Moscato is one of the trendiest wines today gaining high marks with consumers.

Moscato is made with Muscat of Alexander grapes, a white grape with a light, sweet taste favored by a growing segment of the Millennial Generation; those born since the late 1970s.

Several thousands of acres of Muscat grapes have been planted in California due to the growing popularity of Moscato. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, about 3,100 acres of Muscats were planted in California in the last three years including about 720 acres which are non-bearing.

Will Moscato mirror the popularity that Chardonnay and White Zinfandel wines hold today after gaining notoriety in the 1990s, or be a flash in the pan?

Only time will tell.

With the new Muscat grape growers in California, Farm Press turned to a veteran Muscat grower family in Madera, Calif., to share their trials and tribulations in Muscat grape production. The Jim Erickson family’s Muscat acreage is small — 13 acres. However, the Ericksons’ experience in growing Muscats exceeds 80 years.

Erickson Farms is a 1,500-acre enterprise producing a range of grape varieties on 380 acres. Almonds and olives make up the balance.

Family patriarch Wendell Erickson planted the family’s first Muscats in the 1930s. His son Steve carried on the Muscat tradition. Today, Steve’s son Jim oversees the operation. His family includes wife Lori, sons Jason and Lee, and daughter Kristi. Jason and Lee, ages 29 and 26 respectively, are full partners.

Each generation of Erickson’s graduated from California State University, Fresno. All are proud to hang the ‘Farmer’ shingle outside.

The family also operates an agricultural spraying service and almond custom harvest company. Jim and local farmer Joe Lilles own a farm trucking business.

Jim, 51, has about 25 years of experience in wine grape production including Muscats. The family’s Muscat vineyards are adjacent to heavily travelled Highway 99 at the southern tip of Madera County.

In addition to Muscats, the family’s grape plantings include Thompson, Selma Pete, Carignane, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, and Royalty. The Erickson’s are on the short list of California grape growers who produce Nebbiolo grapes.

About 90 percent of the Erickson grape crops are grown for wine; the balance for raisins. The wine grapes are marketed through Allied Grape Growers and trucked to O’Neill Winery, Constellation Brands, The Wine Group, and other smaller wineries and packers.

The Erickson sons are involved across the farming enterprise and bring a keen knowledge of technology to the mix with their father’s vast grape-growing expertise. Jason ‘nursemaids’ the Muscat grapes to produce maximum yields, Jim says.

Last year, the family’s Muscat of Alexander yields totaled about 17 tons per acre. The 2010 figure almost topped 19 tons per acre. The grape clusters are quite large. Last year’s crop sold for about $400 per ton.

Muscats are a late-season grape harvested from late September to early October in Madera County.

Sunburn protection

To achieve high yields and top quality, Jim has learned that canopy management is paramount in Muscat production.

“A heavy canopy is essential to reduce sunburn on Muscat fruit,” said Erickson. “Muscat grapes are very sensitive to hot and cold temperatures. A long duration of high temperatures at the wrong fruit development stage can cause significant yield loss.”

To offset this summer’s hot temps, Erickson will apply the sunburn protective product Surround in late July to early August. Temps can hover in the low 100s for 30 to 40 consecutive days. Sunburn protection is only applied to the Muscats; not the other grape varieties.

Sunburn products reduce the moisture loss through the leaves and do a good job protecting Muscat fruit, Erickson said.

Growing native grass in the row centers reduces temperature and the sun’s reflectance. Sun reflecting off bare soil and irrigation water can burn the grapes.

“We keep the canopy as long as possible since Muscat fruit clusters hang 3 to 4 inches above the ground,” Erickson said.

Another important practice is to stay out of the vineyards as much as possible. Using smaller tractors to tow mowers and other equipment helps protect the canopies from damage. Mowing only occurs when the temperatures are cooler.

For two decades-plus, the family has irrigated every other row in all grape varieties.

In general, 3.5 to 4 acre-feet of water is required for grape production in the Madera area. This year, water supplied from the Madera Irrigation District will provide a 60-day supply; down from the 90-day supply in 2010, which followed a wet winter.

Most of the vineyard blocks are flood irrigated, but the farm is slowly moving to all surface drip as funds are available.

About two-thirds of the almond acreage is under drip. Micro sprinklers irrigate the olives.  

Erickson noted that his canopy management techniques work well on his farm, but may not be as applicable in other California Muscat grape-growing areas.

Farm labor, powdery mildew

Only hand labor is used at harvest due to grape brittleness and close proximity to the ground.

Finding good, reliable farm labor for harvest is difficult, Erickson says.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the family tried a mechanized harvester with disastrous results.

“The machine almost destroyed the field. It tore up the vines and berms.”

Vineyard spacing for Muscat is 11-by-6 feet with 661 vines per acre. Many newer Muscat plantings in California are planted at 10-by-5 feet spacing.

Erickson’s Muscats are grown from rootings — not grafts.

Soils on the Erickson farm are mostly heavy clay which the Muscat plant prefers. Muscats respond favorably to high nitrogen levels. Plants receive up to 125 units of N through composted materials plus foliar applied and injected N.

The most serious disease problem is powdery mildew. This is largely the fallout of a thicker plant canopy and reducing wind flow and higher humidity. Shorter-than-usual intervals of fungicide and sulfur applications are common.

Worms can also threaten a Muscat crop.

According to the UC IPM website, “first through the early fourth instar larvae feed on the lower leaf surface leaving only veins and upper cuticle which gives a whitish paper-like appearance. Late fourth and all fifth-stage larvae skeletonize the leaves and leave only larger veins.

Eventually the entire leaf turns brown.

Abundant larvae numbers can defoliate vines by July. With severe defoliation, the larvae will feed on grape clusters resulting in bunch rot. Defoliation can also result in sunburned fruit and quality loss.”

“If skeletonizers are in your area they will go after Muscats,” Erickson said. “We haven’t had an outbreak in years but they will attack the Muscats hard.”

Erickson has no plans to increase his Muscat acreage. He believes California may be overplanted in the grape.

“Yet, we could have another White Zin situation. We all thought White Zin’s popularity was a fad and wouldn’t continue. White Zin has done very well for a long time.”

Time will tell.

(For more on Moscata, see: Moscato wine trend shows tremendous growth)

cblake@farmpress.com