Normally, by the end of July, veteran San Joaquin Valley farmer Jim Unti, Madera, Calif., is making plans to start harvesting the first of his four varietals in about two weeks. Not this year.
“I often start picking Thompson Seedless Aug. 15,” he says. “But, I’m not getting excited yet — the grapes probably won’t be going to the winery until the first of September.”
That’s when Unti, who follows a lower sugar program, expects the grapes to be testing at about 18° Brix. Many wine growers wait until grapes reach at least 21° Brix before picking, but he says, “I like to get them off before there’s a crowd at the winery gate.”
A third generation grape grower with three decades of experience, Unti’s family has been growing Thompson Seedless for the past 100 years. His vineyards include a 3-acre patch planted 71 years ago.
Varietals also include Rubired and Ruby Cabernet. He became familiar with the Rubired during a lengthy career as a buyer for a major California winemaker.
“I know and understand this variety and, because it goes to concentrate, the market for them as always been fairly strong,” Unti says. “At the time I expanded to Ruby Cabernet, the market for them was good. I still think they’re a good grape, but their yields aren’t the best in the world.”
He also has 10 acres of Grenache, which his father planted. “They’re shipped as juice grapes (for home winemakers), and I don’t have to handle them,” he says. “This is just the right crop acreage for the buyer who comes in, picks the grapes, puts them in a box and pays me the same price as a winery would.”
Unti had little shatter at bloom, and he’s pleased with how his grapes have come along. But, he admits to being nervous about the weather-caused delay in crop maturity as August got under way with muggy weather and monsoon weather patterns.
“Veraison in Thompson Seedless started mid-July and, in many cases, the berries haven’t gotten that soft yet,” he says. “I checked the Rubired July 25, and they’d just started softening. Right now, nothing is coloring up — maybe by the second week of August they’ll look fine.
“If the berries don’t size and gain weight, I may be disappointed at the winery scale.
Unti, who has his grapes custom-harvested, doubts his operations will be affected by a later than usual harvest start. “I’m a small grower and we can pick any of the varieties in about two to four days,” he says.
Powdery mildew was a challenge for him, as for other growers. “I saw mildew in spots where I’ve never seen it before,” he says. “I’m just thankful I started controlling it early and kept at it throughout the season.”
Treatments included applications of sulfur dust or wettable sulfur every 10 to 12 days and two fungicide treatments, one in May and the other about four weeks later.
“It has been a pretty nice year to grow grapes,” he says. “With all the cool, damp weather we’ve had, it seems like those of us in the Valley are growing coastal grapes.”
He expects production this year will reflect the range in age of his vineyards. “I’ll be happy if some of them produce 9 tons per acre,” he says. “Others, though, should make 15 tons.”
Also, he’s anticipates receiving some attractive prices. “From what I’m hearing, Valley growers will probably get about 25 percent more than last year,” he says.
In 2010, for example, he sold his Thompson Seedless for $190 per ton. This year, he has signed with a marketing cooperative that is predicting a price of $250 a ton.
“In all my years of growing grapes, I’ve never got $250 for Thompson Seedless,” Unti says. “I’ve contracted my Rubireds at a minimum price of $250 per ton, which is all right. Also, I have a $250 contract for my Ruby Cabernets. Otherwise, I could probably sell them for about $350 a ton.”