For many California wine grape growers, “Hang Time” is just another term for Enology 101 at the Tom Dooley School of Winemaking.

California wine grape growers are emerging from one of the deepest economic troughs ever where vineyard overplantings engorged the wine grape pipeline. Many growers could not give away wine grape to wineries and thousands of tons were left hanging. What was sold was at bargain basement prices. More than 100,000 acres of vines were taken out in the San Joaquin Valley alone over the past few years because of not only a glut of wine grapes, but raisins as well.

In the midst of this economic morass came a new viticulture invented by many wineries called “hang time,” a nebulous practice many vintners started demanding from growers. Growers had little choice but to comply if they wanted a home for their crop. The subject of hang time filled meeting rooms where growers and vintners discussed the merits or misery of hang time.

“High density fermentation” was a more palatable synonym coined for “hang time,” ostensibly to improve grape quality and thusly wine quality, even though there is scant scientific evidence that overripe grapes produce significantly better wine.

A study commissioned by the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) detailed what happens the longer grapes are left on the vine.

The report, prepared by vineyard consultant Stan Grant of Turlock, Calif., said sugars accumulate, the ratio of glucose to fructose decreases, pH increases, acidity decreases, the ratio of malic acid to tartaric acid decreases, the sugar to acid ratio increases, floral aromas decline and certain overripe flavors increase, such as jammy, raisin and prune flavor.

Still, no proof

However, there has been no definitive third-party research showing what all that does to wine quality. More specifically, does any or all of it significantly improve wine quality.

However, there is one unmistakable consequences of letting grapes languish on the vine long after they are consider mature; weight decreases and growers are paid less for less tonnage.

That was the capsizing wave in what Allied Grape Growers president Nat DiBuduo called the series of events that created the “perfect storm” in the California wine grape industry over the past three years.

“Hang time happened at the same time grower prices were down and wineries were being scrutinized for adding water to wine after the grapes were crushed,” said DiBuduo. Wineries can legally add water to wine, but the scrutiny came when the hang time issue emerged. The “perception” was wineries were paying growers less money for less tonnage and, and rebuilding wine volume by adding water.

The perfect storm has just about passed and the grape growers are back safely at sea with supplies in balance with demand, especially in the hardest hit area of the last downturn, the San Joaquin Valley, where about 65 percent of the state's wine comes from.

The question is will it be a “Sea of Love” between wineries and growers after the Perfect Storm.

“This harvest will be the telltale harvest on hang time.” said DiBuduo.

“If hang time is a legitimate issue for wineries to produce quality wine, growers will also be asked to leave grapes hanging longer this season,” said DiBuduo. SJV wine grape harvest will begin in August.

If hang time becomes a non-issue in the 2005 harvest, then the grower perception that hang time was used to reduce the amount of money wineries paid growers will become more than a perception.

DiBuduo and Allied are all for producing better quality California wines, especially from San Joaquin Valley grapes.

“Hang time is an issue of compensation. If the crop is hanging out in the vineyard losing weight, pay me for the lost weight. If it is hanging out there longer under the threat of bad weather damaging the crop, make sure I am covered,” said DiBuduo, who heads the state's largest wine grape marketing cooperative with 500 members statewide.

Letting grapes hang after acceptable and often contract-specific harvestable Brix is achieved can mean a significant tonnage loss for growers, from 2 percent to as much as 7 percent for each degree Brix after the acceptable harvest sugar.

For example, if 25 Brix is considered ripe and wineries do not take the grapes until 28, a grower could lose as much as 14 percent of his tonnage of some varieties. Growers were not compensated for that loss during the hang time era of the past three seasons.

“Some winery contracts now say that if the wineries take the grapes beyond maximum Brix, the winery will not penalize the grower,” commented Allied vice president Jeff Bitter.

Big deal.

Wineries are not doing the grower a favor with that kind of contract, said Bitter. “That is not good enough. We are saying give the grower a bonus for high sugar rather than promising not to penalize him.”

Dynamics change

Market dynamics will change this season for growers, predicts Bitter. “There is more demand for grapes and added hang time should become part of the compensation package for growers.

“In the past few years if the winery asked a grower to give the grapes added hang time for the winery to accept them and he refused, the winery would just go to the next guy who was looking for a home for his grapes and offer him a hang time deal. That is not going to happen in the 2005 market in the valley. There is more grower power in the marketplace this year,” he said.

Winery contracts with growers are written with minimum and ideal sugar levels. However, different components are being introduced into the wine quality equation outside of Brix. One is flavor components, a growing issue with the growing popularity of Australian wines in the U.S.

“The problem with quantifying flavor components is that these components are not realized until after the fermentation process,” said Bitter. It is difficult to quantify at the grape state.

So what is happening, said Bitter, is that wineries are monitoring and tasting for negative factors, like an absence of bell pepper taste and steminess in hopes of achieving the desired flavor components during fermentation.

New equipment is being developed from Australia to quantify these flavor components based on color, but it has not been perfected, according to DiBuduo.

DiBuduo and Bitter have been working with growers to improve grape growing practices to improve wine quality, especially in the San Joaquin Valley.

Can tweak grapes

“You can take a standard, average quality Chardonnay from the valley and do some things in the vineyard to make it better — let it stay on the vine a little longer; maybe some deficit irrigation. You can improve it by fermenting it colder. It all depends on how much money you want to spend on the growing side and how much you want to spend on the winery side,” said Bitter.

“I have no problem with wineries wanting to make better wine with hang time or whatever they think they need. We need to give the consumers what they want. But in doing that, the grower wants proper compensation,” said DiBuduo.

This is at the heart of the age-old debate that good grapes are needed to make good wine or can a winery ruin good grapes and make bad wine. If a winery makes bad wine, the blame is usually laid at the grower's vineyard end posts.

Wine Institute had endorsed “hang time.”

CAWG is on the opposite side the fence.

The findings from the CAWG study include:

  • Extended ripening allows wine grapes to become overripe, with unusually high sugars and soluble solids, a very soft texture, and a high susceptibility to diseases and mechanical damage during harvest and transport to the winery.

  • Berries lose water and weight during extended ripening.

    The amount of yield loss due to berry desiccation appears to be dependent on several factors, but can be calculated based on berry weights at normal ripening and berry weights at the time of harvest.

  • Yield loss due to over ripening can also be determined at the winery based on the amount of water required to dilute high sugars to normal sugars.

  • Shortened post-harvest periods are not essential for sustained vine health, but are critical to consistent product of economically viable yields of ripe fruit.

  • Post-harvest periods of normal duration are especially critical for vines compromised by pests, disease, disorders, deficiencies, water stress, high crop levels or small canopies.

Knowledge incomplete

“It is important for wine grape growers to know that no research projects have specifically addressed either extended fruit ripening or shortened port-harvest periods,” said CAWG chairman Ben Drake.

“As a result, our knowledge of these topics is incomplete and general in nature,” said Drake, adding that CAWG has committed funds for comprehensive research to fill the knowledge gaps.

“This is an issue that is definitely out on the street and there are differences of opinion about it,” said Robert Wample, chairman of the California State University, Fresno department of viticulture and enology.

The real problem, he said, stems from the evolution of vineyard management practice in California for the past 10 to 15 years. “Some of the practices associated with irrigation canopy management, crop load management and the like go together to potentially create a situation where the vine is able to accumulate sugars more rapidly than it dissipates bad or increases good flavors,” said Wample.

Wample says development of flavor and sugar content is out of sync in California vineyards.

“There is little disagreement that the delay of harvest in most cases has resulted in wines with better flavors. But at what expense to the grower. That's the major part of the issue,” he said, echoing DiBuduo's sentiment.

“The challenge we have is to look for management strategies in the vineyard that will get the vines back in sync with sugar and flavor,” said Wample.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com