Veteran vineyard manager Duff Bevill divides the 2011 Sonoma County wine grape harvest into two distinct phases — before early October rains and afterward.
Bevill Vineyard Management LLC, Healdsburg, Calif., oversees the care of vineyards ranging in size from 5 to 200 acres throughout the county.
The cooler-than-usual growing season pushed his normal late-August start of harvest to mid-September. But the harvest went faster than usual and he finished well before the end of October. Before the rains came, he was able to pick all of his Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes in warmer areas outside of the Russian River Valley, along with much of the Pinot Noir and some of Zinfandel.
“Everyone loves the Sauvignon Blanc — the wines are wonderful,” he smiles. “The pre-rain-harvested Chardonnay grapes were very good and the quality of the Pinot Noir fruit that went to ultra–premium wineries was outstanding.”
The quality of grapes picked later was more variable, he says. Quality of the Chardonnay picked immediately after the first rain wasn’t up to that of those harvested earlier.
“I haven’t tasted wine from the Chardonnay picked well after the first rain, but I’ve heard that the winemakers earned their money to make those wines,” Bevill says. Zinfandel grapes picked after the first rain don’t have the flavor and color intensity of those picked earlier; still, they are very good, he says.
All of his Cabernet Sauvignon was harvested after the rainy weather began. “None of the wines I’ve tasted from those grapes are bad, by any stretch, but some are more outstanding than others.”
Adverse and untimely weather certainly took its toll in his vineyards, Bevill says. “Basically, we started the season with an average crop size that was reduced at bloom by flower shatter and again at harvest by rainfall. Yields in our Sauvignon Blanc were down 30 percent to 40 percent, and some of our Cabernet Sauvignon blocks were down more than 50 percent. Some had a horrible 1.5 ton per acre yield, but other blocks produced in the 4 tons to 5 tons per acre range, which is what we normally expect in those blocks.”
Bevill wouldn’t be surprised to see an average crop this year, based on his December bud evaluation, which identifies the number and viability of fruit clusters within the bud. While not foolproof, he says, bud analysis has proven valuable over the years. He started the testing more than 10 years ago and has been doing it regularly for the past seven years.
“At first I couldn’t wrap my arms around the value of the information bud analysis gave me. But once I started tracking the results and referencing it to previous year’s bud analysis and final harvest numbers, I began to appreciate its value. It helps improve our financial planning and viticultural decisions, such as adjusting our pruning practices for the coming crop.
“The good news is that sales of wines at the $20 a bottle and higher price points, like those made from grapes grown in Sonoma County, jumped in the third quarter of last year.”
He expects the demand for fruit will only accelerate over the next few months.
“We’re talking with wineries on a more active basis at this time of the season than we have in many, many years,” Bevill says. “That’s pretty encouraging — we’re seeing some light after the pretty dismal past three or four years.”