In the early days of August, Mark Triska’s 14 acres of Livermore Valley merlot grapes were about three weeks past veraison right on schedule for a typical later September or early October harvest.
A spell of high temperatures last month sped up development of the crop, which had been lagging due to cool weather earlier in the season.
As a result of cutbacks in surface water deliveries this season, the vineyard’s drip system has been irrigating the vines only half as frequently as usual. However, the amount of water applied each time has remained the same.
“Right now, it’s hard to say how this reduction will affect berry size and yields at harvest, but right now, the fruit looks good,” says the owner of Triska Crane Ridge Vineyards, near Livermore.
The only coastal valley directly east of the San Francisco Bay – about 35 miles – the oval-shaped Livermore Valley American Viticultural Area is about 25 miles long and 18 miles wide. Nearly 4,000 acres are planted to a wide range of wine grape varieties. The area is one of California’s oldest wine regions, with commercial grape production dating back to the 1840s. It is home to clones of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay that are grown in vineyards throughout the state.
“Unlike some AVA’s, we’re not known for a specific type of grape,” says Chris Chandler, executive director of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association. “Each winery produces its signature varietal, including Bordeaux, Rhone and certain Spanish and Italian types.”
The association’s membership includes 20 growers and 45 wineries, many of which produce wine from their estate vineyards.
The east-west orientation of the Livermore Valley AVA provides for natural air-conditioning by daily maritime breezes that flow inland from the Pacific Ocean. What’s more, the valley’s change in elevation, rising from 340 feet on the west side to a cooler 1,000 feet on the eastern side, enhances the temperate effect of the maritime climate.
The valley’s daily temperature variation helps balance vine photosynthesis during the day with respiration at night, Chandler notes. This, in turn, favors development of sugar, color, aroma and flavor in the grapes while maintaining natural acids.
“Merlot is a pretty hardy, later-maturing grape and a good one to grow here,” Triska says. “With its fairly thick skin, the grape can handle early rain in the fall without bursting, like some other varieties, such as Petite Syrah and Zinfandel. Also, Merlot has good-sized leaves. So, even though we get a lot of sun, we don’t get much sunburn or many problems with heat.”
Triska’s VSP trellis system, which he installed in 2005 and 2006, trains shoots upward, forming a narrow curtain above the fruiting zone. It replaced a Scott Henry trellis. A modified VSP system, this previous system featured two fruiting canes trained to grow vertically and two to grow downward, dividing the canopy into an upper and lower sections. Making the change resulted in more even ripening of the grapes, but reduced production, he reports.
“Even though we get lower yields, we get better quality in the long run and that helps keep the grapes under contract,” he says.
Those contracts are the kingpin of his operation, notes Triska, who sells his grapes to local wineries as well as those in other California regions, such as Paso Robles. Since buying the vineyard 13 years ago, he’s never had to sell any grapes on the spot market.
“My greatest challenge as an independent grower is making sure I have a contract to sell my grapes before I harvest them,” he observes. “If I don’t, I’m in trouble.”
Usually, diseases and insects don’t pose much of a production concern for Triska. That can’t be said about the biggest threat to his crop – ground squirrels. His vineyard is across the road from a large open field and home to a thriving population of the rodents. Once the spring litters develop, the squirrels head straight to his fields, where they burrow under the vines and climb up them to eat the fruit.
“We’ve tried everything we know of to control them – from sprinkling cow’s blood on the ground to trapping,” Triska says. “None has been effective.”
Despite the marketing and production challenges, he’s found that the business of growing grapes isn’t all work. “I like knowing and sharing common interests with wine makers and other growers,” says Triska, a member of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, where he served on the Board of Directors, including terms as president and treasurer. “When you’re in this industry, you’re a member of a great family. That’s part of the fun.”
Still, he’s a realist.
“Some people view living on a vineyard and growing grapes as being romantic,” Triska says. “But, as a grape grower, I’m producing an international commodity. The price of my fruit is set not only by what local wineries or the Coastal grapes buyers are willing to pay but also the demand world-wide for Merlot as well as all other red grape varieties. It all boils down to a business where I’m farming a commodity and making sure I have a contract to sell it.”