It may not have been a photo finish. But to Prudy Foxx, the end of the unusually early 2014 Santa Cruz Mountains harvest sure looked like a horse race.
“It was as if the grapes had rounded the far turn, smelled the oats and were headed for the barn,” she says. “The finish to the season was incredibly fast and intense.”
Her company, Foxx Viticulture, Santa Cruz, Calif., works with growers throughout the 1,500-acre appellation, situated between Monterey Bay and the Santa Clara Valley.
The first grapes out of the gate were Pinotage, which she began picking on August 18. Five days later and about two weeks sooner than normal, Foxx was already starting to harvest the first of her Pinot Noir. By Oct. 8 she was on the west side of the mountains wrapping up the last of her Petite Syrah. That was a good three weeks earlier than normal with the grapes posting their highest sugar levels ever.
The next day she finished her West Side harvest with the final Chardonnay. “It’s practically unheard of for that to be the last variety picked here,” Foxx says. “I have never picked Chardonnay after Syrah and Petite Syrah in this area.”
She concluded her harvest on Oct. 13 with a relatively new planting of Grenache on the East Side. “Those grapes came in at 25 Brix,” Foxx says. “Prior to this vintage they had never achieved over 21 Brix.”
She estimates that, for the AVA as a whole, yields were coming in average by the time about 80 percent of the vineyards had been harvested. However, as the harvest continued, yields in the remaining 20 percent of vineyards dropped. Foxx attributes that decline to a heat spike just as the fruit was ripening to perfection.
Certain clones of Pinot Noir were especially susceptible. “The delicate skins of this temperamental fruit could not handle the late heat after a moderate, even summer.” she says. “In some isolated environments, yields were off as much as 30 percent to 40 percent. But, if the grapes matured early and were picked before the heat, the crop was beautiful.”
In her case, tonnage in one of Foxx’s Petite Syrah vineyards suffered a big hit from dehydration following a heat spell during final ripening of the grapes.
Otherwise, yields in her vineyards were typical. However, they were about 10 percent below last year’s unusually high numbers. “That is closer to normal, since 2013 was such a big tonnage year. You can’t draw a straight line from one year to the next with vineyards,” she say. “Each year presents special environmental conditions that distinguish one vintage from the next.”
“In terms of quality, this has been a stellar season in the Santa Cruz Mountains, especially for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the west side and Cabernet Sauvignon to the east,” Foxx adds. “In general, the grapes were a little riper than usual when we picked them but the pH and acid levels were probably the most balanced I’ve seen.”
With the fruit ripening early, the vines had more hours of daylight for photosynthesis and sugar production. “Brix development moved along at a quick, steady clip,” she says. “Often, we get a lag in ripening when brix development stops for several weeks. That didn’t happen this year.”
The pH readings for the Pinot Noir ranged mostly between 3.1 and 3.4, she reports. “These were textbook-perfect numbers and a wide spectrum of flavors were expressed potentially creating multilayered complex wines capable of significant bottle age,” Foxx explains. “It was possible to pick grapes earlier for lower alcohol wines and still keep pH levels in check to allow great flavor expression and good acid for structure.
The quality of the Santa Cruz Mountains grapes this year also benefitted from temperatures that never rose above 100 degrees, Foxx notes.
“Often, hot weather produces dominant phenolics with over-powering flavors,” she says. “Nothing this year tasted burnt out or green. This will result in wines with very full flavors at just about any alcohol level. I love the complexity of flavors. The 2014 Santa Cruz Mountains wines that hit everything right will be legendary.”