Winegrape harvest delays pose challenges

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By Vicky Boyd

Depressed wine markets, cool wet spring weather, a delayed harvest and inflationary price increases for crop inputs have prompted many county winegrape growers to do some soul searching.

The cool spring delayed budbreak by at least two weeks, and the lateness has carried on throughout the season. The winegrape harvest in the Lodi area is at least two weeks behind schedule this year compared to average, said Jeff Bitter, president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers. Rather than wait for grapes to meet minimum sugar levels, some wineries pulled the trigger to begin harvest anyway.

“You’ve got to get going at some point because you’ll be crunched up at the end of the season,” he said. There’s also concern that some of the later varieties won’t be mature enough to pick before the rainy season starts. If wet weather arrives early, Bitter said it could be disastrous.

“Parts of the state are four weeks behind,” he said. “We’re questioning whether the cabernet and some of those late reds will even get ripe by the end of October or early November.”

Lodi-area vineyard manager Joe Valente said they’re at least three weeks behind harvesting their grapes.

“It’s an interesting year, and we all have to have patience,” he said. Normally, they finish their white varieties before beginning to harvest the reds. This year, they started with whites but have also picked some early pinot noir in between because of slow sugar accumulation in some varieties.

“We still have whites out there, but every day it’s down to less and less,” Valente said in mid-September. “It just sounds like every grower you talk to is in the same boat fighting for sugar.”

This year’s harvest is definitely later than those of the past two years, Valente said, recalling one several years ago when they didn’t start picking until mid-September.

“At that time, we didn’t have the (earlier) varieties we have now, like pinot noir or pinot gris – it was more zinfandel and tokays,” he said.

Dave Simpson, who grows winegrapes near Lodi, harvested his chardonnay Sept. 17, nearly a month later than usual. He’d probably still be waiting had the winery where he sends his grapes not dropped the minimum sugar requirements 1 to 2 points.

“It’s probably a good thing because the grapes just aren’t sugaring regardless of if you have an 8-ton crop, a 5-ton crop or a 2-ton crop,” he said. “(The wineries) are just going to go because everybody is starting to get concerned it’s going to start raining on the other end.”

Simpson said he felt fortunate that the winery finalized a one-year contract with him a few days before his chardonnay harvest. He said this was the first times he ever received a one-year contract in the 40-plus years he has grown grapes. All of the others were for multiple years.

Simpson’s cabernet hadn’t yet matured, and he was still waiting on a contract for that crop in mid-September.

A ‘very atypical’ season

Justin Tanner, University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture advisor, described this season as “very atypical” with cooler-than-average temperatures and higher humidity. As a result, he saw significantly higher powdery mildew pressure in vineyards. Growers can manage the pathogen with fungicide sprays, but they have to stay ahead of the infections to be successful.

While winter rains were a blessing, Tanner said they also promoted dense grapevine canopy growth that reduced airflow and enhanced powdery mildew conditions early in the season.

Dense canopies also can affect grape quality. Growers who were responsive early in the season may have done shoot thinning, which reduced vegetative growth and grape clusters. This balanced vine energy with crop load, he said.

But growers late in the season who tried to remove leaves to increase airflow and reduce fungal problems found themselves in a Catch 22, Tanner said. Leaves also capture sunlight and produce energy through photosynthesis. With fewer leaves, the vines have less energy to devote to fruit ripening.

“Opening the canopy may help for disease prevention because you’re getting better air flow, but you’re also slowing down ripening because you’re reducing the leaf area,” he said.

And the longer the fruit hangs on the vines in the fall, Tanner said, the more potential there is for sour rot and Botrytis – types of berry bunch rots.

Already some growers, especially those with tight-clustered varieties like zinfandel, had seen abnormally high amounts of rot in September.

Crop size in question

Bitter said it’s hard to estimate how large a crop the industry will crush this year because harvest was just beginning in earnest in mid-September. In addition, no one knows how many late varieties will go unharvested.

“In most areas of the state, we’re a good two weeks behind and up to four weeks in some parts,” he said. “It’s like trying to call the harvest during the first three or four weeks.”

Last year, the industry crushed 3.37 million tons of winegrapes, the smallest crop in 10 years. At the beginning of this season, Bitter said the crop appeared to be an average size of 3.5 million to 3.7 million tons. But with quality issues caused by powdery mildew and rot as well as late-season grapes that may go unpicked, the crop size could easily shrink.

That may not be all bad unless you’re a grower who wasn’t able to harvest his or her grapes, Bitter said. The wine market currently has a surplus, and at least a few wineries have wine in storage from 2021. Some others have not renewed contracts with growers, prompting a few at least in the Lodi area to try to sell their grapes on the open market.

If the 2023 crop statewide comes in small, Bitter said it will be the fourth year in a row that it was less than the 4-million-ton average seen from 2012-2019.

“And the market isn’t short,” he said. “You’d assume it would be after three short crops, and especially last year with the shortest crop in the last 10 years, but we’re still looking at a structural oversupply.”

Industry experts have pointed to changing consumption patterns for waning wine demand. Some younger drinkers have shifted to seltzers, ready to drink cocktails and mixed drinks or eschewed alcohol altogether. Many older drinkers appear to be moderating spending, including going out less and cutting back on wine.

To bring the market back into balance, Bitter estimated growers would have to remove 15,000 acres of vineyards in the southern San Joaquin Valley, 15,000 acres in the northern San Joaquin Valley and 20,000 acres in the North Coast.

Should this year’s crop come in short, he said it could create a false sense of market security and prompt some growers to keep vineyards originally slated for removal.

“It just kicks the can down the road – we’re still overproducing in the state,” Bitter said.