This year’s Santa Cruz Mountains harvest has been nothing less than riveting for viticulturist Prudy Foxx.
“The grapes just haven’t quit coming,” says Foxx who works with growers throughout the 1,500-acre appellation between Monterey Bay and the Santa Clara Valley. “It’s the biggest crop we’ve seen here since 1997 and the quality of the grapes is exceptional, as well. That’s not a surprise. We could see it happening as the crop developed. But the reality is that we have to keep up with it.”
That’s meant organizing crews to pick the right grapes on the right day. It’s also meant lining up the trucks to deliver the filled bins so that the fruit arrives at the right winery at the exact peak of quality desired by that particular wine maker.
She and her crews started in late August, about a week earlier than usual. They’ve been at it – full speed – every day since.
By Oct. 7, they were in the middle of their Chardonnay harvest after finishing the Pinot Noir and before heading into the Syrah vineyards. She expects to begin wrapping up that part of the harvest by the middle of October. Her crews should be finished with the last of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Syrah by the end of this month. That would be well ahead of the customary finish in this area, which can run as late as Thanksgiving.
In addition to the earlier harvest date, the fruit is as ripe, full bodied and balanced as she has ever seen in this area. “This is an exceptional vintage in every way,” Foxx says. “Flavors are simply sensational.”
This year’s big crop is the result of a perfect growing season, Foxx notes. It began with consistently warm spring temperatures that produced a strong, uniform set across all the area’s varieties. It continued with even, perfect weather and little disease pressure, which led to development of uniformly-sized berries and beautifully-formed clusters.
The grapes promise something for everyone’s tastes in wine, she says. Without threatening weather, she’s been able to harvest grapes based on such quality factors as phenolic and color development rather than having to pull fruit off due to a forecast of rain.
“Consumers will have a great deal of choice in terms of wine styles,” Foxx says.
“It’s been almost a winemaker’s year. We’ve been able to provide fruit that meets the individual vision of various winemakers, whether they want grapes picked early with low sugars and low alcohol, later grapes that are full in flavor or grapes to make the blockbuster wines with more sugar and higher alcohol.”
Except for a few vineyards that didn’t get a good, early set, yields are averaging about 25 percent higher than normal, Foxx reports. In fact, some growers are harvesting crops in several areas that are as much as 50 percent to even 100 percent larger than usual.
This season also provided a graphic demonstration of how two different approaches to canopy management in a season of high crop production can affect grape quality.
In one Pinot Noir vineyard, a grower failed to thin a proliferation of clusters aggressively early in the season. While harvest tonnage was high, quality of the grapes in terms of wine taste, color and mouth feel suffered.
“The clusters were bunched up and the berries ripened unevenly,” Foxx says. “The grapes were harvested at different times. But, in each case, we saw both red and dark berries. The fruit quality was degraded and it had to be discounted.”
In another instance, the grower performed the labor himself to tend an older, 3-acre Pinot Noir vineyard. To control an ongoing problem in the vineyard of high-vigor canopy growth, last winter the grower left an extra cane on a wire above the standard spur pruned cordon. Normally, this kicker cane is pruned off after bud set to help direct energy away from the canopy and into fruit development. But, this season, Foxx notes, the strong-growing canopy appeared capable of supporting the additional clusters on this second cane.
The grower spent a good deal of time manipulating the clusters to prevent them from becoming jammed together. Also, he spread out canes and pulled leaves to provide good air flow without exposing the grapes to direct sunlight and the risk of sunburn.
“That grower harvested over 5 tons of Pinot Noir per acre and hit all the quality parameters on the money,” she says.
“This season has taught us that there is no one right way to grow quality wine grapes and no cookie cutter equation to determine the optimal weight per acre. Everything depends on the site, the fruit, and the weather. Truly, terroir reigns supreme in 2013.”