes, it gets cold at night so the acids don’t respire. This one was unusual in that the nights were also warm, so our (region’s) renowned acidity lost a bit of brightness.”

Since the hot weather increased grapes’ brix levels, some producers chose to pick sooner rather than later to avoid possible dehydration in the fruit.

“We picked about half of our fruit during the heat wave,” said Tara Gomez, winemaker for Kitá Wines, owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

“The heat wave that pushed through the end of August, beginning of September, had a lot to do with the accumulation of sugar during the last leg of fruit ripening.”

Kita Wines’ winemaker Tara Gomez pauses Wednesday while punching down fermenting cabernet sauvignon grapes harvested from Camp 4 Vineyards. Click to view larger
Kita Wines’ winemaker Tara Gomez pauses Wednesday while punching down fermenting cabernet sauvignon grapes harvested from Camp 4 Vineyards.  (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

During a more normal growing season, harvest starts “generally slow and easy, but with the heat spike during Labor Day and that entire week, we battled high temperatures that broke records
and didn’t seem to want to cool,” Gomez noted.

When the heat wave broke, tropical moisture followed in its wake. Parts of the country received up to an inch of rain over one evening and into the following day, and temperatures cooled.

The pace of ripening slowed to a crawl or stopped, and in some cases, brix levels plummeted, meaning grapes were suddenly not mature enough to pick.

“Sugars dropped too low,” Henry recalled. Had he and Tanner harvested then, the result would have been wine that was “off balance” with too little alcohol in the finished product — 19 or 20
percent, he said.

Conditions such as these give winemakers pause: Do we pick or do we wait? Sometimes, producers do a bit of both, and later blend the lots to even out sugars and acid.

Justin Charbonneau, who founded Temperance Cellars in 2012, said he opted to bring in his pinot noir grapes from Rio Vista Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills ahead of the September heat spike.

That was a week or two sooner than prior years’ harvests, but the “sugars and the pH levels were good,” he recalled.

Charbonneau, assistant winemaker for Lompoc’s Dascomb Cellars, grew Temperance Cellars from a debut of just 70 cases to 350 with the current vintage, he said. As a UCSB graduate of
music and history, he named his label for Lompoc’s historical temperance colony, which was founded in 1874.

As September stretched on, Charbonneau and the others watched temperatures stabilize and grapes continue to mature at a steady pace.

By this week, mid-October, most grapes still on the vines are the later-to-ripen Bordeaux varietals such as malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

During the past week, overnight temperatures dropped to the high 30s, meaning those harvesting in the wee hours of the mornings were “freezing our tushies off,” said Steinwachs.

Addressing the current vintage’s yields, the winemakers agreed that 2017’s tonnage numbers are down compared to last year’s — although 2016 was considered a bumper crop following several
smaller-yield years.

In general, “our yields were a little lower, except for the grenache,” Henry said. “Pinot noir and chardonnay levels were about 30 percent lower than last year’s.”

Gomez agreed, detailing how conditions affected the final yields.

“This 2017 vintage showed slightly lower yields in comparison to last year, due to the wind and rain during bloom, which led to shatter,” she said. During the 2016 growing season, “we had
favorable weather during bloom, and in 2015, conditions were similar to 2017, which also led to lower yields.”

In a Sept. 6 story for Ag Alert, a weekly newspaper for California agriculture, writer Steve Adler noted that the consensus among growers and wine grape business executives is that the 2017
grape crop will come in at slightly below normal. Yet while the yield is less, the overall quality appears to be excellent, he wrote.

The 2016 grape crush totaled 4.2 million tons, up nearly 10 percent from the previous year, and preliminary reports reveal that the current tonnage should exceed 4 million tons, according to Adler. 

As far as when the 2017 harvest started, compared to prior years: “With the 2015 vintage, because we had lower yields, we picked about a week earlier than this year. As for the 2016
vintage, we had higher grape yields than in 2015 and 2017, but a more normal weather pattern that led us to harvesting about two weeks later,” Gomez explained.

This year, Henry said, he and Tanner started harvesting slightly later than they did last year. 

Typically, the pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot grigio grapes the two source ripen about the same time, but this year, “the pinot noir and chard were slightly later.”

Steinwachs started harvesting on Aug. 30, the same date as in 2016, she said. In 2015, the first grapes were picked on Aug. 27 and the last on Oct. 27, and the harvest of 2016 ended Oct. 24.

“This year feels like it will never end, but it likely will, around the end of October,” she said.

“This seems to be the ‘new normal,’ whereas when I first started at Buttonwood (in 2007), we didn’t even start picking until late September.”

An issue that continues to threaten Santa Barbara County viticulturists is the labor shortage.

Steinwachs noted that Buttonwood “has suffered with labor issues all year, not just due to immigration issues — the economy in Mexico is improving in addition to Trump — but also from the berry people” cutting into winemakers’ labor pools.

“We have been lucky to have a lot of our harvest crew return this year, which is mostly ladies who are awesome,” she continued. “We pick at 4 a.m., so they are done and on their way home
or to other jobs by 10 a.m.”

Since the bulk of Lumen Wines’ production is chardonnay and pinot noir, Henry said that “we pick slightly earlier and that helps us, labor wise,” as the demand for crews is less early in the season.

While “farm labor in general has been a struggle over the past couple of years in California, we also see the effect of it here in Santa Barbara County, but it’s not at the severe stage yet, at least
for us,” Gomez said.

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

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