Fowler, Calif., grape grower Ken Karle has signed a new contract to deliver his Grenache wine grapes to E & J Gallo Winery for the next five years.
When that contract expires, Karle will be 76, and the vineyard will be closing in on its 90th year of production.
Karle expects to sign a new contract in 2013 for the grapes that have gone to Gallo since 1959 from the old growth vineyard that has never failed to produce quality and high tonnage.
Grenache has been one of the cornerstones of SJV grape growing for decades like Carignane and French Colombard, all once popular varieties in the jug wine days. However, they have fallen on hard market times with the emergence of other, more sophisticated varietals. More than 130,000 acres of Valley vineyards have been taken out over the past decade. While Thompson seedless has been the largest part of that, old wine variety acreage has also been reduced significantly. For example, there were 13,000 acres of Grenache in the Valley in 1991. Today, the total stands at about 7,000 acres.
“For years, it seemed every ranch in the Valley had a little Grenache,” Karle said. That is no longer the case.
Karle's vineyard is undoubtedly one of the oldest in the Valley. The vines are planted with 10-foot rows and 6 feet between vines, an unusually close spacing for 1920.
The small Grenache block has been part of the Karle family farm since 1940 when the late Daniel Karle, Ken's father, started farming it.
The vines were planted 20 years before that. Ken says the vineyard has been an excellent producer for almost nine decades.
Vines seven, eight or nine decades old are common in the Valley, but few are as productive as the Karle Grenache vines.
This year the vineyard produced 14 tons of grapes per acre because Karle farms them not unlike a North Coast grape grower would farm premium Cabernet Sauvignon.
“The grapes were beautiful this year. There were no signs of rot or insect damage. I have always tried to grow a crop that brings out its best potential,” says Karle.
The 71-year-old Karle grew up on the same farm in rural Fresno County where the Grenache vineyard still thrives.
He has been farming since 1971. His current 200 acres consists of 60 acres on his family's farm, 80 acres he owns individually, and 60 he manages for a neighbor. Thompson Seedless, French Colombard, Muscat and Palomino are the other varieties Karle farms.
Karle is a typical San Joaquin Valley small acreage grape grower. He is also a vanishing breed. Unfortunately, there are increasingly fewer small grape growers in the Valley each year — most having left farming or having switched to other crops like almonds, due to low prices and oversupplies of Valley grapes.
“I am a dinosaur. I am like the mom-and-pop grocery store; my future as a grape grower is not bright.”
Nevertheless, Karle says he enjoys farming and plans to continue as long as he is healthy. “I am an eternal optimist. I always think things will have to get better.”
Karle is typical in another way. He has other income sources like many of his surviving peers. Many small growers work off the farm. For Karle, it was 33 years as a California Department of Forestry firefighter. He retired in 1991 as a battalion chief.
“I have never taken money from the farm to provide food and shelter for the family,” he says.
Karle tries to pour as much as he can back into the vineyards. For the past five years, that has been tough. “This is the first year in the past six that grapes have netted any money.”
Nevertheless, as with many farmers, the opportunity to produce a crop like his 2008 Grenache is worth the sacrifice.
“There is always satisfaction in doing something successful like growing the crop of Grenache we had this year. You want to take pride in doing the best job possible,” he added.
The vineyard has never been trellised. Ken's father tried to trellis a few rows years ago, but the vines did not respond with any higher yields and quality, so he went back to head pruning.
The vines are large and gnarly. Some have bases 2 feet in diameter. Arms go every direction from the old trunks.
“You can have as many as 40 fruiting spurs on a vine. There are a lot of small bunches. It looks sometimes like it will be a small crop, but it will fool you like this year when we got 14 tons per acre,” he says. The vineyard has averaged about 11 tons per acre over the years.
Gallo wants the grapes harvested early for its White Grenache wine program. Karle starts the handpicking crews at 20-21 Brix. Since he is early, he has had no problem getting pickers and he is one of the first at the winery.
“We work closely with the Gallo field men and they have helped get the production up by suggesting leaving maybe two spurs per arm on some of the more vigorous vines. We do not try to push the weaker vines, but try to maximize the more vigorous vines. I think that is one reason we had one of our biggest yields ever this season.”
His quality has always been good. He credits his irrigation strategy for at least part of that. “Gallo wants to get good color, although the grapes are made into White Grenache wine. The Gallo field people tell us not to irrigate from bloom to veraison to get the color and fruit flavor they want. That has been difficult to do sometimes, since heat spells are common during that same period. However, it has paid off,” he said.
Although the Grenache vineyard is in an area know for its sandy soils, Karle says there is a clay layer a few feet down that holds the water for the vines.
The 10-foot rows in the old vineyard offer a challenge. “The rows are so narrow, arms stick out so far that the tractor will knock them off if we do not saw them back. We have to try to keep the vines compact, and the only way to do that is with saws taking off the old wood.”
He is relegated to using commercial fertilizer because he cannot maneuver through the vineyard with small spreader. “We cannot get a compost or manure spreader through the vineyard. Rows are too narrow,” he says.
Karle practices an aggressive powdery mildew control program using a wide array of synthetic fungicides, Vintage, Rally, Flint, Kaligreen, Quintec and Scala last season. He only uses wettable sulfur in the first mildew treatment and it is tank-mixed with a fungicide. He counts on 21 days of control using the fungicides.
“My thought is if you do not invest in good powdery mildew control, you end up playing catch-up all season when you run into problems and wonder why,” he said.
Last year's array of fungicides was for rotating active ingredients to ward off resistance. He treated for leafhoppers with Nuprid, and Intrepid was applied for worm control. Britz Fertilizer's pest control advisors scout his vineyards and Britz is also his chemical supplier.
His biggest pest concern now is vine mealybug. “Everyone around me has it, but I don't yet. Some growers are aggressively going after it and others are doing nothing,” he says, concerned about a problem that would only add to his costs.
Vine mealybug is one of the most voracious and fastest spreading pests in the state. It not only damages vines, but high populations also ruin grapes with honeydew secretions and sooty mold. It is a very difficult pest to control because for most of the season it lives in the bark of the vines.
His vineyard is weed-free thanks to a February tank mix of Chateau, Roundup and Rely.
Karle markets his grapes through Allied Grape Growers. He has been a member since 1971. Allied is the largest grape marketing cooperative in the state.
Karle has been through too many economic troughs to be overly optimistic after this good year and relatively optimistic California grape demand predictions. Like most farmers, he is concerned about the current national economic malaise and its impact on demand for wine. “Consumers are cutting back and that could result in a potential downside in wine sales, which have been going up,” he noted.
“From what I hear and see for now, though, overall I think supply and demand is in balance. I think it is a good time to have grapes in the ground. However, I would not say it is a good time to think about planting grapes.”