SLO County grape harvest expected to produce high-quality wines

Jason Joyce, winemaker at Calcareous Winery in Paso Robles, cleans floors around oak fermentation barrels with a pressure washer on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
Jason Joyce, winemaker at Calcareous Winery in Paso Robles, cleans floors around oak fermentation barrels with a pressure washer on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

With favorable weather on their side, San Luis Obispo County winemakers are calling the 2013 grape harvest one of the best in years, producing moderate crop yields and a high-quality vintage.

“Like always, Mother Nature sets the tone for what we end up having,” said Michael Barreto, winemaker at Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles.

Although growers and winemakers are hesitant to say how the final product will taste, they expect good color and great flavors. An early spring, warm, dry conditions and a lack of inclement weather, such as the spring frost that damaged the 2011 crop, provided ideal growing conditions.

The grapes got off to an early start, said Barreto, and a cooling period in mid-summer gave his later varieties such as Merlot some “extra hang time” to fully mature, he said.

“In addition to getting mature fruit, we got good sugar, resulting in good wines,” Barreto added.

At Calcareous Winery in Paso Robles, winemaker Jason Joyce said this year’s harvest was “fast and furious.” In recent years, he worked past Thanksgiving, but this year, harvest was over by Halloween.

“We were harvesting cabernet in the second week of September, and that usually doesn’t happen until late October,” he said.

The dry weather produced fruit that was small and dense but packed with powerful flavors, Joyce said.

As far as crop yields, Joyce said it “was on the plus side of regular. It wasn’t over the top, but pretty even to what it was last year, which was a little higher than average.”

The amount of grapes harvested this year depended greatly on the region, said Jeff Bitter, vice president of operations for Allied Grape Growers, a California wine-grape marketing cooperative, which has done a preliminary assessment of the harvest.

This year’s harvest produced a “shorter” or smaller crop on the Central Coast, roughly 10 percent to 15 percent less than last year, said Bitter, noting that it may be due to the natural cycle of the vines. Overall, wine grapes grown along the entire coast of California saw a lighter crop than last year, down about 100,000 tons in 2013 compared with the previous year.

However, the interior wine-growing regions of the state, which include counties like Glenn, Kern and San Joaquin, had crop yields that were as large or larger than last year. Those regions produce about 3 million of the 4 million tons of wine grapes in California.

“We think that any amount of tonnage that was down on the coast will be made up in the interior regions,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was close to last year’s size or if it exceeded or set another record.”

Steve Peck, winemaker for J. Lohr in Paso Robles, wrapped up this year’s harvest last week, and compared to previous years like 2008 and 2011 that were down severely, he said that it was a “pretty typical yield” of about 4.5 tons per acre.

The vintage, however, is a different story, and Peck compared it to 1997, which was one of the best years. With few days exceeding 95 or 100 degrees and nearly perfect weather conditions in the first few weeks of August, Peck said the vines were able to pump out the phenolics, the chemical compounds that affect a wine’s color and taste.

“With the high phenolic levels measured in the grapes and the tasting of what’s in the barrels now, we’re putting an A rating on the vintage,” he said.

Mother Nature cooperated for winemakers in Edna Valley as well, said Jean-Pierre Wolff, owner of Wolff Vineyards.

“We didn’t have major heat waves or too much cold or too much wind, and that helped the growing season to be ideal,” he said.

Good fruiting shoots on the vines from the previous year also contributed to a good harvest, Wolff noted.

He had a bountiful crop, especially his pinot noir grapes, which were about 30 percent to 40 percent above average. “Last year, the conditions of developing good fruiting wood were already embedded in the vines,” he said.

Like many winemakers, however, Wolff has already turned his attention to producing next year’s crop. The lack of rainfall was beneficial for the 2013 harvest, but growers eventually need rain to help move nutrients through the soil, he said.

“Mother Nature was kind to us, but we would like her to remain kind to us by providing us with a little thing called water,” Wolff said.