As he prepared to begin his 2016 grape harvest in early August, Fresno County grower Greg Markarian was expecting his wine grape crop to be about average in size with raisin tonnage likely to be average to a little lighter than usual. However, he looks for the quality of both his wine and raisin grapes to be good.
The Markarian Farms operation near Fresno, Calif., includes 500 acres of wine grapes, 50 acres of raisin-type grapes (Thompsons seedless) along with 380 acres of almond trees, 100 acres of citrus orchards and 40 acres of cherry trees.
With his grapes maturing at their usual pace, his lower-sugar Zinfandel fruit for the white wine market was on track to start this year’s harvest in the first week or so of August.
Markarian is hoping to finish them quickly.
“Because of their very tight bunches, Zinfandel berries are very vulnerable to rot,” he says. “We have only a short window of time to get them off the vines before they burst open and become infected. With the low price of Zinfandel due to weak demand, any loss to rot can be especially costly.”
Markarian expects to start picking the bulk of his wine grapes in early September, beginning with Merlot, Muscat and Syrah before moving on to Cabernet Sauvignon and Rubired later in the month.
“The big question this year is what price we’ll get for our wine grapes,” he says. “Last year, we weren’t able to sell anything until the day before harvest. This year, half our crop is already sold. That’s a good sign. Maybe the market for wine grapes is turning around.”
Meanwhile, Markarian has been keeping a close eye on several insect threats to his vineyards. After pressure from spider mites failed to materialize as usual in late June and early July, he had hopes of getting through the season without the need for a miticide treatment. However, mite numbers began to sky-rocket in late July, prompting him to apply a spray.
“Driving around the area I’ve seen a lot of mite damage,” Markarian says. “And I’m hearing that PCAs are having a tough time killing the mites this year.
Following his usual early spring spray targeting vine mealybugs, he made another insecticide application in late July to control that pest. And in early August, he sprayed an insecticide on several fields of grapes to suppress leafhoppers.
Markarian has enough surface and ground water to meet his crop needs this year. “As we’ve pumped more groundwater during the drought, everyone is concerned about higher salt levels in the soils. But I haven’t seen much, if any, impact on the grape vines. However, I’ve noticed a lot more salt stress in our almonds, which are more sensitive to it,” he says.
Markarian plans to begin laying his raisin grapes on drying trays in late August or early September. “The berries look a little small,” he says. “But if the sugar levels hold, and they have the meats, they should grade well on quality.”
However, he looks for prices of raisins to remain in a slump this year.
In response to weak markets for raisins, Markarian has reduced his raisin grape acreage by more than half over the last decade, replacing the vines with almond trees.
“I don’t know if raisins are on the way out for us or not,” he says. “We like to stay diversified. Common sense tells me that with as much as growers have cut production in recent years, raisin prices would be higher than they are. But, it doesn’t seem to matter how many vines we pull out. Prices have stayed depressed. I don’t understand it.”