There are elements that make for a good story – sudden plot twists, dramatic episodes, tension, looming threats. Matt Shea knows this. As vineyard manager for Bernardus Winery, he’s faced just about every bit of drama nature could dish out, especially over the past few years.

In 2016 the Soberanes Fire charred one vineyard and tainted grapes at several others. Shea decided to abandon 30 acres that had been blanketed by smoke for almost a month, costing the winery about $60,000.

Fine Vines

Hand picking underway on an October morning, as workers bring in Grenache Noir at Hahn Family Wines’ Hook Vineyard, in the Santa Lucia Highlands near Soledad. Labor problems can put a crush on harvest, but this year few issues were reported.

For Paul Stokes of Carmel Ridge Winery, the damage was far worse. “Smoke came over and just sat there,” he recalls. “You tasted the grapes and it was like someone sprayed smoke on them.” He counts his losses from the 2016 fire at close to $1 million.

Last year was not as horrific, but a September heat spike caused fruit along the River Road to ripen suddenly, forcing growers to scramble for scarce labor. For the 2018 growing season, however, Shea’s got nothing.

“I know you want some excitement,” he says over the phone, apologetically.

This time around, the local wine grape harvest has gone smoothly. Reports from across Monterey County confirm an exceptional crop – yields are normal to slightly above average, initial appraisals of quality suggest a strong vintage and picking proceeded without much interference from nature or Washington.

Many are calling it the first normal growing season in almost a decade. Ian Brand, winemaker for I. Brand Family Wines, even had time to enjoy the first weekend of November at the Big Sur Food & Wine Festival, unconcerned about his grapes.

“There have been difficult years,” Brand acknowledges. “It’s nice to have one where things make sense.”

Fine Vines

Winemaker Ian Brand of I. Brand Family Wines sorts and evaluate grapes as they are conveyed toward a de-stemmer. Brand began testing mechanical harvesting at one plot this year.

IT’S A WEDNESDAY IN EARLY OCTOBER and vineyards across the state are in the midst of a harvesting frenzy.

“I’m getting no sleep,” says Michael Simons, owner of Comanche Cellars. “I pulled all-nighters on Friday and Saturday.”

Depending upon the AVA – or American Viticultural Area – vineyard managers began picking operations in the middle of August. The designation is a way of granting name recognition to a growing region based upon its particular qualities of soil, sunshine, temperature range and other factors that make up what the French refer to as terroir.

In general, grapes intended for sparkling wine are clipped early in the harvest season, when brix (a measure of sugar levels) remain low and acidity in the grapes is at a peak. The timid Pinot Noir grapes come in next, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and other whites. Red varietals require more hang time, and harvest can extend into November.

“The only exception is the Chalone AVA,” explains Kim Stemler, executive director of the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association. At high elevation in the Gabilan Mountains, the AVA is dry, with long stretches of unbroken sunlight and rocky soil. “Chalone is hot, has a huge diurnal swing” – the daily temperature range. “They picked first for still wine.”

While weather and other factors can send vintners scrambling, there tends to be a routine leading up to harvest. The vines are pruned during the winter. Bud break in spring signals the start of the growing season, followed by what those who tend vineyards call “fruit set,” when the first small grapes appear.

Summer involves canopy management – working or trimming leaves and shoots in order to maintain the desired balance of sunlight and shade on the fruit – irrigation when necessary and regular inspection of the grapes as they develop. The pace picks up once vines reach the veraison stage – the onset of ripening – when pigmentation begins.

All these phases require decisions. Vineyard managers and their crews touch each plant 15 to 20 times throughout the year. To make matters worse, the phases are subject to the whims of nature. And through winter and spring, it appeared as if 2018 would not be so cooperative. Cool temperatures prolonged set and bud break for many Monterey County growers, exposing the crop to the risk of a late freeze.

But nature backed down. Temperatures never dipped enough to damage the fruit. One disaster averted.

An ill-timed rain can also cause havoc. A wet summer could create conditions perfect for mildew, but winemakers fear storms during harvest most of all – and for good reason. Grapes approaching peak ripeness will absorb water, and if enough rain falls the precious balance of sugar and acidity sought by winemakers will waver. Flavors that will tell later in the bottle are thinned out. Too much precipitation and the grapes may split, becoming subject to mold.

Yet winemakers looking to produce highly rated bottles cannot just rush out and pick in advance of a storm forecast. During harvest they test grapes, targeting the numbers – brix and pH – and flavor characteristics as they approach a desired peak.

“One of the most important things you do is decide when to pick the grapes,” says Mark Bunter, owner and winemaker for Bunter Spring. “You can’t change the weather, but you can decide when to pick.”

Farmers have a love-hate relationship with nature. But it is particularly tenuous when it comes to wine grapes. And in early October, the skies let loose. The rains were not heavy, but the timing was awful.

“A lot of times we’re looking at what I call season-ending storms,” Shea says. “It did increase the potential for mold, but it heated up right away, so most people came out OK.”

Another crisis averted.

In fact, the two-day spell of showers seemed to nudge some of the grapes to new life. Brand notes that his vineyards on the slopes surrounding Carmel Valley were at full blast – high sugar levels competing with equally charged acids.

“The flavors were there, but not perfect,” he says. “After the rain, the grapes picked up beautiful flavors.”

Brand, who employs native fermentation for almost 90 percent of his wine, adds that even the wild yeast behaved. The expected fermentation curve can be easily thrown off when using native methods, accelerating or stalling, threatening to produce off-flavors. In Brand’s case, this didn’t happen, either.

Instead, it was a “normal” year – the first since at least 2012, some push that back to before the drought that started in 2010.

“It’s been a nice even temperature for ripening,” Simons points out. “Last year it was nice and even right up to when we had to harvest. We got blasted with a heat spell. The brix just shot up. This year I’m getting fruit at 23 brix. The acids are at the right level.”

We tend to think of winemaking as an art, but there is perhaps more science to the process – particularly in the fields. As harvest approaches, a lot of time is spent studying numbers: Sugar levels, pH levels and so on. Yet winemakers gain something from tasting grapes in the field, as well. Bite into a grape and the first thing you notice is balance, flavors teetering on a line between sweetness and acidity – when things go right. And in 2018, things went right.

Simons echoes a familiar sentiment: “It’s a beautiful year this year.”

Fine Vines

Grapes wait in a bin at I. Brand Family Wines. In 2017, there were 44,299 acres of vineyards in Monterey County and the grapes they produced were valued at $239 million, making wine the county’s sixth-largest agricultural product.

IT’S APPROACHING THE MIDDLE OF OCTOBER AND HARVEST CONTINUES for Bunter Spring Winery. Mark Bunter buys grapes from Monterey and Sonoma counties, but at the moment he is staring at his own vineyard in Napa County. He’s there trying to sort out the next round of this year’s harvest, and talks by phone from the Napa vineyard about one of the persistent unknowns in the business.

Scheduling labor has been challenging over the past few years – a problem that continues this season.

“We have to wait a couple of days,” he says, lamenting the potential for harm to the wine. Just as with rain, pulling fruit too early or late because of a shortage of workers can tip the balance. And even if it’s slight enough that most consumers will not notice, aficionados – and the winemaker – will know.

There are essentially four elements that must be brought into balance for a wine to avoid sinking to jug quality: Acids, sugars, tannins and alcohol. In general, the longer grapes hang on the vine, the more sugar concentrates and malate acidity (the tart stuff) falls. However, other acids remain relatively constant. It gets complicated, but by focusing on pH – which contributes structure to a wine – and sugar, they can come up with a target equation, one where alcohol levels do not spike, residual sugars do not gum things up and acids do not pucker.

A few days or a sudden turn in the weather can make a difference. So Bunter knows he has to hustle.

“I picked the Pinot Noir myself,” he says.

If anything could spoil a near perfect year, it would be a labor crunch. A year ago, national media reports told of fields with rotting crops as California farmers struggled to find seasonal workers. The tough talk on immigration continuing out of Washington after a year of highly publicized federal raids, long detentions and the separation of families at the border put access to labor this year in some doubt.

It’s a difficult number to pin down with any precision, but it’s also no secret that undocumented people are critical to American agriculture and the financial success of many operations, working seasonally and responsible for a significant portion of the nation’s produce. A study by the American Farm Bureau Federation placed the figure at 50 to 70 percent of farm workers. The National Agricultural Workers Survey pegged the number of undocumented workers at 47 percent.

“There’s a lot of nervousness out there,” says John Aguirre, who serves as president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. “In other areas, food processing has been disrupted by ICE enforcement. All it takes is a few high-profile ICE enforcement raids to cause real panic.”

It is not just President Donald Trump’s rage against immigration. The timing of harvest for different crops, the pressure on labor from the state’s growing cannabis industry, a boom in house building or other construction – all can make seasonal workers hard to come by at a critical time.

Yet Stemler, who works closely with both large and small vineyard operations in Monterey County, heard fewer complaints this year. And it was the same at the state level.

“While labor remains a persistent problem, the shortage of labor is not as acute as last year,” Aguirre reports. “I can’t explain why.”

Several factors may have played into averting yet another potential crisis. Harvest began in early September in many places and continued through the end of October, with some wineries taking advantage of conditions to allow their grapes hang time well into November.

The drawn-out harvest season was in contrast to the chaos of 2017, when heat spikes compressed harvest for some areas, forcing vineyard managers to scramble for labor. At Bernardus, Shea says demand for labor remained the biggest challenge, but during this year’s harvest, scheduling was quite a bit easier.

“We’ve been able to manage in a more planned manner,” he says. “I’ve done several picks on Sundays – on weekends – because of labor.”

The state’s agricultural sector is also taking advantage of the H-2A visa program in record numbers. It’s not an easy process. Farm and vineyard operations must make every effort to hire local, U.S. residents before seeking workers from south of the border. There are also requirements to provide transportation and temporary housing, whether on the property or in a nearby hotel, plus a host of other legal hoops related to U.S. Department of Labor regulations.

“It’s rife with regulatory pitfalls,” Aguirre explains. “Some of the larger operations who can better navigate the regulatory maze are making use of the program.”

Still California’s agricultural sector – including the wine industry – recruited 14,252 temporary foreign workers through H-2A a year ago. Aguirre reports the figure for this year is closer to 15,000.

HARVEST IS GRUELING. But there is a centuries-old serenity in the vineyards, even as workers race to complete a plot of grapes. It’s the rhythmic hum of clipping and conversation and the whispering sounds of nature.

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Ian Brand tried something new. The growl of engines – machine harvesting – from one section of his vines disturbed the usual sylvan chorus.

“We’re testing mechanical harvest on our Rosé grapes,” he says.

While those farming other crops long ago began employing machinery to aid harvest, winemakers have been slower to adapt. The early iterations of mechanical harvesters too often delivered bins spoiled by damaged clusters with juice oozing out and what those in the industry refer to as MOG – material other than grapes.

This unwanted material generally included stems and leaves, which required another frustrating round of sorting. Sometimes winemakers would find sprinkler heads and perhaps other surprises tumbled in with their fruit.

But the equipment has evolved and improved rapidly. The most recent harvester from a company called Pellenc promises 99-percent clean grapes. Modern machines can quickly sort and process the fruit into bins. They have GPS systems that plot the rows and some are equipped with infrared devices to assess quality and check for mold or disease – the sort of stuff left to veteran pickers.

The first harvesters were available commercially in the 1960s. By the mid-2000s, half of all California vineyards had adopted the technology. Today, 80 percent of statewide properties harvest by machine. And machines are catching on in Monterey County, as well.

“We have a lot of mechanical harvesting – probably 70 percent of the vineyards, maybe higher,” Stemler says.

The cost and difficulty of recruiting labor is in part driving this boom in mechanization. Brand points out that costs related to handpicking have jumped 300 percent over the last eight years. And though a modern harvester may cost $300,000 or more, the balance of efficiency tips in favor of the machine.

According to Shea, a seasoned vineyard worker may bring in one ton of fruit each day. The haul of mechanical harvester operated by just three people is closer to 40 tons a day. Given the labor involved in traditional harvest methods, handpicking sets a vineyard back $100 per ton, compared to $30 per ton when done by machine.

Companies producing harvesting equipment are also refining machines to aid pruning and some of the other steps that make up a growing season.

“It’s pretty impressive what they’re able to do,” admits Shea, who expects that more producers will turn to mechanical harvest in the future. But he’s a little shaken by the pace of modernization.

“There’s a catchphrase – ‘no touch vineyards’ – which is a little scary,” he says. “They might be stealing the soul of the vineyard. You can’t replace having eyes on the fruit.”

Small vineyard operations and those producing fine wines are still reluctant to replace handpicking. For the smaller producers, the economies of scale still weigh in favor of handpicking. Meanwhile, winemakers known for upmarket labels insist that machines can harm the fruit, despite improvements.

Yet some of that reticence is beginning to wear away.

“Even for grapes at the highest quality, they can be picked by machine,” Aguirre insists. “But for the highest priced wines, many wineries want grapes handpicked.”

Still, with 80 percent of the state’s wine grape harvest brought in by machine, there is less pressure on the seasonal workforce – especially in rare years like 2018, when things proceeded so smoothly.

And it turns out Brand was impressed by his test run.

“The Rosé came out quite nice,” he says.

Fine Vines

THE ENTIRE YEAR IS TURNING OUT TO BE QUITE NICE. The Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy group for California winemakers, reports that across Monterey County, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir look to rate exceptional in quality. Shea adds that the Sauvignon Blanc from Bernardus will also stand out.

Gary Franscioni, who runs several vineyards and serves as president of the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans Board of Directors, told Wine Industry Advisor that “the quality of the fruit coming in is just fantastic and everything is in balance.”

“On a year like this, everything shows a click or two above its median,” Brand says.

He cautions that September’s weather softened the tannins in some red varietals, so the resulting wines may not react well to extended aging. But overall, 2018 proved to be a pretty good year – normal, no drama, no damage, no real excitement to add edge-of-the-seat stuff to a story.

And winemakers are fine with that.

“I look back at last year and say ‘I don’t want to do that again,’” Shea says. “Maybe next year I’ll say, ‘I hope it’s like 2018.’”

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