Light But High-Quality California Winegrape Harvest

Light But High-Quality California Winegrape Harvest

The 2015 California winegrape harvest was early, light, and of exceptional quality. Source: Wine Institute Photo by George Rose

The 2015 California winegrape harvest was early, light, and of exceptional quality.
Source: Wine Institute
Photo by George Rose

It’s a stellar vintage for California vintners and growers. The 2015 season produced an earlier, lighter crop than previous years, but grapes are excellent quality across the board.

Demand for north and central coast grapes was strong, with wineries out buying early and offering fair pricing with multiple-year contracts, according to Allied Grape Growers President Nat DiBuduo. “I believe that was because of the trends where consumers are feeling a little bit more confident in the economy,” he says. “They’re spending more money on their wine.”

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However, Mother Nature didn’t do those growers any favors, as the crop was off by 20% to 25% for many varieties and by as much as 50% in cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.

Although grapes aren’t known for being alternate-bearing, DiBuduo says the large crops of 2012, 2013, and 2014 could have played a role in this year’s light crop. The drought is also a likely contributor. “We got enough water for the vines to survive, but probably not enough to pump up berries and grapes to make a bigger crop,” he says.

The crop was off slightly in the San Joaquin Valley, too, but growers there had bigger problems to face. Wineries just weren’t coming out to buy the grapes, DiBuduo says. “A lot of wineries had contracts with San Joaquin Valley growers that ended in 2014, and they never came back to renegotiate or buy those grapes,” he says.

The heavy crops of the last three years are partly to blame, with many wineries saying their tanks were still full, so they chose not to buy in 2015. “The wineries may have the luxury of doing that, but the grower doesn’t,” DiBuduo says. “That vine is going to produce a crop year after year – it doesn’t have the luxury of skipping a year.”

As a result, many grapes south of Lodi were sold at unsustainable prices. “It was not a good year in the San Joaquin Valley, which is normally the workhorse of the industry if you look at wines consumed,” DiBuduo notes.

Consumers are decreasing consumption of wines produced from these grapes – typically bottles $10 and under – while sales of $10 and above bottles are increasing. “You’re seeing a shift this year, and that’s good for the guys on the north and central coasts, but not the guys out in the San Joaquin Valley,” DiBuduo says, adding that importation of foreign wine also contributed to the lack of buying this year.

Grape Quality
On the north coast, grape quality was exceptional, which DiBuduo says can be partly attributed to the light crop. Berries were smaller, which led to better coloring and likely higher Brix, as well. But he’s quick to note that there does not need to be a light crop to produce high-quality grapes, and that drought does not help improve quality. “There are no winners in a drought year,” he says. “It [drought] has the possibility of stressing the vines, and then you get a mixed bag in terms of what kind of quality you would get.”

Looking To The Future
DiBuduo says that, because of economic factors, some growers in the San Joaquin Valley have begun pulling out vines and even selling their land. He estimates that from the harvest of 2014 to the beginning of the 2015 harvest, about 35,000 acres of vines have been pulled out, about two-thirds of those being winegrapes. “The way it’s looking today, we’ll probably lose another 25,000 to 35,000 acres of winegrapes alone this coming year,” he adds. “They’re already starting to pull them out, and that’s because of the economics that’s driving it.”

Competitive crops – particularly nuts – seem like a better option to many of these growers. And with land prices at some of their highest levels, some growers see it as an opportunity to sell their land and get out of the business altogether.

But DiBuduo says these ebbs and flows happen. “We’ve gone through these cycles before,” he says, adding that in his 40-plus years in the business, he’s seen at least four cycles like this where growers pull out vines. In the past, many of these acres were replanted with new varieties. “The difference this time is I don’t see people wanting to plant winegrapes back in the Central Valley because of the competition from the nuts,” he says.

But he’s certain the industry will remain prosperous.

“They’re survivors – Allied Grape Growers and our grower base of 600 – we will survive this and into the future,” he says.