Biz Buzz: To pick or not to was zinfandel question

When heavy rains dumped as much as 10 inches on westside Paso Robles vineyards in mid-October, many zinfandel producers faced a dilemma: harvest unripe grapes or risk letting fruit rot hoping it would finish ripening.

Now in barrels, the quality of 2009 Paso Robles zinfandel seems to depend in part on when it was picked relative to those rains. Once bottled, most of the wines sell starting in 2011.

“Zinfandel was a priority because it’s very soft-skinned and very prone to rotting,” said Dana Merrill, owner of Mesa Vineyard Management Inc. and El Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery. “We were fairly impressed that it wasn’t a heck of a lot worse than it was.”

Zinfandel grapes make up roughly 10 percent of all grapes picked in San Luis Obispo County.

The primary factor in producing quality wine is the condition of the grape at the moment of harvest, the timing of which is based on grape color and sugar levels, or brix.

Too much water in berries, and the flavor is diluted. Spots of mold from excess moisture can also ruin taste.

To a limited extent, winemakers have fermentation methods to offset these problems, but they’d prefer not to have to use them.

“You can hurt good flavors trying to get out the bad,” Merrill added.

Depending on location, some small producers ripened and harvested all their zinfandel before the rains.

Those who didn’t worried that humidity or more rain might turn the remaining crop into compost. Some, like J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, picked soon after the rain and now its Paso Robles winemaker, Steve Peck, is disappointed with the quality.

Others bet rightly that the following weeks would be warm and dry in their vineyards and allowed fruit to hang until the grapes dried somewhat and finished maturing.

“It was almost November before we picked them,” said Niels Udsen, owner of Castoro Cellars. “Those turned out really good.”

Damage and unripe fruit cost Peachy Canyon Winery half the production of its 2009 Old School House Zinfandel, a vineyard designated wine, said head winemaker Josh Beckett. That particular vineyard is in the cooler, more humid Templeton Gap area.

“I’m willing to sacrifice that one wine for this rain,” Beckett said. “We need rain so badly.”

— Raven J. Railey

Mission hires longtime banker

Mission Community Bank has hired an industry veteran as vice president and commercial banker for its downtown San Luis Obispo office at 581 Higuera St.

Clay Appleton’s main responsibility will be to establish new loan and deposit relationships for the bank.

He has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business management from Cal Poly and more than 25 years of experience in commercial lending and business development.

Appleton is a board member at Coastal Business Finance and the Small Business Development Center and a member of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.

Mission is a locally owned bank with offices in Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles, Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo.

— Julia Hickey