As Santa Barbara County’s 2012 grape harvest kicks off, winemakers and vineyard managers are anticipating both quality fruit and tonnage more aligned with what one viticulturist called a “long-term average.”
This year’s growing season incorporated more seasonal warmth, average rainfall and an ideally timed heat spike in mid-August.
In April 2011, a two-night freeze killed green growth from vines’ primary buds, leading to a harvest crop that many vineyard managers and winemakers called less than half of “average” tonnage. The county saw some frost this year, but it caused minimal damage.
While some grape varietals, including the pinot noir and chardonnay used in sparkling wines, were picked as early as mid-August, most berries growing on vines in the Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills appellations will require more “hang time” before they reach maturity.
In part because current temperatures have been “mellow,” picking will be sporadic, noted Jim Stollberg, owner of Maverick Farming Company, manager of 500 acres of vineyards across the Santa Maria Valley. Harvesting will ramp up this week, “and then two weeks out we’ll be pretty busy” as the season shifts into high gear, he said.
At Kessler-Haak Vineyard on the cool, western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, owner/winemaker Dan Kessler said Tuesday that the 30 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes he grows had just finished verasion, the onset of ripening, and he estimated his harvest would begin around Oct. 1
The pinot noir growing at Lafond Winery & Vineyards, where Kessler is assistant winemaker, likely will be harvest ready by next week, and the chardonnay in October and syrah by November, he said. Lafond is located closer to the southern edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, making it warmer than Kessler-Haak, although just a handful of miles separate the two vineyards.
In Lompoc on Tuesday morning, the cellar crew at one winery was busy cleaning and sanitizing barrels in anticipation of the vintage’s first grapes. Dragonette Cellars’ Assistant Winemaker James Sparks and “cellar rat” Riley Wathen prepped the cellar for sauvignon blanc grapes set to be trucked from Vogelzang and Grassini vineyards.
Both sites are located in the country’s warmest region, the AVA known as Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, an appellation that showcases Bordeaux grape varietals that thrive on heat.
In 2011, Dragonette picked its Vogelzang sauvignon blanc Sept. 13, said Brandon Sparks-Gillis, one of Dragonette’s three owner/winemakers. While
Sept. 4 and 13 are just over a week apart, the difference between the two vintages’ harvest dates is “a measurable swing, especially because sauvignon blanc is sensitive” to temperature variations, he said.
Within one hour, a team of Sparks-Gillis, John Dragonette, co-owner/winemaker, Sparks and Wathen had used a forklift to hoist from a flatbed trailer the bins of grapes hand-harvested that morning starting at 6:30.
Three-plus tons of grapes later, a liquid curtain of fresh sauvignon blanc juice dripped from the press into a holding bin before Wathen pumped it straight into a 550-gallon stainless steel tank, where the juice would settle overnight before being barreled Wednesday, Sparks-Gillis said.
The grapes from Vogelzang Vineyard on Tuesday represented the first of two batches of sauvignon blanc; the remainder would trickle in for processing “over the next two or three weeks.”
Harvesting would likely be “staggered,” meaning crews first would pick clusters from the “outside” of a vine — those in direct sunlight — and make a second pass at a later date for “inside” clusters that required more maturing, Sparks-Gillis said.
Dragonette Cellars sources an acre or less of grapes from 15 different vineyards, ranging from the warmer Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (sauvignon blanc) to the cooler Sta. Rita Hills (grenache), he said.
Freelance writer Laurie Jervis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is www.centralcoastwinepress.com.