On the eve of starting his 12th wine grape harvest, Central Coast grower and winemaker Jean-Pierre Wolff is cautiously optimistic about his latest crop.
It’s definitely “significantly better than last year. That’s the case not only for me, but for just about everyone else in the area, too,” he says.
Located in the Edna Valley near San Luis Obispo, Wolff Vineyards and Winery includes 125 acres of grapes.
Unlike 2011, his vineyards have been blessed by ideal growing weather this season. Warmer and drier conditions in the spring, along with the absence of frost, produced a better fruit set, he reports. That resulted in less shatter and more uniform and heavier cluster formation. Also, more heat units during the summer contributed to development of a healthier, more vigorous canopy. Pressure from powdery mildew this season was no more than normal. Like many California growers this year, insect pests, particularly mealybugs in his vineyards, have been low.
The crop load, especially the Pinot Noir, is much heavier than last year, he reports. The favorable weather this season has also boosted quality of the grapes. “It’s excellent,” Wolff says. “It’s not just the sugar levels, but also the pH, Ta and, most importantly, the berry flavor. You can analyze various aspects of quality in the lab, but, ultimately, flavor drives the quality. This year the flavors are excellent.”
First to harvest were his Pinot Noir, which he expects to register at least 24.5 Brix at harvest.
He anticipates starting his 50 acres of Chardonnay, his largest planting, next week. By early November, if not sooner, he plans to have finished harvesting his remaining blocks of Syrah and Petite Syrah. All of this is well ahead of 2011.
“Last year I thought we’d have to put up Christmas lights on the vines before we finally finished,” he says.
Growing grapes is only half the business for Wolff. Making grapes into profitable wine is the other half.
He’s encouraged by rising spot market prices for Central Coast grapes. They’re moving toward a more economically sustainable level.Wolff attributes this to last year’s small crop, low winery inventories and little increases in new vineyard acreage in recent years.
Another sign of an improving market for wine grapes is an increase in bulk wine prices, he says.
“A year or two ago, you could buy some very nice bulk Cabernet Sauvignon for $7.50 to $8 a gallon,” Wolff says. “Today, you’ll pay double that.”
This economic turnaround is a promising start to long-term recovery, he says. “It will take more than a year for things to turnaround completely,” Wolff says.
Much of that hinges on how quickly and how much consumer confidence in the economy strengthens, he adds.
“There’s still a lot of pressure on wine prices at the wholesale and retail level. Grape growers are part of the value chain. The prices they receive for the grapes are linked to the prices wineries can get for their wine, and those prices are linked to how much consumers are willing to pay.”