Development of the Sonoma County wine grape crop is running late, production of some key varietals is off significantly, and quality is still up in the air.
That’s what veteran grape grower Phil Enzenauer was seeing at mid-August.
The fourth-generation farmer owns Enzenauer Vineyard Management at Healdsburg, Calif., growing Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Champagne and Carignan grapes in the Anderson Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations.
“Right now, we’re probably two weeks behind,” he says. “If the weather stays cool and foggy, I don’t see us catching up.”
He traces this year’s lower production levels to the unusually cold and wet conditions last March.
“The weather was miserable when vines were supposed to be setting buds for this year’s crop,” he says. “Who knows what the 2011 crop will be like? This year, we have had the same weather as last year to a T, except for the heat wave we got last year — which we may still get.
He describes Chardonnay grapes in his Dry Creek vineyards as “lots of chicks and hens.” Because of such a wide variation in berry size, he expects Chardonnay tonnage there will be 15 percent to 20 percent less than normal.
Just to the south, in the Russian River Valley, his Chardonnay production is likely to be off even more, as much as 20 percent to 25 percent below normal.
“This is just what I’m seeing in my grapes,” he says. “I talk with a lot of other farmers, and my estimates may be even lower than theirs. In one of our Cabernet Sauvignon fields, the owner thinks the crop could be down 50 percent to 65 percent.”
That’s not all. Consider the differences in the development of this year’s Zinfandel crop in the Dry Creek Valley. Production on benches there may be down significantly as a result of adverse weather in 2010, when a wet, nasty spring reduced the fruit set. Later, an August heat wave added to stress on the vines, further harming the fruit set this year, Enzenauer says.
“Those guys will be lucky to get 50 percent of their normal crop this year,” he says. “Next year probably won’t be much better, because 2011 fruit is now on the fourth and fifth buds — but you want it on the first, second and third buds.”
It’s a different story in the Valley bottoms, however. “In vineyards by the creek, this year’s crop looks great,” Enzenauer says. Last year, production in those areas was below average.
Typically, cordon-pruned vines yield less than cane-pruned. This year, that difference is much more pronounced than usual in the Savignon Blanc, Enzenauer says.
“Production from vines that were cordon-pruned is probably off by 35 percent to 40 percent this year. But, on cane pruned vines, it may be down only by 10 percent to 15 percent. The only thing I can figure is that the canes withstood the cold 2010 spring weather better than the cordons.”
Although Enzenauer expects his vineyards to produce a decent amount of Sauvignon Blanc this year, other growers may not fare as well. Three Sauvignon Blanc growers told him that they had little, if any, grapes.
“They say this is one of their worst Savignon Blanc crops ever. Many growers who do have Sauvignon Blanc this season say they won’t be selling to wineries, because they can make more money custom crushing it and selling it for bulk.”
Despite the chicks and hens in some Chardonnay vineyards, Enzenauer has seen fewer, but bigger bunches than normal in others.
“It’s hard to say if we’ll make good quality,” he says. “Will we get the hang time that wineries like, or bad weather?”
However, he says, “anyone who has been paying attention and has clean fruit can keep it clean by aggressive mildew control. We are seeing some mildew, but not a lot. As long as we can keep grapes clean, we can get it all delivered.”
Vines have been putting less energy into producing grapes and more into in fueling growth of foliage, Enzenauer says, and managing the vigorous vine growth has been a major challenge for growers this season.
Usually, Sonoma County growers hedge vines just once a season in July, but he says, “Some of us have cut canes twice already to keep canopies open and air flowing. And, we might have to do it again — I still have green shoots growing.”
As labor costs increase, grower margins keep getting thinner, but Enzenauer thinks the market for Sonoma County’s premium grapes is improving, if only slightly.
“I think buyers are finding there’s more of a shortage of grapes this season than they had been thinking earlier in the year. Unlike last year, I’ve been able to sell all my grapes this season, which indicates to me that things might be loosening up a bit. But, buyers are still keeping their money pretty tight.”