Earlier this season, veteran Central Coast wine grape grower Dana Merrill was concerned about how several heat spikes and lack of rainfall might affect production. Not any more.
“Everything came together to produce a pretty good crop that’s maturing on the early side,” Merrill says.
His company, Mesa Vineyard Management, Templeton, Calif., owns and manages 6,000 acres of vineyards in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties.
Since crews began picking the first fruit on Aug. 20, his harvest has been running about two weeks or, in some cases, as much as three weeks earlier than usual.
Meanwhile, the quality of the grapes has held up. “We have some real nice fruit,” he says. “The wineries should have some good wines to choose from for blending.”
The supply of workers to pick the grapes this year is a little better than last season, Merrill says. Still, there have been times when some growers in the area haven’t had crews as quickly as needed.
Temperature-wise, it’s been a moderate growing season for the Central Coast, except for some warmer-than-usual days in August and a few brief spells of really hot weather earlier, he notes. That included several days in early July when thermometers in the Paso Roble area of San Luis Obispo County were reading 110 to 112 degrees.
“Up to that point the vines appeared real lush with a lot of tender growth,” Merrill says. “They didn’t have the leathery look they often have at that time of year. However, the vines definitely looked different after that heat. But we got through it and the hot weather didn’t burn the grapes as much as I thought it would. Most growers here are pretty careful when pulling leaves to keep some leaves and canes on the sunny side of the vines to shade the clusters.”
Responding to warm weather in the spring, the vines got off to a good start. And, with relatively few cloudy days to slow them down, they continued to develop at a good pace, Merrill notes.
Among the first varieties ready for this year’s earlier-than-usual harvest were the usual ones, like Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pino Gris and Chardonnay. However, in some cases, the season’s favorable growing conditions scrambled the ripening order. “Several growers ended up picking Merlot before Chardonnay,” Merrill reports. “That’s different. Also, Cabernet Sauvignon is traditionally the last variety to be harvested here. But, a number of people around Paso Robles had already picked some Cab by the third week of September.”
His Cabernet Sauvignon may be ready in early October. If so, that would be a good month sooner than usual.
In years like this, without rains to push salts down into the soil profile, salts and pH levels in the field can rise, threatening health of the vines. “In many ways, a dry season isn’t good news in terms of yields. But you couldn’t tell that this year,” Merrill says
So far, vineyards in the Paso Robles area have been yielding crops that are on the high side of average, he notes. “In some areas, Chardonnay seems to be running heavy,” Merrill says. “Even Pinot Noir is hitting average levels. That’s nice because, at times, yields of that grape can be extremely low.”
Overall, production this year is similar to that of last season. “After 2011, when a spring frost nailed just about every vineyard in the Paso Robles area, it’s gratifying to come back with a normal-size crop the next year and a normal-plus season this year.” Merrill adds.
However, he’s not sure what the 2013 production will mean for the market
“As a farmer, you wish you’d have more rather than fewer grapes to sell,” he says. “But, if wineries end up with more tonnage than they budgeted for, how will that affect the market going into next year? An ample supply of grapes should mean some good deals for consumers. Growers may not get higher prices for the grapes. But, then, we won’t lose market share because we don’t have grapes.”