Jason Melvin wears two hats; one with the word ‘Traditional’ inscribed across the front. The other cap has ‘Technology’ scribbled across the fabric. Both hats explain how this wine grape grower in California’s Central Coast region grows grapes and weighs new-fangled solutions.

Melvin’s work philosophy marries traditional grape-growing techniques with mechanization for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Melvin, 36, works for Constellation Brands as director of vineyards for northern Monterey County. Based at Estancia Estates in Soledad, Melvin supplies fruit for four Constellation brands: Estancia Estates, Blackstone Winery, Solaire by Robert Mondavi, and the Robert Mondavi Private Selection.

“We make every effort each day to produce high quality grapes,” Melvin said.

He constantly fine-tunes shoot thinning, leaf pulling, and drip irrigation management techniques, drawing on his botany and plant pathology degrees from the University of California, Davis, along with lessons learned over a decade of growing grapes.

Melvin welcomes mechanization to cut costs and improve grape quality.

About 95 percent of Estancia’s grapes are machine harvested. Several years ago Melvin began using the Braud mechanical grape harvesters with an optional de-stemmer. Seven Braud harvesters now rumble down the rows at harvest.

In side-by-side harvesting trials last fall, the Braud machines ran neck-and-neck against the Pellenc America harvester.

“Both machines performed extremely well,” Melvin said. “In the future all my new harvesters will have de-stemmers.”

Melvin is transitioning away from air blast sprayers for fungicide and insecticide applications in the vineyard. He’s pleased with the outstanding performance and water-saving feature of the On-Target sprayer. The electrostatic, low volume, multi-row system sprays 15 to 20 gallons per acre; this compares to the air blast system’s 50 to 100 gallon use and higher spray drift.

“The On-Target system minimizes spray drift since the electrostatically-charged particles land on the vines,” Melvin said. “This equipment saves water, chemical, and fuel use.”

Vines are mechanically pre-pruned by the Binger pre-pruner followed by closer hand pruning.

“Mechanical pruning offers a tremendous opportunity for cost savings,” Melvin said. “What we’re not happy about is the quality of the job from mechanical pruning alone.”

To reduce herbicide use, the Clemens Radius mechanical weeder cuts weeds under the vines and the row ends.

“I don’t think we can be 100 percent herbicide free,” Melvin said. “We will eliminate pre-emergent herbicides and only use Roundup in the future. This is a giant step for us.”

Two machines provide mechanized leaf removal. The Binger system with its ‘suck and cut’ process pulls exterior leaves toward the cutting blade for removal. The Collard Raptor features a large air compressor that allows high levels of pulsed air to shatter exterior leaves and some interior leaves.

Which system Melvin prefers depends on the grape variety and the desired leaf removal. The Binger has fewer moving parts and works faster, he says.

Removing leaves improves airflow in the vineyard, increases light to the fruit zone, and reduces disease pressure. Dappled sunlight on fruit improves the quality especially in red grapes, Melvin says.

Melvin grows 2,300 acres of wine grapes for Constellation. Half of his production is for the Estancia winery which processed about 15,000 tons of grapes last year. Case production totaled about 750,000. The wine price points are $10 to $15 for most of the wines, while reserve wines are $25 to $35.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the predominant varieties grown at the Pinnacles Vineyard and Gabilan Vineyard in Soledad located at the base of the Gabilan Mountains on the east side of the Salinas Valley. Chardonnay and Pinot are also prevalent at the Bianchi Vineyard located in the West Valley at the foot of the Santa Lucia Highlands Mountains. The Stonewall Vineyard, also located in the highlands, is 100 percent Pinot Noir.

Soil at the Pinnacles Vineyard consists mostly of decomposed granite while the Stonewall Vineyard has a sandy loam soil.

“Due to the slightly warmer climate, a slightly higher crop load is gained at the Pinnacles and Gabilan locations,” Melvin said. Chardonnay production averages about 6 tons per acre and about 5 tons per acre for Pinot Noir. Production at Bianchi and Stonewall averages 4.5 and 3.5 tons respectively.

Uneven weather patterns last year reduced Chardonnay yields about 10 percent and 30 percent less for Pinot Noir. Temperature spikes, from very cool to hot, created problems during bud break and bloom. The roller coaster weather reduced Merlot and Syrah production by about half.

Melvin says Constellation grows its grapes sustainably.

“We are a publicly traded company and there are certain risks with organic that we’re not quite willing to take,” Melvin said. “I use organically-certified pest control products and methods all the time. We haven’t gone to the step of certification because we need chemical tools to control the vine mealybug.”

Rootstocks

Melvin prefers the 1103 Paulsen rootstock, a vigorous rootstock that’s a good fit in the less-than-perfect soils in Soledad. The rootstock grows high quality grapes and produces good yields. His second preference is 10114. Rootstocks that don’t perform as well in granite-based soil include 5C and 110R, he says.

Pest/disease

Vineyard enemy No. 1 is powdery mildew. Planted blocks of Australian sheoak trees help reduce the strong Salinas Valley winds. While the blocks encourage plant photosynthesis to produce fruit, the downside is warmer vineyards which encourage powdery mildew growth.

The UC Davis Powdery Mildew Risk Assessment Index (RAI) helps Melvin track weather conditions. For mildew control Melvin uses JMS Stylet Oil and copper early and then switches to a rotation of the DMI and strobilurin fungicides.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) provides good control for the orange tortrix. JMS Stylet Oil also helps in mite control. Botrytis is controlled with Vanguard and Elevate.

Spacing

Vineyards have various spacings depending on when plantings occurred. Melvin prefers the 8-by-4 foot and 6-by-4 foot. Vine populations range from 1,800 and 1,350 plants respectively. Almost 100 percent vertical shoot positioning is utilized.

Irrigation water

Water at Estancia is drawn from deep wells tied to the Salinas River aquifer. Above-ground drip irrigation is 12 inches to 18 inches above the berm to allow for under-the-row weed cultivation.

New acreage

Melvin will plant 50 new acres in Pinot Noir this spring for Estancia, plus 100 acres in 2010 in mostly Chardonnay.

Cover crops

Merced rye is planted in the Pinnacles and Gabilan vineyards to reduce erosion and provide fibrous root systems that reduce compaction from tractors. Volunteer native grasses cover the Bianchi and Stonewall vineyards.

The Pinnacles Vineyard area was brought into wine grape production in the early 1960s by Paul Masson. The land was purchased for the Estancia brand in the mid-1980s.

A 45-acre experimental block was added for variety, rootstock, and clone research. The results helped to expand and develop new acreage in northern Monterey County.

email: cblake@farmpress.com