Winegrape growers face unusual season
The 2020 vintage has begun making its way to the crusher, navigating a thicket of extreme heat, wildfire smoke, memories of last year's winegrape glut—plus a pandemic.
In San Joaquin County, sixth-generation farmer John Shinn said the oversupply of grapes came down to three factors: vineyards capable of producing 10 to 15 tons per acre; wine sales ranging from flat to 2% growth before the pandemic; and cheaper imports thanks to a strong dollar and weaker foreign currency. The oversupply forced him to forgo harvesting some of his 2019 crop.
"Last year, we had to actually hang some grapes, and just about every other grower in the Lodi area I talked to last year had to hang anything from 10 tons to several thousand tons of grapes," Shinn said.
As sundown neared one night last week, Shinn's crew ventured into a zinfandel vineyard with a mechanical harvester, prepared to work into the early hours of the morning.
"These grapes that we're picking tonight are actually going into a white-zin program," Shinn said. "I was just happy as all get out to get them sold this year, so we didn't have to watch them hang again."
Amy Blagg, Lodi District Grape Growers Association executive director, said farmers in the area report average to slightly below average yields so far.
"That can help to bring the winegrape supply back into balance," Blagg said.
Statewide, about 3.9 million tons of winegrapes were crushed in 2019, down from nearly 4.3 million tons the year before, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. This year, California farmers are predicted to produce about 4 million tons of winegrapes, according to an estimate from Allied Grape Growers.
"We had a large crop in 2018, which created an abundant inventory of wine on the market that carried over into 2019," said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. "Consumer demand for wine had leveled off, and then COVID-19 hit—and we all know about the disruptions associated with that."
Jeff Bitter, president of Allied Grape Growers, said he thinks the recent past foretells the near future for wine sales.
"I anticipate continued market channel shifts like we've seen, where consumers are buying more in grocery stores and consuming at home, and buying less out on premise, whether it's at the restaurant or in tasting rooms or at events," Bitter said.
As the harvest season began, lightning strikes ignited wildfires across wide swaths of Northern California. That raised concerns grapes might acquire an off-taste, which can occur when compounds from wildfire smoke insinuate themselves into the vine and the grape. Aguirre said wine made from affected grapes "has an ashtray taste."
Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, noted the fires struck near the beginning of harvest, rather than at the end as in the past few years.
"We did have an early onset of harvest all through the year," Kruse said during a webinar last week updating the status of the Sonoma crop. "We were already about 10-plus days into harvest when we first had those lightning strikes that resulted in fires all over California."
About 15% of the 2020 Sonoma vintage was already in when the Walbridge Fire broke out in the hills west of Healdsburg, she added, and she said many vineyards were nowhere close to the blaze.
"If there is any impact (from smoke), it's really early to know," Kruse said.
Aguirre said his organizaiton has been "actively pushing and supporting efforts in Congress to fund additional research on how smoke exposure can affect grape quality and wine quality."
"There's a desperate need for more research that allows us to predict effectively the risk of problems and then, where problems arise, how can we remedy those defects related to smoke exposure?" he said.
Bitter said the sheer scope of the fires led to a backlog at testing labs. Turnaround time has gone from two days to more than three weeks, he said.
"The problem with that is that you often have to make a decision about harvest within three weeks," Bitter said, noting that buyers want to obtain a sample and get results as close to harvest as possible.
Meanwhile, the grapes wait on the vine.
"Will the grapes hold up?" Bitter asked. "Will they be what the buyer originally intended them to be when they bought them, in terms of the correct brix and pH and acid and the phenolics that they want? Are they going to be able to be harvested at that optimum time?"
He said he believes the farmer should be able to harvest while testing is underway.
"It's not really fair to tell a grower that he can't harvest until those results come in, and by the way, when that day comes, that your grapes may be over the hill and then you still can't harvest," Bitter said.
Blagg said some wineries have been conducting smoke detection through microfermentation—making small batches of wine for a taste test—and said research into detection methods continues.
The mid-August heat wave accelerated some grapes, such as old-vine zinfandel, she said.
Kevin Steward, who manages vineyards in Amador and San Joaquin counties, started harvest late last week in a grenache vineyard in Amador County, which yielded 5.5 tons per acre—"a good crop for this area and our style of farming," he said.
The mid-August heat sent his vines into survival mode. In extreme heat, he said, "the vines aren't doing anything," in order to protect themselves, but that his vines had "held on well."
In the Lodi area, most harvest happens under the stars.
"The majority of our grapes are harvested by machine, and that is traditionally done at night," Blagg said. "The grapes are cooler; they are removed from the vine easier when it's cooler."
Shinn expressed optimism about the long-term outlook for the wine business.
"I think this year, with a lighter crop and hopefully if demand stays up, the Lodi area should be doing better, I'd say, in another year or two," he said. "That's my hope. Farmers, what we have is hope."
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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