Despite half the normal rainfall this season and an early July hot spell, the wine grape crop is looking good in the California coastal area between the Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County south to Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. That’s where Jeff Frey’s company, Frey Farming, Santa Maria, Calif., has been managing vineyards for the past 17 years.

“The crop looks fairly even with large clusters,” he reports. “Pinot Noir, which can be affected by weather more than some other varieties, is usually pretty fickle. But we had good weather during bloom and Pinot is looking very good right now. In some of our vineyards, we could see above-average Pinot Noir yields this season.”

Early summer heat limited berry sizing in most varieties, particularly the later maturing ones, like Syrah and Grenache, Frey reports. However, berry size in the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is normal.

In one of his vineyards, some distance from the coast, where he grows Syrah and Grenache, the early July heat wave pushed temperature readings up to 114 degrees. Thermometers rose to the high 90s is most of his Pinot Noir blocks. “We didn’t get the real hot morning kind of heat,” he says. “So even with the high afternoon temperatures, we had little sunburn damage.”

Heat increases the skin to juice ratio and that should mean better color for the area’s reds, Frey says.

This year’s Central Coast crop is maturing about 10 days earlier than usual. One of his Pinot Noir vineyards is fully colored.  About 50 percent to 70 percent of the remaining Pinot Noir had finished veraison. About 40 percent his Sauvignon Blanc had begun to soften. Meanwhile, only a few berries in the Syrah and Grenache blocks showed any pink color, he says.

Frey’s vineyards have received no more than about six inches of rain since last year’s harvest,. Normally, they get at least twice that much in that time. The unusually dry start prompted him to turn on his sprinklers in mid-December. After bud break, he switched to drip systems, which he’s been running about every two weeks.

 

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“The wells in this area are starting to show the effects,” Frey says. “The water table has dropped enough to reduce flow rates.”

He expects to begin harvesting Pinot Noir for still wine Sept. 10.The Central Coast harvest often extends through November. However, with the speed at which this year’s crop is developing, the 2013 harvest should end much sooner. That would be in line with what he sees as an increasing interest by area winemakers for grapes that aren’t quite as ripe as in the past.

Early harvest would benefit the vines. “The vines have more time to recharge before the leaves fall off,” he says.

Prices offered growers in early contracts this year were higher than 2012, Frey says. However, the potential for a large Pinot Noir crop has quieted the market. Buyers are hoping a bigger supply will push prices down.

A tight labor market, that has left him short of workers at times this season, could complicate the harvest.

“If we have big crop and everything comes in earlier and at about the same time, labor could become an issue,” Frey says.

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