Wine grape mechanization spreads as labor grows more scarce
San Rafael, Calif.: The many wine and grape regions of North America all had to contend with one challenge in 2017: a lack of workers.
Finding labor either for harvest or other vineyard work continues to be a major challenge, and growers across North America are investing in new machines to mechanize more operations and be less dependent on human workers.
Wines & Vines magazine received dozens of reports from experts all over North America and surveyed winemakers, winery owners and growers in California, the Pacific North West, Midwest and eastern states for its annual vintage report.
Floods, heat waves and smoke
During the winter of 2016-17, Northern California enjoyed record rainfall that put an end to years of drought. All that rain was followed by intense heat in early August and again over Labor Day weekend, which damaged some ripening grapes and caused maturity in other vineyards to stall for several weeks. About 45% of those surveyed reported their crops were somewhat reduced, and 32% described yields as average. About eight out of 10 people described the grapes they did harvest as either “good” or “excellent,” however.
While nearly 30% of those survey in California reported being affected by the wildfires of 2017, the leading cause of fruit loss was the series of late summer heat waves. A few respondents surveyed reported they were still concerned about smoke contamination.
Not all of the heat’s effects were negative, however. “Extended heat periods reduced berry size, resulting in good skin-to-juice ratios for Zinfandels,” reported David Lucas, winemaker and owner of Lucas Winery in Lodi, Calif. Lucas said that after the first extended heat spell, his team opted to reduce the Zinfandel and Chardonnay crop a second time to allow maturity and ripeness to develop without any delays. “Early grapes of Chardonnay have produced wines with unusually concentrated aromatics,” he added.
It was an eventful and often stressful vintage. “2017 might be my most impactful emotionally,” said Pam Starr, co-owner and winemaker of Crocker & Starr Wines in St. Helena, Calif. “Floods to cool streak at bloom to excessive temperature heat wave and finally the firestorms. Glad the season is closed. Winemaking happened in the winery, not the vineyard.”
More fires and high yields
In the Pacific Northwest, more than 52% of those surveyed described the 2017 vintage as “excellent,” and 33% said it was “good.” Yields were described as “above average” (33%) and “average” (29%). It depended on location, as Oregon and Washington enjoyed another strong year, but many vineyards in Idaho suffered from an icy winter.
A much smaller number of those surveyed (15%) reported any affect from wildfires.
Growers and winemakers in Oregon enjoyed another bountiful harvest that exceeded many initial estimates based on cluster counts. “There was a late bloom, but that was followed by an excellent growing season that produced a record crop,” said Jack Coats, co-owner of CAW Wines in Yamhill, Ore.
Todd Hansen, who owns Lia’s Vineyard in Newberg, Ore., also harvested a good crop. “We have never seen yields like this. Perfect weather during bloom contributed to a record fruit set,” he said. “2017 wasn’t an easy vintage, though. The enormous fruit set called for aggressive yield adjustment, and the late start rewarded those with patience to let the fruit hang longer to achieve full phenolic ripeness. The bell curve of quality will be broader than recent vintages, but there will be some outstanding wines made by those who treated the vintage correctly.
Generally positive in the Midwest and East
Despite hurricanes that battered the Gulf Coast and other parts of the eastern United States, Wines & Vines heard generally positive reports from regions east of the Rockies.
In the Midwest, nearly 30% of those surveyed reported a “record crop,” and about the same number said their harvest was only “somewhat reduced.” In terms of quality, Midwest growers were split just evenly into thirds, saying it was “excellent, good or normal.”
Further east, the survey found yields were “average” (38%), “somewhat reduced” (31%), or a “record crop” (19%). Grape quality was mainly either “good” or “normal,” which each accounted for 38% of those surveyed.
Michigan may have seen of the state’s best vintages in recent years, as conditions stayed consistent through the entire season to produce a high level of quality grapes. “The very warm September and first half of October pushed some exceptional fruit development, and may produce some exemplary wines,” said Thomas Todaro of the Michigan State University Extension office.
Jeff Frisbee, owner of Addison Farms, reported some losses to the weather and hungry animals. “Hurricane Irma caused us to pull some fruit slightly earlier than normal, and the turkey damage was pretty significant in two varieties (Petite Manseng and Cabernet Franc), but outside of that, the fruit that we harvested this year was really very good.”
In many parts of the Midwest, where wine grapes are grown alongside other crops, herbicide drift—particularly of dicamba—is a major concern. “Every year that wet field conditions delay row crop planting, drift becomes a major problem,” said Bruce Bordelon, a viticulture professor at Purdue University in Indiana. “The record number of complaints filed by the state chemist this year indicate the problem is not being addressed through education alone.”
Despite the challenges, many growers, winemakers, university farm advisors and wine and viticulture professors reported in Wines & Vines’ annual vintage report that the wines of 2017 had excellent potential.
Growers in Texas appear to have produced another record harvest of exceptional quality. “Overall fruit quality was very high throughout the state, and many winemakers expressed anticipation of an outstanding 2017 vintage,” said Ed Hellman, a professor of viticulture at Texas Tech University. For a regional breakdown of growing conditions, read the Vintage 2017 report here.
By Andrew Adams January 2, 2017 Source: Winesandvines.com
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