Biz Buzz: Grape growers race against rain, rot

Gray skies and precipitation have Paso Robles zinfandel growers concerned about the threat of rot and scrambling to get ripe grapes off vines and into tanks.

“Everybody is trying to get anything that’s ripe that has thin skins in,” said Doug Filipponi. “Zinfandel is the real crucial grape right now. Cabernet can hang through a rain or two and hold out pretty well.”

His Atascadero-based vineyard management company, Filipponi & Thompson, oversees 1,600 acres in the Paso Robles region. About 15 percent of that is planted in zinfandel.

The grape makes up less than 10 percent of vineyard plantings in San Luis Obispo County. It brought in just under $10.5 million in countywide grape sales last year.

Weather forecasts predict the possibility of rain in the county through Wednesday. Expectations of warmth, sun and wind over the weekend minimize concerns about mildew or bunch rot, but if the weather stays cool or damp, it could result in crop loss.

Too much moisture can swell grapes and split skins, turning a valuable crop into compost.

Fortunately, most thin-skinned varietals — including chardonnay and pinot noir — have already been harvested locally.

“Since we heard that the rain was coming, we’ve been picking 24 hours a day, by hand and with machines,” Filipponi said. “All the wineries are at capacity right now. That’s the other issue.”

Wine must ferment in tanks for a certain period before it can be moved to other containers, such as barrels. When changing weather causes vineyards to accelerate picking, the available tank space can suddenly be in demand all at once.

In cases where growers can’t crush all the zinfandel, they are hedging bets by selecting riper clusters and leaving others, hoping they will avoid rain damage to develop more sugar.

“We’re working through it,” said Bob Thomas, a vineyard manager with Mesa Vineyard Co., based in Templeton. His three crews are checking daily with wineries to know how many tons can be accommodated.

“It’s very common when your livelihood is controlled by the weather,” he said. “Ideally I want everything to come in. (But) it’s out of your hands.”

Growers in Edna and Arroyo Grande regions are resting easier, though some with syrah are keeping their eyes on longer-term forecasts. The red grape could withstand a few days of rain, but generally doesn’t complete ripening in cooler South County regions until November, said Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards winemaker Harold Osborne.

Kelsey’s vineyard manager, Steve Henry, completed harvest on the winery’s seven acres Monday. “I’m staring at the last of it right now,” he said, the relief apparent in his voice. “I can go to sleep tonight.”

— Raven J. Railey

Teachers, staff to work at McDonald’s

Local McDonald’s restaurants are holding McTeacher’s Night events where teachers, staff and PTA members will work at the restaurants from 5 to 8 p.m., and 20 percent of the sales during the hours of the event will go to participating schools. Tonight, educators will work to benefit Oceano Elementary at the McDonald’s at 1550 W. Grande Ave., Grover Beach.

The other schools scheduled are:

In 2008, nearly $10,500 was raised during McTeacher’s Nights.

— Tribune staff report

SLO County Central Coast Wine Classic beneficiaries named

The Central Coast Wine Classic on Monday announced the award of $205,025 in grants to local nonprofits.

The money was raised at the 2009 Central Coast Wine Classic, an annual fundraiser that benefits nonprofits specializing in studio, performing and healing arts in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

Beneficiaries in San Luis Obispo County include: Foundation for the Performing Arts Center; Friends of Prado Day Center; Gatehelp, Inc./Gryphon Society in Atascadero; Public Radio KCBX; Morro Bay High School band; Paderewski Festival of Paso Robles; Senior Volunteer Services; and Transitions Mental Health Association.

The 2009 grant total also includes $67,500 for the Central Coast Alzheimer‘s Association to support respite care. Since its creation six years ago, the Central Coast Wine Classic has donated $1.37 million.

The 2010 Wine Classic will take place July 8-11. For details, visit

— Julia Hickey