At the end of June, with the 2013 crop in her Sierra Foothills vineyards on a fast track to ripening, wine grape grower Carol Laubach was expecting harvest to begin as much as 10 to 14 days earlier than usual. Then came the spell of hot weather in early July, slowing the pace of fruit development. By mid-August she had revised her estimate.

“Now it appears that timing of the first grapes to be harvested will be spot-on average,” says Laubach. That’s likely to be her Sacramento County Viognier blocks in the Sloughhouse AVA. They should be ready to pick by the end of August.

As owners of Lauzere Vineyard Services, based in Pine Grove, Calif., she and her husband, Dave, manage vineyards in three other appellations, as well –  Fair Play in El Dorado County and Fiddletown and Shenandoah Valley in Amador County.  Elevations range from 300 feet to 2,200 feet.

The Laubachs have been growing grapes since establishing Lauzere Vineyards in Amador County in 1995. In all, they grow about a dozen different varieties. The list includes Zinfandel, the most widely grown grape in the Sierra Foothills, and such others as Syrah, Petit Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, Tempranillo, Marsanne and Roussanne.

Following last year’s well-above-average crop size, Carol expects this year’s tonnage to about average. For example, yields of her Viognier appear to be about 4 to 4.25 tons per acre, while Zinfandel production is probably more like 4.5 tons per acre, she notes.

Normally, powdery mildew isn’t much of threat in Laubach’s vineyards. It’s been even less so this year. She’s working with University of California researchers on a powdery mildew control study in some blocks. “Even in the non-treated vines, it’s amazing how little pressure there was from the disease this season,” she says.

However, an outbreak of measles, which appears periodically in her own Amador County vineyard, posed a bigger concern. The fungal disease, which can occur at any time during the growing season, affects both foliage and berries. If severe enough, the disease can cause leaves to drop and canes to die back from the tips. Small, round dark spots, surrounded by a brown-purple ring, may form on the berries between fruit set and ripening. In the worst case, the berries often crack and dry on the vine or spoil.

“Although it didn’t affect a significant area of our vineyard, there was a quite a bit more of the disease than we’ve seen in the last few years,” Carol says.

An unusually large number of mites, which appeared earlier than usual in mid-May, required an extra spray application to control, she adds.

As elsewhere in California this season, precipitation has been on the short side this year. Although as much as an inch of rain fell on some of her vineyards in June, it came too late to benefit the vines much, Carol reports. To reduce stress in her dryland vineyards, she removed more fruit and spurs than usual.

Boosting vineyard performance

“We spend a lot of time walking through the vineyards, paying attention to each block and managing the canopy and crop load to meet the vines’ needs,” she says.

This year’s she’s had the opportunity to do even more of that from owners who have given her the green light to boost vineyard performance.

“That’s fun,” Carol says. “I like being able to fine-tune the vines to see just how much we can get them to do for us and what the winemaker can do with the grapes.”

She’s encouraged by the preliminary results. “I like how quickly and evenly the grapes are going through veraison,” she says. “We’re far enough along to start picking up the individual flavors. We’ll find out how much of a difference we’ve made once the winemakers work their magic.”

In the meantime, the Laubachs are finishing up fruit thinning as they await the start of harvest.  So far, her labor contractor hasn’t reported any problems getting the crews needed to pick the grapes, Carol notes. Ideally, the Sierra Foothills harvest won’t coincide with that in the San Joaquin Valley. “It’s always tough getting crews when both areas are harvesting at the same time,” Carol explains. “But, usually, our grapes are ready later and workers can move from the Valley to us and it works out pretty well. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

 

If you would like to read more about California grape growing, subscribe to GrapeLine, the exclusive electronic newsletter sponsored twice a month by Chemtura: See here for sign-up. It’s free and e-mailed the second and fourth weeks of each month from March through October.

 

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