With the California wine grape harvest in full swing, 2013 is shaping up as a good year for many growers, including vineyard manager Jim Stollberg at Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria.

Presqu’ile (pronounced press-KEEL) Winery kicked off its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape harvests in early September, followed by pickings of Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Nebbiolo grapes. The harvests should wrap up in mid October.

“The wine grape yields are at our estimates or slightly better and the berries are slightly larger than usual,” Stollberg says. “Grape quality looks good and the fruit is clean. The feedback from our winemakersis very positive.”

This fall is the first harvest of Nebbiolo grapes.

The 200-acre operation located in the Santa Maria Valley (SMV) in Southern California’s Santa Barbara County includes 72-acres of premium wine grapes, said Stollberg during Farm Press’ late July visit.

The area’s unique east-to-west flow of cool marine breezes creates an excellent environment to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

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Started in 2007, Presqu’ile Winery includes the vineyards and winery. The operation is owned and operated by two generations of the Murphy family, with Matt Murphy at the helm.

Winemaker Dieter Cronje focuses on premium to luxury wines - mostly Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Total case production last year was about 3,000. Estimates this year fall in the 5,000 case range.

The wine price points are Chardonnay in the mid $30 range; Pinot Noir - upper $30s-$50s; Syrah - $40 range; and Sauvignon Blanc in the mid $20s.

Cronje prefers to harvest high acid, lower-sugar grapes.

Presqu’ile sells about one quarter of its tonnage to seven wineries in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Presqu’ile also sources grapes from local vineyards.

Wine grape production

Stollberg manages Presqu’ile’s vineyards and viticulture program through his farm management and consulting business, Maverick Farming.

Looking at grape production practices, Stollberg’s yield targets for Presqu’ile-grown fruit is 3 tons per acre for Pinot Noir, 4 tons/acre for Chardonnay, 4.5 tons/acre for Sauvignon Blanc, 3.5 tons/acre for Syrah, and 2 tons/acre for Nebbiolo.

Twenty-two clones are grown.

“Our basic philosophy is to use minimal inputs to reach the target quality characteristics and tonnages,” Stollberg said.

The target brix level for Chardonnay is 21.5-22, Pinot Noir 22-22.5, Syrah 22.5-23.5, and Sauvignon Blanc 21-22.

Vineyard spacings are close - 4X6 and 4X8. All vines are trellised with the vertical shoot position (VSP) system.

“The vineyards are planted in close spacings to produce the needed grape tonnage and quality to make the operation economical,” Stollberg said. “We can’t carry too much fruit on the vines due to the sandy, low-vigor soils.”

Most rootstocks on the ranch are 3309, 101-14, and 1103P.

“We have diverse rootstocks based on changes in soil structure and soil depth which impact drought susceptibility,” Stollberg explained. “Some vines are planted on their own rootstock, including some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”

Grapes are grown under certified “Sustainability in Practice” guidelines.

On the plant disease and pest front, powdery mildew is common in the SMV due to the long, cool growing season. Stollberg applies spray applications of the fungicides Quintec, Flint, Mettle, Abound, and Kocide in rotation to provide mildew and botrytis control.

The mantra on shoot and cluster thinning is to maximize vine uniformity down the row and manage pests. Work crews cluster thin, pull leaves, remove suckers, and harvest by hand.

All irrigation is with groundwater. Since the vines grow in shallow, sandy soils, the irrigation cycles are frequent and for shorter periods of time – usually 2-3 times a week early in the season. Once veraison occurs, irrigations are spread out to every 3-4 days and then 4-5 days to move the vine from vegetative growth to fruit maturation.

About two acre feet of irrigated water is applied annually. Until recent years, the Santa Maria Valley received about a foot of rainfall annually. The last couple of years have been rain short. Groundwater levels are beginning to drop.

“We all need a long, wet winter where the water doesn’t all run out to the ocean,” the vineyard manager said.

Water needs in the vines are determined by visual cues of the vine and leaves - the condition of shoot tips, petiole blade leaf angles, and the inner node length.

Farm labor solutions = efficiency

Stollberg echoes the concerns of many growers on the farm labor issue. He is concerned not only about the lack of available workers and increasing labor costs, but the lack of experienced labor in wine grapes.

“Until about five years ago, farm workers generally worked in one specific crop year after year. Today many of them work in different crops from year to year. For growers, this results in lost efficiency,” Stollberg said.

“We have to train people over and over on general vineyard practices and the detail work we do. I hope the big picture of immigration reform and a stabilized workforce gets sorted out soon.”

The top goal at Presqu’ile, Stollberg says, is to stabilize costs and increase efficiencies. Farm labor instability tends to increase costs.

Frost is rare at Presqu’ile due to the rolling hillsides and good air flow which is not the norm in the SMV. Stollberg has turned on the water a handful of times to protect the vines from the cold over the last six years.

Cover crops include blando brome and zorro fescue perennial grasses replaced every 3-5 years. The grasses are mowed in the summer to create a good “mat on the ground.” After the grape harvest, the ground is ripped to plant annual cover crops, including triticale and a vetch-pea mix, which grow quickly and help reduce hillside soil erosion.

Stollberg was asked about the areas were Presqu’ile excels in wine grape production. First on his list was production efficiencies, including employees who multi-task extremely well.

A second area, Stollberg says, is sound viticulture practices with a clear target at harvest on grape quality and quantity. This reduces trips through the vineyard.

He spends a lot of desk time planning and working out soil, water, and fertility issues to achieve these targets.

Stollberg said, “The result is lower physical input in the vineyard which creates more efficiency.”

Looking back at last six years of operation, Stollberg says he and the Murphy family are pleased with the progress made on the operation so far. The vines are maturing and achieve production targets.

In the future, up to 25 more acres (100 acres total) may be planted to meet Presqu’ile’s growing needs which would be about the maximum possible vineyard space on the property.

“We may not make many changes in varietals, but we might increase the clone diversity in Pinot Noir, including some Swan clones,” Stollberg said.

He will experiment with alternatives to traditional VSP trellising including head training and tighter spacings in Pinot Noir.

“We want to push the edges on traditional Pinot Noir growing techniques to get a different grape to gain diversity in the winery,” Stollberg concluded.

cblake@farmpress.com

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