Sep 20, 2017
California winegrape growers soaked with concerns

The current season is bringing mixed results for California winegrape growers, who had an unexpectedly wet winter. The harvest is shaping up to show average yields, or even a little under average, industry professionals said in early August.

“It’s not going to be a bumper crop,” said California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) President John Aguirre.

Moisture was in the soil, bud break and onset of ripening arrived on time, but the challenges were different this year. Growers in some areas dealt with oversize canopies, the risk of flooding and threat of disease.

Lodi is one of the areas hardest hit by the rains – getting about 32 inches of rain where it had previously had 17 inches.

“If growers were attentive to canopy balance, irrigation management and mildew control, quality should be excellent,” said Aaron Lange, vineyard manager at Lodi’s LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards.

“I think bunch counts were lower in Chardonnay and Petite Sirah this year and bloom and fruit set caused some shot berry in Zinfandels,” added Lange, who’s also chairman of CAWG.

Aguirre said that while there were concerns about flooding and mildew in some localities, on the whole, winegrape growers welcomed the wet season. Increased rain and surface water flushed out salts that can accumulate in the soil from years of groundwater irrigation.

“The plants, at the end of the day, are much happier for it,” he said.

UC Davis Extension Viticulture Advisor Paul Verdegaal said despite the perception of heavy rain, some of the southwest wine regions – Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara – barely made it into the double digits of inches of rain as of early August.

“They don’t get a lot, compared to the north,” he said.

Source: USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Pacific Regional Office – California

Variety, experimentation

Most varietal plantings go in cycles determined by market demand. Overall, the 2016 California winegrape crop was dominated by mainstays: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, French Colombard and Merlot.

Verdegaal said that growers are more and more concerned with “premiumization” – trying to market their winegrape crop as a different and superior product. It’s a response, he said, to consumers drinking less, but more expensive wine.

Some higher-end growers with older vineyards are stuck with Bordeaux varieties, while others are turning to “fighting varietals” to differentiate their product from the competition.

“There’s an interest in trying to grow a lot of different things,” he said.

Over the last six years or so, Lange has seen much more interest from Lodi in Teraldego, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot and some Italian reds.

“Lodi also produces very nice Albarino, Pinot Gris and Verdelho,” he said.

California’s 2016 crop of 4.2 million tons of crushed grapes was larger than the two previous years, but lower than 2012 and 2013, according to the USDA. Growers in 2016 received an average of $763 dollars per ton – the highest average price the California growers have seen for decades.

Prices varied by region – the USDA’s Pacific Regional office reported that grapes produced in Napa County had the highest average price, at $4,685 per ton.

“Most growers don’t depend on cash price or market price for their fruit,” Lange said. “They are longer term contracts with fixed or minimum base pricing schemes.”

California grapes 2016 harvest by the numbers

  • 4.2 million total tons of grapes crushed.
  • $763 average number of dollars paid per ton of crushed grape.
  • $320 difference between the average price per ton for red winegrapes ($918) and white winegrapes ($598).
  • 16 percent of total grape crush that was Chardonnay variety grapes. Chardonnay was the leading variety in 2016, just a few percentage points ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon (13.4 percent).
  • 11.6 percent increase of the grape crush for red winegrapes from 2015 to 2016.

Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

Help wanted

Water is not the only thing historically in short supply for California winegrape growers. Farm labor remains difficult to obtain, and the high demand for labor has driven up hourly pay rates.

Verdegaal said the availability of labor is one of the top two concerns in agriculture – in the same league as government regulation.

“It’s getting a little concerning,” he said. California’s minimum wage is $10.50 an hour, but Lodi farm laborers in 2017 earned between $11 and $12 an hour, Lange said. In Napa and Sonoma, growers are paying $14 to $16 an hour for basic field work. That doesn’t account for growers who offer a piece rate pay structure to reward high-performing employees.

“The highest paid wages I heard this year was in the cherry harvest, where it was common that an excellent cherry harvester could earn $300 in a short day’s work” of six or seven hours, Lange said.

Growers are looking for other options besides simply shelling out more cash. LangeTwins started using mechanical harvesting in 1977, and today 98 percent of its fruit is harvested that way. The vineyard also uses mechanical suckering machines, leaf pullers, four-row vine trimmers, four-row sprayers and winter pruning machines. Lange said that’s common in California.

“Most grape growers producing wines that supply a bottled program under $20 a bottle are looking for ways to reduce dependency on labor and increase mechanization while maintaining or improving the quality of the fruit,” he said. The new wave has led to some vineyards being designed with a “systems approach,” with everything from the vine, layout, and trellis system designed to optimize and accommodate mechanized operations. Personally, Lange said, he’s been impressed by the potential of robotic finish pruning.

Source: USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Pacific Regional Office – California

However far mechanization can take the industry, though, Lange said, there will always be a need for some tasks that need the human touch. The supply of farm labor remains a critical issue.

“In my opinion, the reasons for this are many, including political, economic, and demographic issues over a long period of time,” Lange said. “Native- born U.S. citizens are not lining up to work on farms and thus we need a workable guest-worker program that allows immigrants who want to work in agriculture to come here legally, work and return home.”

In rain or in drought, with plentiful labor or sparse, winegrape growers are in it for the long haul.

“Every year presents new and different challenges,” Aguirre said.

 — Stephen Kloosterman, assistant editor


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