Weather concerns are beginning to weigh on the minds of Tim Waits and other Clarksburg appellation growers in California’s Sacramento River Delta region.
“It has been a cool spring and everyone is starting to get a little nervous,” says Waits, whose Lake Winchester Vineyardis about 20 miles south of Sacramento. “We had the same kind of spring last year and yields in our area were down by 15 percent to 20 percent. Our fear is that the crop will be so late we’ll have to deal with rain during harvest.”
Normally, he’s done harvesting by the end of September, but last year, due in part to limited capacities at the wineries caused by the delayed crop, he didn’t finish until a month later. That was five days before three inches of rain fell in the area, reducing sugar levels in unpicked grapes.
“Some guys couldn’t get back into their fields for a few days or even a week,” Waits says.
Last month, as was the case in much of the state, temperatures in his area were running 10 to 20 degrees below average. Also, in May, his vines received about 1.5 inches of rain — about three times more than usual.
June started out no better, with major storms roaming the state, dumping large amounts of rain. However, temps were projected to reach the 80s by the end of the second week of May.
The cool weather delayed Waits’ bloom by about two weeks. On the first day of June, his 75 acres of Pinot Noir had just about finished blooming, but his 60 acres of Petite Sirah were just starting to flower.
So far, though, he is encouraged by what he’s seeing in his vineyards.
“Our ranch looks like it has the potential to produce a good crop,” he says. “There are quite a few clusters, and they’re filling in the shoots nicely.”
Wet fields have delayed Waits’ field work this spring, much of it by about a month. Pruning, for example, which he normally completes by the end of March, didn’t wrap up until the end of April — just two weeks before bud break.
He recently finished shootthinning and is now mowing weeds and tucking up the vines. Sometime in July he’ll be doing green drop and cluster thinning.
Disease and insect pressures this year have been about the same as 2010, Waits says. To protect his grapes from powdery mildew and other fungal diseases, which can thrive in this spring’s type of weather, he’s been making sure that he dusts vines with adequate amounts of sulfur. Also, he’s treating with a foliar application of a broad-spectrum fungicide combined with nutrients. He made the first spray in mid-May and will follow with a second and final treatment at the middle of this month.
“We haven’t had any diseases problems so far, and I haven’t heard of any neighbors having much of a problem,” he says.
A European grapevine moth quarantine area is in place to the west in Solano County, and the insect has been reported recently farther north in the state in the foothills of Nevada County. But, it hasn’t been found in his district, Waits says. And, even though leafhoppers and leafrollers are in his area, he’s never seen them in his vineyards, including this year.
The late crop development will increase his production expenses. For instance, he’ll be spraying and dusting vines longer than usual, adding to material and application costs. And, if the grapes don’t ripen uniformly, he’ll have to bear the cost of dropping more fruit than normal to maintain grape quality to meet winery quality standards — which happened last year.
“With the high quality we maintain, it was painful to see crop on the ground,” Waits says, “but in the long run it’s worth it.”
About 90 percent of his production is on long-term wineries contracts, and prospects for selling his remaining 2011 crop are promising.
“Our Petite Sirah has an excellent reputation,” Waits says. “I’ve already turned away some offers because I don’t have enough grapes to meet demand. The same thing happened last year.”
In fact, he reports prices for Clarksburg Petite Sirah have increased 5 percent to 10 percent this year over last. “The overall market for premium grapes is trending up and Petite Sirah is an up-and-coming varietal that more people want,” Waits says.
He is president of the Clarksburg Wine Growers and Vintners Association. Currently, about 16,000 acres of the 56,900-acre Clarksburg AVA are in vineyards.
Winery capacity in the district is expanding, he says. One new production facility covers 25,000 square feet and another is more than 10 times that size.
“The Clarksburg appellation is doing well,” Waits says. “We can grow a lot of very high quality grapes fairly economically; we have good soils and a good base of experienced growers — it’s just a good place to have a vineyard and make wine.”