In her seven years as winemaker at Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard near Solvang in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, Karen Steinwachs has never started harvesting grapes as early as she did this season. What’s more, she expects to finish picking the vineyard’s 39 acres of Bordeaux and Rhone varieties earlier than ever, too.
Following a warm and much drier-than-usual growing season she began the 2013 harvest, picking the first Sauvignon Blanc grapes on Sept. 6. That was almost as full month ahead of normal. “This year we had all the Sauvignon Blanc done sooner than we had ever started picking them before,” Steinwachs says.
Assuming the favorable weather continues through the remaining Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc harvest, Steinwachs expects to have everything picked by Halloween.
In fact, in mid-October she was already looking ahead to her November schedule. “I’m thrilled that we should have everything to barrel and to bed by Thanksgiving. “This year I’ll probably be able to relax and really enjoy the holiday,” she says.
The orderly progression of ripening in the vineyard has resulted in a more relaxing harvest, as well. It’s made the task of matching loads of incoming grapes with available space in fermentation tanks much easier.
In the vineyard, grape yields take a back seat to Steinwachs’ focus on balancing production on each vine. This year, yields have been running in the range of 3 to 3.5 tons per acre, Steinwachs reports. That’s about the same or a little higher than last year.
Except for doing more cluster thinning than usual, Steinwachs followed her customary vineyard management practices this year. “We had a lot of green drop,” she says. “The Grenache and Grenache Blanc produced a lot of fruit without a big canopy, which is characteristic of the two varieties. However, the clusters of Grenache Blanc were gigantic with big shoulders and wings. So we did a lot of clipping. We also threw a lot of fruit on the ground in blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec.”
A little botrytis and the first appearance of leafhoppers since 2008 were the only potential threats to the vines this season that required attention. To discourage the leafhoppers from feeding on the vines, she made a foliar application of Sil-Matrix.
The real highlight of this year’s early and orderly harvest for Steinwachs has been the quality of the grapes. Her crop has featured normal-size clusters with small berries. However, the clusters are heavier than usual, indicating a number of concentrated grapes, she notes.
Early seed ripening this year should mean good tannins in the wine, Steinwachs adds. “I’d like to think our use of tissue analysis to determine mineral and element needs plus micro-management of each block provided the plants with balanced nutrition that contributed to the early seed ripening,” she says. “However, many growers around here also enjoyed an early start to the harvest season.
“This harvest has been a winemaker’s dream. The grapes are delicious and there is a good amount of them. Everyone here is smiling.”