Harvest underway throughout the valley; growers cautious in estimates

Grapes are nearing harvest at Watts Winery in Lodi.

Business Journal Writer

Growers are in the midst of harvest season, but it’s unclear as to what impact the unusually wet winter might have on this year’s yields.

The Stanislaus County Agriculture Commissioner’s office believes it is too early to determine yields of grape harvests this year until it gets closer to September. Tim Pelican, San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner, confirmed the correlating information and expressed that September would reveal more accurate findings on the yields this year.

Bruce Blodgett, Executive Director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau, agreed with the assessment.

“We won’t be able to tell until we get more into the season,” Blodgett said. “Sparkling and white wine are being pulled now, and we aren’t into the reds yet until later in September. It is better to count those numbers when we get them in, rather than to project. The other big factor is if we get weather early this fall or bad weather in September that can affect things as well.”

However, Stuart Spencer of the Lodi Winegrape Commission offered a different outlook.

“Most growers are estimating an average- to slightly-below-average yield this season,” Spencer said. “By most observations, there are less grapes in the field than last year. Some varieties seem to look better, and others are light.”

Bruce Fry, Vice President of Operations at Mohr-Fry Ranches, confirmed that yields were average to below average this year, with “chardonnay definitely looking light.”

David Lucas, Owner and Winemaker at The Lucas Winery, mirrored these statements.

“We started harvest and I would say Chardonnay is going to be light, which is good because we have too much chardonnay in tanks and bottles, so a light crop will hopefully bring things back to a better balance,” Lucas said.

The unusual weather provided challenges for growers with more rain throughout the year. Fry explained the rain helped “by not having to initiate irrigation until late June [about six weeks later than normal], which saved money from PG&E bills and helps our water aquifer.”

Lucas explained that the weather this year had the vines growing at a rapid pace, not slowing down due to the rain. Several growers actively needed to maintain shoot positioning and canopy management during this period just to keep up with the rain, until the vines slow down due to heat.

“With this deep rain, then the roots are able to explore and find minerals, like they got a shot of centrum silver,” Lucas said. “This year they just wouldn’t slow down until we hit this heat spell. They just kept growing and growing.”

Lucas said growers were removing leaf shoots possibly two or three times instead of just one time to open the canopy to get some sunlight in on the berries. He said that trimming helps create more flavors in the skin. He continued to explain that they spent more money on shoot positioning than anything else due to the amount of vigor this year.

Previous years offered an alternate set of challenges for growers.

“During the drought years, our old vines were particularly stressed, and saw less canopy growth and less crop. The younger vineyards with adequate drip irrigation systems managed the drought years much better,” Spencer said.

Overall, the rain can benefit the vines to replenish moisture in the soil, but Spencer said, “The excessive springtime moisture has also caused many parts of California to have mildew issues. This could ultimately affect yields.”

Another issue Fry faced when dealing with the rain was that he could not control the diseases in spring or “get equipment on the field due to wet soils.”

This year, Fry and Lucas both agree that labor continues to be the most challenging issue of all. With growers having a short window to work with during harvest, Lucas explained that growers are becoming nervous due to the lack of hands to help at vineyards.

With other job opportunities providing higher wages, regulations on immigration, people are not looking to do hard labor out in the field.

“There is no labor to be had. There is nobody to help. If we stop immigration period, then the Americans are going to go to work. I’ve never seen that happen. I’ve never seen anybody leave their job at In-N-Out Burger to come pick grapes,” Lucas said. “Last year, the guy managing my vineyards had supervisors out picking my grapes. These are guys who haven’t been out in the vineyards doing the harvesting. These are $20-25 an hour people and it is getting expensive.”

According to Blodgett, data continues to be compiled for an upcoming annual agriculture report to help provide comparative yield results for 2016. The San Joaquin County Agriculture Commission will hold a Board of Supervisors meeting on August 22 to discuss the report. When the meeting concludes, the official annual agriculture commission report for last year will be available to the public on their website.


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