Earlier this summer, Sonoma County grower Ramona Nicholson expected to be harvesting her Pinot Noir grapes by the last week of August. Instead, at the end of the month the crop appeared to be seven to 10 days from being ready. Veraison started normally in early July. However, following a week of 90-degree weather in the first part of August, sugar levels have been slower-than-usual in rising.
Nicholson was planning to start picking her Chardonnay the first week of September. She and her business partner, Deepak Gulrajani, own Nicholson Ranch Winery where they share grape growing and winemaking duties. The family’s 30-acre estate vineyard is located in the Sonoma Valley/Sonoma Coast appellation 5 miles south of the town of Sonoma.
Their wine varietals include 14 acres each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay along with an acre each of Merlot and Syrah.
“The vineyard has looked very nice this year,” Nicholson says. “The foliage is quite healthy and the vines are happy. We’ve had a much more normal growing season than the last several years and are hoping for a dry harvest, as opposed to the rain we suffered during the past two harvests.”
This season has also featured little pressure from powdery mildew, and low populations of insect pests, mainly grapevine mealybug. She sprays for it, as needed, on a vine-by-vine basis rather than treating an entire block of grapes at once.
“Almost 75 percent of our Pinot Noir has received no irrigation water yet this season,” she says. “We’ve even dry-farmed some of our Chardonnay this year. After harvest, though, we’ll give the vines a deep drink.”
Nicholson likes to harvest the Pinot Noir at about 25 brix and the Chardonnay at 23. They’ll easily reach those sugar levels this year, she notes.
“The quality of these grapes looks exceptional this year,” she says. “Yields appear to be average to slightly higher. I farm to get 3 tons per acres and hope to get that this year. The Pinot Noir berries look a little plumper than usual. So, I think they’ll produce a slightly heavier crop this season. I’ve also heard of other vineyards, also dry-farmed, with very plump Pinot Noir. Berry size of the Chardonnay seems normal.”
Nicholson’s Merlot, which was fully colored by the end of August, usually is ready for harvest in early to mid-October. Normally, the Syrah grapes don’t come off until the end of October.
“They’re almost 100 percent colored up now,” she says.”We just dropped the green grapes on them to keep the vines balanced.”
Because she tries to pick each section of the vineyard when the grapes are at their prime, she picks grapes on as many as 20 different days throughout the harvest season. “The vineyard management companies here in Sonoma and Napa work together in sharing crews whenever possible to get the fruit off as soon as it’s ready.”
To help make the best use of skilled labor, Nicholson tried something new for the first time this season — mechanical leaf pulling. It cut her labor costs by $50 per acre, she reports.
She used the machine to remove more than half the leaves in the fruiting zone on the morning sun side of the vines. That made it easier for her crews to go through and fine-tune the vine by hand as only skilled workers can.
“I’ve always tried to do everything in the vineyard by hand,” Nicholson says. “But the mechanized equipment continues to get better, including the grape pickers. I’m thrilled about that, because as more people harvest with machines it frees up labor to do the higher-end picking.”