Since the first clusters of early ripening pinot grigio grapes started coming off the vines in August, the vineyards of Santa Barbara County have been a hub of harvest activity. Though the region’s renowned chardonnays and pinot noirs are mostly picked by now, the grape-plucking blur is likely to continue deep into November, as the recently warmer weather may keep heartier varieties like cabernet sauvignon, mourvedre, and nebbiolo on the vine extra long.
While fruit quality is promising as usual, according to the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association Director Jim Fiolek, the grape yield is lower due to springtime frost and an early summer heat wave that damaged some crops. “Most people are more than happy with the quality, but the quantity is down a little bit more than they would hope,” said Fiolek. “And a few people got hammered.”
Specifically, those events were an April frost that Fiolek described as “the latest and coldest that anybody can remember” and a June heat wave when temperatures soared to 109 degrees in usually cool Lompoc. And that happened during a crucial time in vine development, or what Fiolek called a vineyard’s “love session,” when the self-propagating plant’s male and female parts must get together. On top of that, there was another frost this month, and some grapes were actually frozen on the vines.
Altogether, however, the effects of bad weather are spotty, in that some microclimates were hit harder and some vineyards did more expensive and extensive hands-on management to assure that their grapes weren’t as affected by the inclement conditions. But the good news is no one’s going out of business due to the drop. “There’s been no inkling of that,” said Fiolek, whose association watches most of the grape-picking in the county. “These people know what they’re getting into,” he explained of the cyclical nature of the industry. “It’s farming.”
In fact, after a major bumper crop of 2005, grape yields have been repeatedly lower in the past three years, though even Fiolek admits that this year some vineyards, especially the small ones, are taking a bigger hit. “It’s a very mixed number,” said Fiolek. “Some people are down enormously, and some people are not.”
But low grape yields aren’t the only things on the minds of Santa Barbara’s winemaking community, which is arguably the county’s biggest moneymaker when you add together the fruit and bottle sales with the industry’s tourism impacts. “Honestly, for the majority of people, even those who lost a fair amount of fruit, they’re not going nuts. They’re probably more concerned about the country,” said Fiolek, pointing at the current economic turmoil that may affect wine sales somewhere down the line.