As wine grape grower Carson Smith sees things, a third consecutive record-size crush this year looks doubtful.
The 2013 season marked the second year in a row that California’s wine grape growers set a new production record – nearly 4.7 million tons. That’s 7 percent higher than the previous high of close to 4.4 million tons in 2012.
“With the current drought situation, I don’t expect another big crop this year since some San Joaquin Valley vineyards face a very limited water supply and limited options,” he says. “However, with all of the recent new plantings in the state, 4 million tons may be the new normal.”
Smith expects to get his first glimpse of the size of his 2014 crop following bloom, which usually occurs in early May. Towards the end of May, he’ll get a better perspective on his crop’s production potential when he’ll be able to see how many of the clusters have actually set berries.
Last year, yields of his older vineyards, which include French Colombard planted more than 30 years ago and 16-year-old Ruby Cabernet vines, slipped a little below average. Typically the French Colombard produces around 16 or mores ton per acre range. Last year’s yields were about 8 percent below Smith’s five-year average. His Ruby Cabernet yields were also down 8 percent from their 12-ton-per-acre average.
However, his younger blocks of Chardonnay and Muscat Alexandria, in their second year of production, beat Smith’s pre-season expectations. Chardonnay production was a little over 10 tons per acre while the Muscat yields close to 20 tons per acre, he reports.
All the grapes are grown on contract with wineries. The older blocks are on five-year contracts, while the younger ones were planted on 12-year contracts. “Knowing you have a home for your grapes for the long term gives you some sense of security of earning a return on your investment when establishing a vineyard,” Smith explains.
Smith, who also serves as president of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association and as a member-at-large on the board of directors of the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG), began his career in agriculture in 1973, selling farm equipment. That was after graduating from Fresno State University, where he majored in agricultural economics. Two years later, he was working with a farm management company, based in Fresno, and learning how to grow wine grapes.
Today, Carson Smith Farming Co. co-owns and manages 800 acres of grapes in southwest Madera County along the San Joaquin River. This is his 17th season for managing that operation.
At one time, the vineyards included 755 acres of French Colombard and 45 acres of Ruby Cabernet. However, to take advantage of changing markets and spread out the harvest work, Smith replaced 200 acres of the French Colombard vines with 100 acres each of Chardonnay and Muscat Alexandria. Continuing this diversification, Smith is replacing another 140 acres of Chardonnay with Pinot Grigio this spring.
He has no access to surface water, relying solely on groundwater to irrigate his vines. With an adequate supply of groundwater Smith has not had to drill any new wells. That’s contrast many San Joaquin Valley growers. However, since 1998, he’s been treating his water with sulfuric acid to reduce pH levels to around 7.0. Otherwise, pH would be in the range of about 7.7 to 8.1, impeding water infiltration and causing salts to build up in the soil.
Smith flood irrigates his older blocks. In the fields where he replaced older vines with new ones, he reduced the spacing between rows from 12 feet 10 feet and added a drip irrigation system. However, he floods these blocks several times each year to flush salts out of the root zone.
Facing a new crop threat
Powdery mildew is the most consistent threat to Smith’s crop. Lately, though, he’s also been keeping a wary eye on red blotch, an emerging threat to growers throughout California’s wine grape country. This viral disease was first observed in California five years ago. Some symptoms of red blotch are similar to leaf roll. In fact, researchers suspect that this particular virus is the real cause of damage previously attributed to viruses that cause leaf roll disease and fan leaf. Red Blotch can reduce grape sugar levels by as much as 5º Brix.
“Fields infected with the disease either don’t get as ripe as wineries want or they’re the last fields to ripen. There are many variables when it comes to the severity of the effects of Red Blotch including climate, vine health, grape variety, and possibly which strain of red blotch is present.” Smith says.
Like any viral disease, there is no cure for red blotch and researchers have not verified how it is vectored. “It is best to start by using virus-free grapevine nursery stock when planting a new vineyard or when replacing infected vines in an existing vineyard,” he explains. “Within the Farm Bill that the CAWG pushed for, we were successful in helping to get language included that funds the National Clean Plant Network. That’s important to ensure an adequate supply of clean grapevine nursery stock.”
Lending a hand
Smith was one of the founding members of the Central California Winegrape Growers -- now the San Joaquin Valley Wine Growers Association -- which was established in 2001.
At the time, Smith managed more than 8,000 acres of wine grape vineyards in four counties for a major supplier of bulk wines to California wineries. “I felt an obligation to get more involved and try to help our industry,” he says.
Back then, prices for wine grapes grown in the San Joaquin Valley, which usually accounts for more than half of the wine grapes crushed each year in California, were at an unprecedented low – well below the cost of production, Meanwhile, growers were losing market share to other grape-growing areas of California, perceived to produce higher quality wines, as well as imports from around the world.
“Central California was the only wine grape growing region in the state without a growers association,” Smith recalls. “Wineries were telling us we needed to improve the quality of our grapes. So, with leadership and financial support from the California Association of Wine Growers we formed the Central California Winegrape Growers. Our goal was to enhance the quality, reputation and marketability of our products by educating growers on how to produce better grapes.”
Those educational programs continue today in the form of a series of tailgate workshops presented in the spring. This year’s meetings in March addressed such topics as new water use and monitoring regulations, the impact of drought on irrigation water quality and techniques for treatment and dealing with the effects of a dry winter on vine physiology.
Smith is now in serving his fifth year on the Board of the California Association of Winegrape Growers as one of two at-large members. As a growers advocate, this association provides leadership on research and education programs, public policies, sustainable farming practices and trade policy to enhance California’s wine industry.
“Until I got involved with CAWG, I didn’t realize all this group does behind the scenes representing the interests of wine grape growers to legislators at the state and national levels,” he says. “For example, we have been pushing policy makers in Washington, D.C., to reconsider certain programs and wine label regulations that favor the importation of bulk wine, which directly competes with wine made from grapes produced by Central Valley growers. Among other groups, CAWG also offered strong opposition to proposed new limits on the use of cash method accounting for agricultural business.
“Every season seems to offer some kind of challenge for wine grape growers. This year, of course, water is at the top of the list. But, the last two year’s large statewide wine grape crops are also a concern. The good part of the story is that the 2013 crop overall made very good quality wine. So, maybe it will offer stiffer competition for wine imported from other countries.”