Barring any unexpected glitches, Madera County grower Carson Smith expects to complete his 29th wine grape harvest by about Oct. 10. That would be almost two months to the day after starting to pick Chardonnay, his earliest variety, on Aug. 8 – the same date he started harvesting in 2013. In fact, he began harvesting most of his fields this season within a day or two of the date he started in them last year.
His operation, Carson Smith Farming Co., co-owns and manages 800 acres of wine grapes in the southwestern part of the county along the San Joaquin River. Besides the Chardonnay, Smith grows French Colombard, Muscat Alexandria, Pinot Grigio, Ruby Cabernet, all of which he had picked by the end of September. He’ll finish the harvest with his French Colombard.
Yields this year have varied widely, he notes.
For example, tonnage in one of the Chardonnay fields he picked for a neighbor was close to the highest ever. At the same, not far away, production in one of Smith’s fields of younger Chardonnay vines fell below average.
“It’s been an interesting season in that it’s been hard to spot any production trends,” Smith says. “You can find a little bit of everything, from above average to below average in the same variety. But, overall in this area, it looks like this will be an average size crop.”
In Smith’s case, the variation in yields wasn’t for lack of water for irrigation. With no access to surface deliveries, he pumps all of his water from the ground and those supplies met all of his crop needs, he notes.
For the most part, growers here served by irrigation districts have received no surface water this year, Smith reports. “Just about everyone has been reliant on wells,” he says. “We’re in an area that, historically, has benefitted from pretty good groundwater conditions. But, I feel more comfortable when surface water is available, so those growers aren’t running their pumps as much.”
Smith suspects at least some of the reason for the wide swings in production this year was due to wide swings in temperatures before and early in the season. That included very cold weather in late December and early January, followed by warmer than usual temperature for the rest of the winter. Spring started on the cool side before turning much warmer than normal.
Warm temperatures, coinciding with the early stages of bud break, may have led to powdery mildew problems for some growers in this area, Smith adds.
“Conditions for development of the fungal disease were ideal at a period in the growth stage of the vine when powdery mildew normally isn’t a threat,” he says. “Because these conditions occurred much earlier than normal, the disease may not have been on the radar from some growers and it snuck up on them.”
Sugar development doesn’t seem to be problem in this area of the San Joaquin Valley, Smith reports. However, due to current market conditions, he doesn’t expect growers with contracts will receive much more than minimum prices for their 2014 grapes.
At the same time, Smith describes the spot market for 2014 grapes in his area as very tight, particularly for varieties, like Barbera and Carignan, grown for the jug wine market. “I’ve seen a few instances – and only a few – where grapes have been left in the field this season,” he says. “I haven’t seen that in a long time.”
Also, this year, the pull on workers for operating the wine grape harvesting machines from other growers seeking labor to pick their raisin grapes wasn’t as strong as it has been, Smith adds. This reflects a lighter raisin grape yields and continued shrinkage in raisin grape acreage as raisin growers have been replacing their Thompson Seedless vineyards with almond orchards. “But, this year, some wine grape vineyards are also being removed shortly after the crop has been harvested,” he reports. “This is especially true where grape contracts have expired and growers are facing a dismal spot market price. Almonds or pistachios are looking much more attractive for the future for many wine grape growers.”