So far, it has been a back-to-normal season for growing California wine grapes — and that’s just fine with Craig Ledbetter.
Normal weather has reduced the heavy disease pressures his San Joaquin Valley vineyards experienced with the much cooler temperatures of the last two seasons.
“With the beautiful weather at berry set, things went very well,” he says. “We had very little shatter.”
The favorable weather should allow him to start harvesting grapes much earlier than the past two seasons. Ledbetter expects his first grapes to be ready the week of Aug. 6, with Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and sparkling wine varieties first in the gondolas.
He’s a partner in Vino Farms LLC, which grows a wide range of red and white wine grapes on more than 11,000 acres in the Central and North Coast regions, as well as inland in Sacramento, San Joaquin and Yolo counties
Ledbetter describes the size of the 2012 crop in the central valley counties as about normal, based on bunch counts.
“What I’m seeing is an average crop, maybe a little bigger, maybe a little smaller, depending on location,” he says. “Overall, the Chardonnay looks decent and it’s the same for Cabernet Sauvignon. The crop hanging on the Zinfandel vines is pretty average, too. I don’t see a bumper crop for any variety across the board this year.”
He’ll get a much better picture of crop size after veraison, when he strips vines for a closer look at bunch size.
Several weeks of temperatures in the low- to mid-90s the last part of June helped minimize any powdery mildew threat.
“We haven’t been seeing a lot of powdery mildew pressure this season,” Ledbetter says. “It has shown up on some berries here and there, but it’s nothing that can’t be controlled.
“Last year, once it popped up we had a hard time slowing it down. The disease infected whole bunches and spread across entire vines. The summers of 2010 and 2011 were two of the coldest on records, and powdery mildew pressure was extremely high.”
As a result of last year’s disease battle, he has been pulling more leaves from Chardonnay vines in the Lodi-Clarksburg vineyards than in past years. This improves air flow and coverage of powdery mildew treatments.
Prices are also better. “We’ve had a pretty dramatic increase in prices — it’s nice to see that,” Ledbetter says.
He attributes the improved market to continued strong demand for wine, which has eliminated the oversupply of bulk wines that has plagued the industry the past few years. Consequently, the number of planting contracts being offered by wineries is on the upswing.
“If the wineries know you or your reputation as a good grower, they’re willing to talk about pre-plant contacts,” he says.
Right now, his big concern is getting the workers he needs in the vineyards.
“We had plenty of people early this season for pruning,” he says. “But, later in the spring we were down about 40 percent of the number we needed. The shortage caught everyone by surprise. I keep hearing that an improved economy in Mexico is keeping some workers at home. Also, of course, it’s very difficult to cross the border these days.”
As a result, he’s falling behind with fieldwork. “The later it gets, and the more growth on the vines, the harder it is to get the job done,” Ledbetter says. “It’s much easier to thin shoots when they’re just 8 inches to 10 inches long than when they’ve grown to 18 inches to 24 inches.”
The labor shortage will not likely affect his harvest; 90 percent of his grapes are machine-harvested. But, growers who hand pick may be in trouble.
“If you’re expecting 25 to 30 workers to show up, and only 10 to 15 actually do, you might not finish picking your first load until around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon,” Ledbetter says. “If that’s the case, you won’t get a second load in that day.
“This labor shortage is something we have to deal with. We need a real guest-worker program that works.”