Wine grape grower Ed Muns likes a challenge, which is one reason he selected Pinot Noir when planting his 13-acre vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Los Gatos, Calif. in 1998.
“If I was going to the trouble of growing grapes, I wanted the satisfaction of accomplishing something that was a little more difficult,” he says.
At 2,600 feet, the vineyard, perched on a ridge overlooking Monterey Bay, is probably the highest Pinot Noir vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, which is defined by elevation. It straddles the mountains from Half Moon Bay south to Mount Madonna, extending down to an elevation of 800 feet into the Santa Clara Valley to the east and to the 400-foot level on the coastal side to the west.
Wine grape acreage totals less than 1,500, with production spread over 200 and more vineyards, ranging in size from one to 64 acres. Only about 40 of the vineyards exceed 10 acres.
The region is characterized by several micro-climates that support cool climate varieties like Pinot Noir and warmer climate varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, as well as Chardonnay, Syrah and many others.
On the ridge top at Muns’ vineyard, moderate daytime temperatures, cool nights, gentle breezes and maximum sunlight are an ideal combination for growing Pinot Noir. But, its tendency to produce prolific lateral growth in the canopy and a number of second clusters calls for more attention in managing vines compared to other varieties, like Syrah.
“Syrah vines come up and pretty much take care of themselves,” Muns says. “Except for the initial pruning, you don’t have to do much to balance the fruit. Clusters are spaced evenly throughout the canopy and develop nicely.” He has a small block of Syrah.
“It’s much harder to get Pinot Noir established and trained,” he says. “It requires more pruning to manage the canopy, more labor for thinning fruit and tucking shoots, and because of thinner skins, Pinot Noir is more sensitive to sunburn. So, getting proper exposure of fruit is critical.”
Muns’ vineyard sits just above the coastal fog layer that swathes Santa Cruz. “As a result,” he says, ‘the vineyard is air conditioned, but in sunlight, which increases photosynthesis. Close in-row vine spacing, at 3-1/2 feet, minimizes stress on the vines and allows me to maximize fruit per plant.”
When he bought his 77-acre ranch, he kept the existing 7-foot vine spacing and 10-foot rows. But, he doubled the in-row vine density, resulting in 3.5 feet unilateral cordons for each vine.
“With this very short cordon, I don’t ask for a lot of clusters from each vine, and the 10-foot row spacing provides plenty of soil for the roots,” he says. “It provides the right balance of canopy size and fruit loads for the yield and quality I want.”
As mild summer temperatures continued into mid-July, with daily high temperatures in the 60s and 70s and nighttime lows in the 40s and 50s, his yield and quality prospects were looking especially promising.
“My vineyard, like others in this appellation, looks great,” Muns says. “The vines have one of the best crop loads we’ve ever seen.”
Last year, by contrast, yields were very low due to heavy June rains during flowering that disturbed pollination and reduced crop load.
Although bud break vineyard this year didn’t occur until April 20, about six weeks later than usual, Muns’ Pinot Noir vines bloomed right on schedule, beginning May 26.
“A little less than half an inch of rain June 6 disturbed the bloom a bit and probably contributed to some variation in berry size,” he says. “Overall, though, the set looks great.”
By June 20 almost all the Pinot Noir vines had set fruit. As with other stages of development, fruit set on Syrah was about 10 days later.
His program of regularly treating for powdery mildew, along with little disease pressure this year, has kept that disease threat under control. And, as usual, pressure from insects — mainly, sphinx moths, mealybugs and spider mites — has been low this season.
In mid-July, Muns finished dropping about 8 tons of fruit across the 12 acres of Pinot Noir — more than normal — to reduce cluster density and encourage optimal berry ripening.
Last year’s normal cluster counts were deceptive. “The clusters appeared to be tight, but they only had about half their normal weight,” he says. “This year, the clusters have already closed and they’re really hard.” He expects veraison in early August, which is typical.
“I’m very optimistic at this point,” Muns says. “Everyone around here is reporting great fruit and a prolific set. We’re all cautiously optimistic; if we can get through next few months without any problems, this could be one the best harvests in this region in 15 to 20 years.”
He expects to start picking grapes at the normal time in mid-September, which would be a welcome change from the past two years when October harvests were threatened by fall rains.
Muns reserves about 10 percent of his production for his own wine label, and has regular buyers for the rest of his crop.
Even with a bountiful crop this season, growers in the Santa Cruz Mountains should be able to find a home for their grapes, he says. “I haven’t heard of anyone having problems selling their fruit this year.”