Wednesday, October 17 , 2018, 8:33 pm | Fair 62º


Laurie Jervis: Santa Barbara County Winemakers Delighted With 2016 Grape Harvest

Yields are up from the slim pickings of 2015; experts say early pickings may be the 'new normal'

Syrah grapes sourced from another vineyard wait to be processed at Lafond Winery & Vineyards in early October. Click to view larger
Syrah grapes sourced from another vineyard wait to be processed at Lafond Winery & Vineyards in early October.  (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

Most of the winemakers in Santa Barbara County are done or nearly so with the 2016 harvest, and are delighted that grape yields are up from the slim pickings of 2015.

As with the two prior years, another dry and warm growing season pushed grape varietals used for sparkling wines to ripen as early as late July. In the county’s coolest appellations, grapes harvested for still wines started to reach maturity around mid-to-late August.

The pace of the current harvest was less frantic than that during the prior two years, several winemakers noted.

They are lauding another quality year of grapes — and reveling in the fact that there were more of them. What 2015 lacked in volume, this year’s crop restored, with the yield as much as doubled in some cases.

At Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard in the Los Olivos District appellation, Karen Steinwachs, longtime winemaker and general manager, estimated that the 2016 tonnage would be 140 tons of fruit, up from 67 tons last year.

Buttonwood’s estate vines, which she termed “old but healthy,” would likely average 3 tons per acre this vintage, Steinwachs said. 

Following the scant harvest in 2015, where yields were down across the board, “we’re back to normal, volume wise,” she said.

This year’s yields were such that Steinwachs added a second rosé to Buttonwood’s lineup to bolster production.

Buttonwood’s first grapes were harvested on Aug. 30, she said. By Oct. 3, the only estate fruit still on the vine was grenache, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, which Steinwachs expected would be ready around Halloween. 

While Steinwachs handles estate fruit for Buttonwood’s wines, producers without land can be at the whim of the grape market, where both demand and prices per ton or acre can fluctuate. 

Winemaker Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines produces Rhone grape-varietal wines sourced from vineyards scattered throughout the county. As California’s five-year drought continues to jeopardize crop yields, Schaffer has seen his per-ton grape prices increase. 

“I am now paying 30- to 50-percent more for certain grape varietals from specific vineyards than I was four years ago,” he said. 

Eric Mohseni, director of winemaking and vineyard operations at Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards on Foxen Canyon Road, recalled having gotten calls as early as January of this year from producers seeking grape contracts in the wake of 2015’s low yields. 

Zaca Mesa kicked off harvest Aug. 18 with estate viognier, and finished on Oct. 6, Mohseni said. For comparison, Aug. 18 was a tad later than in the prior three years, when “we started picking during the first week on August.” 

During the past three years, timing has definitely shifted to picking sooner, he said, adding that “early harvests might be the new norm,” likely the result of climate change.

As had Steinwachs, Mohseni voiced appreciation for a slower pace this vintage. “We did have time to catch our breath this year … we had a couple of days that we did not pick.” 

Weather-wise, this year was an even keel, although it packed a late-season heat spike around the weekend of Sept. 24 and 25 that stressed some grapes still on the vine. Triple-digit heat so late in the year “is tough to deal with, because the grapes’ sugar levels don’t drop back down like they do with early-season heat,” Mohseni explained. 

Over in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, temperatures also reached the triple digits that late-September weekend — but most of the grapes grown in that cooler region were already off the vine.

At Sanford Winery & Vineyards on Santa Rosa Road, most of the estate pinot noir was harvested before the chardonnay, which is “normal for us,” said Steve Fennell, general manager and winemaker. 

On Oct. 10, he emailed that while “the past few weeks have been warm, the critical months of August and September were cooler than the past two vintages and have produced stunning results.” 

Dan Kessler uses a forklift to dump syrah grapes from a bin into a de-stemmer at Lafond Winery & Vineyards in Buellton earlier this month. Kessler, assistant winemaker at Lafond, also co-owns Kessler-Haak Vineyard & Wines with his wife, Ellen Haak. Click to view larger
Dan Kessler uses a forklift to dump syrah grapes from a bin into a de-stemmer at Lafond Winery & Vineyards in Buellton earlier this month. Kessler, assistant winemaker at Lafond, also co-owns Kessler-Haak Vineyard & Wines with his wife, Ellen Haak. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

He termed the 2016 vintage a good one, “both in terms of yield and quality. We did have higher yields in 2016 versus 2015, but both vintages were moderate. We find that with our two estate vineyards (La Riconada and Sanford & Benedict), our yields don’t swing wildly year to year.”

Fennell also called the pace of this vintage “very favorable.”

Cooler weather in the second half of August and most of September allowed grapes to ripen slowly and evenly, “so we were able to bring in fruit when we determined it physiologically ready,” he wrote. “We never got behind, nor did we feel that we missed the mark, in terms of bringing in fruit that was overripe. We had six weeks of steady but not back-breaking work.”

In this, his 19th year of making wine, Kenneth “Joey” Gummere of Lompoc-based Transcendence Wines voiced a weather-related oddity: He said the grapes he had sourced from Ballard Canyon ripened at same time as those he sources from Happy Canyon, which meant he processed his 2016 pinot noir and syrah in the cellar simultaneously. 

Gummere said his yields of pinot noir were higher this year over last, but syrah totals were still down since the monster year of 2014. 

On the morning of Oct. 5, a clearly tired Dan Kessler, assistant winemaker at Lafond Winery & Vineyards, also on Santa Rosa Road, was working another seven-day week supervising the arrival of bins full of grenache and syrah sourced from other vineyards.

That day, Lafond was “80 percent done” with harvest, with the 90 available puncheons (80-gallon barrels) already in use, compared to the 40 that were used last year, he said.

At Kessler-Haak Vineyard on Highway 246, across the river from Lafond but also in the Sta. Rita Hills, the sole grapes still on the vine were syrah grapes Kessler uses for his own label. He estimated that he would pick those in mid-to-late October, and then, he’d be done with 2016 grapes for the label he owns with his wife, Ellen Haak.

The first pick at his estate vineyard was on Sept. 6, and it was pinot noir sourced for another wine label, the Ojai Vineyard. Kessler said he harvested his own pinot noir on Sept. 17, about a week later than last year.

He called the grape volume at his vineyard “two times” that of last year’s.

The first rain of the season that recently fell throughout the county signaled that fall is settling in, and that the end of harvest looms. While the rain reduced the dust in vineyard rows, it streaked the dust covering the trucks transporting vineyard and winery workers to and from their labors.

— 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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