Light But High-Quality California Winegrape Harvest - It’s a stellar vintage for California vintners and growers.
The 2015 season produced an earlier, lighter crop than previous years, but grapes are excellent quality across the board.
Demand for north and central coast grapes was strong, with wineries out buying early and offering fair pricing with multiple-year contracts, according to Allied Grape Growers President Nat DiBuduo. “I believe that was because of the trends where consumers are feeling a little bit more confident in the economy,” he says. “They’re spending more money on their wine.”
However, Mother Nature didn’t do those growers any favors, as the crop was off by 20% to 25% for many varieties and by as much as 50% in cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.
Although grapes aren’t known for being alternate-bearing, DiBuduo says the large crops of 2012, 2013, and 2014 could have played a role in this year’s light crop. The drought is also a likely contributor. “We got enough water for the vines to survive, but probably not enough to pump up berries and grapes to make a bigger crop,” he says.
The crop was off slightly in the San Joaquin Valley, too, but growers there had bigger problems to face. Wineries just weren’t coming out to buy the grapes, DiBuduo says. “A lot of wineries had contracts with San Joaquin Valley growers that ended in 2014, and they never came back to renegotiate or buy those grapes,” he says.
The heavy crops of the last three years are partly to blame, with many wineries saying their tanks were still full, so they chose not to buy in 2015. “The wineries may have the luxury of doing that, but the grower doesn’t,” DiBuduo says. “That vine is going to produce a crop year after year – it doesn’t have the luxury of skipping a year.”
As a result, many grapes south of Lodi were sold at unsustainable prices. “It was not a good year in the San Joaquin Valley, which is normally the workhorse of the industry if you look at wines consumed,” DiBuduo notes.
Consumers are decreasing consumption of wines produced from these grapes – typically bottles $10 and under – while sales of $10 and above bottles are increasing. “You’re seeing a shift this year, and that’s good for the guys on the north and central coasts, but not the guys out in the San Joaquin Valley,” DiBuduo says, adding that importation of foreign wine also contributed to the lack of buying this year.
On the north coast, grape quality was exceptional, which DiBuduo says can be partly attributed to the light crop. Berries were smaller, which led to better coloring and likely higher Brix, as well. But he’s quick to note that there does not need to be a light crop to produce high-quality grapes, and that drought does not help improve quality. “There are no winners in a drought year,” he says. “It [drought] has the possibility of stressing the vines, and then you get a mixed bag in terms of what kind of quality you would get.”
Looking To The Future
DiBuduo says that, because of economic factors, some growers in the San Joaquin Valley have begun pulling out vines and even selling their land. He estimates that from the harvest of 2014 to the beginning of the 2015 harvest, about 35,000 acres of vines have been pulled out, about two-thirds of those being winegrapes. “The way it’s looking today, we’ll probably lose another 25,000 to 35,000 acres of winegrapes alone this coming year,” he adds. “They’re already starting to pull them out, and that’s because of the economics that’s driving it.”
Competitive crops – particularly nuts – seem like a better option to many of these growers. And with land prices at some of their highest levels, some growers see it as an opportunity to sell their land and get out of the business altogether.
Napa Valley Grapegrowers Report: Thoughts on the 2015 vintage
With the first Napa Valley grapes of 2015 picked on July 22, white grapes have come in fast and the red grapes are not far behind. Harvest crews in vineyards and wineries are already working long and hard to capture the essence of the vintage and to make the best wines possible. This is an appropriate time to speculate on what we can expect of the 2015 vintage.
Many factors shape wine-grape quality, including soils and the care and knowledge of grapegrowers and winemakers. The most important factor, the one most responsible for vintage variation and the one over which we have the least control, is the weather. We have great soils in Napa Valley and everyone working with grapes and wines is committed to excellence. Organizations such as the Napa Valley Grapegrowers keep us well informed about best practices for farming grapes of the highest quality. But weather? That’s the tough one.
Winter rains were erratic, with more rain falling in December than in the other winter months combined. January was dry — I recorded a mere 0.11 inches of rain at my Calistoga home — and warm. Soil temperatures climbed steadily from January on. The warm, dry weather led to an early budbreak, as much as three weeks earlier than normal in some places.
Spring frosts are always a concern for growers as the delicate new shoots lack the resilience of dormant, lignified canes and trunks. An early budbreak provides more chances for a nighttime frost to damage the crop. Fortunately, March and April nights were mild. The weather station in Oakville recorded a low of 32 degrees Fahrenheit on March 9 and again on March 24, but no other lower temperatures.
Still, our May temperatures were cool enough to cause some problems with berry set, the process by which grape flowers become young grapes. Cool weather during this critical time can prolong the process and reduce crop yields, as some flowers remain not yet pollinated.
After the large harvests of 2012, 2013 and 2014, most growers expect vines to yield a more typical crop load this year. The prolonged bloom and set, however, can result in an unevenly ripened crop, as some berries might be two or more weeks ahead of others on the same vine. We address that problem by dropping the lagging fruit. At Benessere Vineyards we just completed our “green drop” (the unripened fruit falling), which will maintain high quality at the expense of lower yields.
Fortunately, that is all we have had to worry about in terms of weather this year. A few rain showers in May, June and July did nothing to impact the quality of the crop — and nothing, alas, to mitigate the ongoing drought. Since the cool spring, temperatures have been great. As I write, it is over 100 degrees in Calistoga and I am feeling the heat, but we have had fewer days over 100 degrees this summer than I consider typical.
Nevertheless, the growing season overall has been warmer than any since 2008. This warmth has kept our season on an advanced schedule, with grapes coming into wineries seven to 10 days earlier than last year, which was itself an early year.
In sum, this year’s weather has kept us on our toes, but has been excellent overall and conducive to outstanding grape quality.
In a difficult fire season for the state, we have been fortunate to have only the Wragg and Jerusalem fires burn at the fringes of Napa County. We feel deeply for those who have suffered from the fires and are grateful to our firefighters. We are also grateful that for the most part, prevailing winds have kept the smoke out of Napa Valley. Even the smoke that recently blew in from fires in Trinity and Humboldt counties came too late to be metabolized by the grapes. There will be no issues of “smoke taint” in 2015 Napa Valley wines.
The Napa Valley is an excellent place to grow grapes. Our varied soils and microclimates allow a wide variety of vines to thrive, and this year’s weather has been great. Our industry is open and friendly, and organizations such as the Napa Valley Grapegrowers allow us to share best practices, experience, ideas, and information to help one another succeed. Thanks to all of these factors, 2015 looks to be another outstanding vintage.