Murphys, CA — Heat and water woes created a “Need For Speed” during this year’s wine grape harvest.
Vinescapes owner Mark Skenfield, with more than 20 years experience managing and consulting over 20 wine grape producers across Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, says that although Mother Lode wine grape harvest numbers are still being tallied, harvest 2014 will be memorable for the efforts put forth to meet its challenges.
Skenfield, who is also a board member and viticultural spokesperson for the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance, describes this year’s crush as a “compressed” harvest, producing quality fruit at lower yields, increasing water challenges leaving numerous vineyard blocks parched for water. “What would normally take more like three months got compressed to two months,” Skenfield states. Or less.
Evoking a movie title description of “Fast And Furious,” Skenfield’s company began harvesting in early August, finishing “almost everything” in September, except for two smaller picks in October. He laughs with the edge of a shudder, remembering, “It took a lot of coordination, a lot of stressful days and nights, trying to figure out how everything was going to get picked.”
Thumbs Down On Quantity, Up On Quality
Partly because of the drought, and partly because of difficulties in finding available labor every time it was needed — with so much fruit was ready at the same time — left varying amounts of wine grapes on the vine. Skenfield explains, “We know in some situations we have had a 15 to 20% reduction in crop from a normal year at some sites but the quality was really high on those sites.”
Cluster, berry size control can affect quality and less tonnage also has potential for higher quality, Skenfield points out. He admits, “It’s not guaranteed. In a drought situation, sometimes you can’t get [the grapes] to where they need to be before water runs out. Or they get overripe and you can’t harvest [them] in the short window.”
With the region now in its fourth year of drought conditions, running out of water became more of an issue. “People [who] were on wells, most of them had a challenging year. I’d say probably 60% of people on wells were very concerned,” Skenfield estimates. “Some people have reservoirs and good size reservoirs that fill up with rainwater, primarily, and well water, primarily, and those vineyards had a real challenge this year. Some of their blocks made it to harvest, and some didn’t.”
Skenfield says agricultural water is available in certain areas across Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, and that maybe 20% of the vineyards are on it. This year, depending on how strictly the water districts regulated usage, he says, there was available water for the entire season.
When asked about his memories of drought years, Skenfield recalls that he has not seen conditions this parched in “a long time.” He states, “Everybody is concerned that the drought is going to be an ongoing concern…people who project about the weather think that this is going to be more commonplace than it has been.”
“Climate change or whatever you call it…more drought situations to come…does not make it friendly for agriculture, in general,” Skenfield notes. He adds, “People are strategizing how to plant vineyards differently…manage existing vineyards in a way to use less existing water, and use the resources better.”
Along with more pruning, shoot selection and thinning to reduce crop loads per vine, use of different root stocks, vine and row spacing, decreasing trellising sizing and trying to grow smaller vines altogether are all being looked at as ways to evolve new best practices when water availability is limited, Skenfield says.
In summing up all the challenges that these drier times may bring, Skenfield waxes optimistic, pointing to the development of new strategies for existing wine grape properties, and for those planting new vineyards to “think these things through very well, to put yourself in the best situation possible.”