Santa Barbara County wine grape grower Ben Merz has his sights set on a much better outcome this year than the past two grape-growing seasons.
“Overall, the weather pattern has been very favorable all season long,” he says.
Merz is one of four owners of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, a vineyard management company based in Buellton, Calif. The company manages more than 3,500 acres of vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. A majority of their vineyards represent three appellations: Santa Rita Hills in the western part of the county, closest to the Pacific Ocean, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive; Ballard Canyon, to the east, which supports such Rhone varieties as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Roussanne; and, still farther to the east, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, where the vineyards include such grapes as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Along with the weather, sales of Central Coast grapes have also improved.
“This has been the biggest turnaround in the market we’ve seen in a long time,” Merz says. “In 18 months, we went from having a hard time finding a home for our grapes to wineries ordering grapes immediately and also willing to pay more for them.”
Usually, Merz starts selling grapes for his clients in February and doesn’t sell out until around July, he notes. This year, he had sold all of the 2012 crop by the beginning of May. Overall prices are 10 percent to 20 percent over last year.
By mid-August most of his varieties were in veraison. That includes about 75 percent of the Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills that had completely turned. Veraison began about a week sooner than last year and even earlier than in 2010. Merz saw the first color on grapes in mid-July on some hillside Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills. That’s the normal schedule, he notes. “Due to the hot weather in the first part of August, most varieties are coloring up at about the same time,” he says.
Except for treating for a few spider mites in some vineyards and spraying for leafhoppers occasionally, the threat of insect damage this season has been low, Merz adds.
Still, this season hasn’t been without challenges. Due to more moderate temperatures than normal this summer, growers faced a greater threat from powdery mildew. “With more hours of the day when temperatures remained in the 70 to 85-degree range, powdery mildew pressures went through the roof,” Merz says.
Until the threat from this disease eased with the onset of veraison, growers were spending more time and money than usual to control it. That meant applying fungicides more frequently and removing more leaves around the grape clusters to expose them to air and sunlight.
Merz also has had to contend with a problem he’s never faced before. “This season we’ve had to figure out how to farm our acres in a timely manner with fewer people,” he says
The recession helped mask the inherent labor problem in the past two years, he notes. Due to high unemployment rates growers were able to hire the people they needed. However, now grapes growers are losing labor to producers of other local crops, like blueberries and strawberries, who can afford to pay higher wages and whose farms are closer to the area’s labor markets, like Lompoc and Santa Maria, Merz adds.
(For more, see: Labor shortage looms over wine grape harvest)
“It’s becoming very difficult to find the labor we need to get all our work done in the vineyards,” he says. “It’s a big challenge for us.”
Merz’s crews in mid-August took advantage of fruit coloring to thin out still-green clusters and adjust the crop load for harvest. They were also putting up netting to prevent bird damage.
Merz could start this year’s grape harvest in the third week of August with the warmer hillside plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara appellation.
Based on cluster counts and weights, he expects to bring in more grapes this year than in the past few seasons. “It looks like a very average crop of about 3 tons per acre for the red varieties and up to 4 tons for some of the whites,” he reports.
(For more, see: Guest worker program needed to provide agriculture labor)