The 2018 wine grape harvest was late. What it means for SLO County’s most valuable crop

Watch the hustle and bustle of a California wine grape harvest

Workers harvest pinot noir grapes at Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, California, on a recent October morning as the Autumn grape harvest kicks into full swing.
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Workers harvest pinot noir grapes at Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, California, on a recent October morning as the Autumn grape harvest kicks into full swing.

Winemakers throughout San Luis Obispo County are finishing up an unusually late grape harvest after persevering through a growing season that included some early frost and a mid-summer heat wave.

The county’s wine grapes were a $267 million business in 2017, as well as a tourism draw. Grapes topped strawberries as the area’s most valuable crop for the second year in a row.

Most winemakers reported they began harvesting later than they had in years. Many growers were a week to two weeks late and started picking grapes in late August or early September.

Depending on the region, this was either the result of extreme heat or slightly cooler weather. For North County growers, in particular, triple-digit heat in July caused vines to go dormant, said Kevin Sass, winemaker at Halter Ranch in west Paso Robles.

Freshly harvested Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec grapes wait to be processed at the Halter Ranch winery in Paso Robles.

“They couldn’t take the heat, just like we couldn’t,” he said.

Summer heat also affected South County winemakers, although cool weather had an impact, as well. A late frost at the end of winter or early spring damaged vines at Talley Vineyards in rural Arroyo Grande, said Brian Talley, owner and winemaker.

Even though the season was “unseasonably cool,” the heat wave also hurt Talley’s vines, causing him to consider experimenting with shade cloth to shield grapes from the sun next year.

“We’ve never really seen the kind of damage we saw this year,” Talley said.

In spite of the heat, Sass said Halter’s yield has been solid so far, with Rhone varieties slightly above average and Bordeaux still to be determined. He said heavy rain in 2017 helped sustain the older vines, and the vineyard’s dry-farmed grapes are looking especially good.

Taking care of business

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Halter Ranch dry-farms 25 percent of its crop, primarily granache and tempranillo varieties, Sass said. Vines grown this way have deep roots and are spaced farther apart, creating less competition for resources, he said.

“So far, we are seeing good color, good tannins and higher acidity levels,” Sass said of the grapes’ flavor. “This will result in concentrated wines with good acid that will age well.”

Talley’s yield has been more variable than normal this year, especially the pinot noir crop. Some blocks were higher than average and others lower, he said. Not all of the chardonnay has been picked yet, but yields are higher than usual, so far.

“Some of the first things we harvested, we were a little bit unsure about it,” Talley said. “But as we got into it, we were pretty satisfied.”

In terms of flavor, Talley said it’s too early to tell for the chardonnay, but the vineyard’s pinot noir has been “dark and balanced with moderate acidity and alcohol.”

Halter Harvest146
Associate winemaker Molly Lonborg punches down barrels of reserve syrah at the Halter Ranch winery in Paso Robles. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Here are some additional harvest highlights from Paso Robles winemakers, some of whom provided an update in September:

  • Growers almost uniformly began harvesting later, and some reported longer hang times for grapes, including Sherman Thacher of Thacher Winery. “A very hot July might have slowed things down,” Thacher said in September. “But, unlike last year, we have been welcomed with cool weather for the start of harvest, giving us a chance to bring in the whites at their optimum ripeness. This bodes well for the reds, assuming it stays temperate.”
  • Most North County growers commented on the mid-summer heat, although many said they expected their crops would produce high-quality wines. “Thank goodness the heat of July took a break in August,” said Bob Tillman of Alta Colina Vineyard in September. “Otherwise, we would have surely caught up to the previous hot years. As it stands right now, we are on track for a more cooling trend, which will allow that fruit to stay out there longer — creating more color, more flavor and more goodness.”
  • Some growers tried out shade cloth to protect their crops from direct sun. Halter Ranch is crushing and fermenting some of its syrah and tennat grapes in oak barrels, a different, more labor-intensive process than their usual tank fermentation. “We think it helps incorporate more of the flavor of the wood quicker,” Sass said.
Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden
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