Rain worries growers
MANY WINERIES PREFER to have their thin-skinned pinot, chardonnay and zinfandel grapes picked at night, when the fruit can come in cool.
Rain is the four-letter word on the lips of most grape growers this week. Vintners are hoping the precipitation doesn't damage this year's crop, which was already light thanks to a series of June showers.
"It's still too early to tell what it's going to do to us," said David Cook, of Cook Vineyard Management, around noon on Monday, just as the drizzle settled over Sonoma. "If we get under a half-inch of rain, it doesn't really matter."
Some growers are getting creative with their rain protection plans. Ramona Nicholson, of Nicholson Ranch Winery, said she covered her syrah grapes with poly sheeting to protect them from the water.
"It looks a little like a mini 'Running Fence' by Christo!," she exclaimed. "I made this up myself so I'm not sure what the results will be, but I know that the syrah is a long way off from picking and this rain would surely have compromised the quality of the grapes."
Harvest was in full swing last week as growers tried to get all of the fruit that was ready to pick off the vines before the rain had a chance to dampen the fields. Cook said this specifically meant pinot noir, chardonnay and zinfandel grapes, which have a thinner skin than merlot and cabernet grapes and are more likely to sustain water damage.
"When those (varietals) get wet they just start rotting," Cook said. "We always worry about botrytis."
But Cook reiterated that it's too early to worry this week. A light rain followed by gusts of wind would cause little harm to the grapes still on the vine. Wet weather began on Monday and was predicted to give way to patchy clouds on Tuesday before another rain system moves in on Wednesday.
"The main thing is if we get wind to dry us out, that's what we need," Cook said.
Cook said the sprinkles Sonoma saw during the last weekend of September had minimal impact on the growing grapes, thanks largely to the windy weather that followed. But it did send harvest into high gear.
"We picked every day last week," Cook said, adding that his crews finished early Monday morning, grabbing any and all bunches that were fully ripened before the skies could open up again.
"... we got all the ripe grapes in before the rains but still have the syrah, some chardonnay and our merlot out in the field," Nicholson said.
There is added pressure this year to protect the grapes. The heavy rains in late June knocked flowers off the vines, meaning the fields were not able to produce as many grapes as anticipated. Cook said it's a bit premature to say exactly how the yield was impacted this year, but it could be between 20 and 25 percent lower than last year.
He said he sees chardonnay as the best signifier of the overall loss.
"That's where we'll really see if we're getting the four tons per yard versus the five tons per yard we'd like to see," he said.
Cook said, in the vineyards he tends, there are still chardonnay, pinot and zinfandel grapes waiting to ripen.
It'll be another week likely before cabernet and syrah grapes reach their peak ripeness, but they are less of a concern during this deluge.
"Those usually go through a couple of rain events during the season because they're so late to come off," Cook said.