Those who complain that California doesn’t have a discernible autumn haven’t been to the Santa Ynez Valley in late October. There, when the bright harvest moon gives way to a rising, fog-burning sun, the endless rippling lines of red, gold, and orange leaves are as vibrant as any East Coast display-but even better, for beneath the foliage hide clusters of deep purple, the promising color of yet another successful wine grape harvest for Santa Barbara County.
Each morning before dawn, much like the scene at Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon last Friday, crews of mostly Spanish-speaking men and women attack the autumnal landscape with clippers in hand and a rapid pace afoot, freeing the fruit from its vineyard birthplace and sending the berries on their way toward the bottle. This colorful commotion has been going on for the past six weeks from here in Santa Ynez north to the Santa Maria Valley and west to Sta. Rita Hills, as vineyards hit their productive peaks and unleash one of the county’s most profitable crops.
Though only the county’s top money-making crop in 2001-strawberries and broccoli have edged out the vineyards all other years, even in the grapes’ bumper year of 2005-the wine industry accounts for as much as $1 billion in annual revenues, once tourism, retail, and restaurant tabs are calculated into the cuvee. That makes it, if you believe the wine industry folks, the most important single economic driver in the region and something that we should all be toasting. And although the overall wine grape yields are down as much as 35 percent from normal in some areas this year, winemakers are claiming the 2007 bounty may be one of the tastiest ever.
“It’s been brilliant,” said Doug Margerum, who recently sold the Wine Cask store and restaurant his family has owned for nearly three decades. “We’re giddy over it.” Margerum, who makes wine for his own Margerum Wine Company as well as under the Piocho, Barrack, and Chukker labels, explained that in years past, the wine folks have joked about what T-shirts they should make to celebrate the year. “This year’s motto would be, ‘We’re F%@*ing Geniuses!,'” he joked, explaining that every time they picked the grapes, the sugar levels and pH balances were perfect.
That’s the same song being sung by the more than one dozen winemakers, vineyard managers, and other industry professionals contacted for this report. “The yields are a little lower than normal, which typically means that the quality will benefit hugely from that,” said Chad Melville, who runs his family’s eponymous winery located on Highway 246 in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. When there are fewer grapes, he explained, the flavors are more intense in the fruit that is there, usually resulting in better wines.
What are also intense are harvest season workdays-Melville, for example, is up by 2 a.m. and out supervising the pick soon after that, working outside until as late as 9 a.m. He’ll sleep in the afternoon before dining with his family and heading back to the vineyard in the evening. Why so early? Because, Melville said, “When you clip off the vine, you’re cutting the umbilical cord-it’s not protected anymore. They’re exposed to bacteria that like to eat sugar, and the bacteria especially thrive in warmer temperatures.” If you did it during daytime hours, the grapes would have to be chilled in the winery, which is expensive and unnecessary. Plus, it’s easier on the workers. It’s a grueling schedule, but one that everyone seems, oddly, to enjoy. “It’s hard for me to imagine being in harvest and not being totally stoked,” Melville said.
Jeff Newton, who founded Coastal Vineyard Care Associates in the early ’80s and has managed the vineyard/winery maintenance company ever since, works similar hours, starting at around 3:30 a.m. and running until close to 9 p.m. Newton, who currently has about 35 clients including Stolpman, Beckmen, Fiddlestix, and Zaca Mesa, is also pleased with this year’s harvest: “I’d say that the pinot noir, syrah, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon I’ve picked this year is about as good as any year that I can remember.” He also confirmed that the properties he manages, which are almost all in the Santa Ynez Valley appellation, are down 20 to 30 percent in yields.
“Stellar” is what Michael Larner is calling the fruit. He runs his family’s 34-acre, mostly syrah vineyard near Ballard Canyon, between Solvang and Los Olivos, and sells the grapes to Kunin, Phantom Rivers, and other wineries. Larner confirmed that he’s 35 percent down in yields, but remains refreshingly upbeat. “On the books, it doesn’t look like a good year,” said Larner. “But at the same time, I know the potential for having good scores and getting our name out there and having people recognize the vineyard is more paramount than making the budget every year.”
Lower yields are also the story at Bien Nacido, the 800-plus acre property on the northern flank of the Santa Maria Valley’s appellation. Its varietal breakdown mirrors the rest of Santa Barbara County, with chardonnay at the top, pinot noir a close second, and then syrah coming in third with the rest behind.
The vineyard’s Nicholas Miller explained, “We’re experiencing much lower yields than we were expecting. It could be a good thing, but it’s never fun for the grower-especially when pinot [price] is so high right now, and people can’t make enough of it.” Miller sees this year as a “smoothing out factor,” a means of finding balance in a market that’s been inundated with fruit during the past two years. The losers, Miller believes, will be the small negociant programs, who will have trouble finding a cheap source of grapes because everyone will hold on tightly to the fruit they’ve got.
Up in the Cuyama Valley, where the Arroyo Grande-based Laetitia Vineyard & Winery grows its Santa Barbara Highlands brand-formerly known as Barnwood-the worries were a little different this year. The Zaca Fire came “perilously close to us,” said Nadia Wellisz, but it created an inversion layer that kept the ground temperatures cool enough. “Rather than spoiling the harvest,” said Wellisz, “it actually helped.” She also reported lower yields, but “very, very good” fruit quality.
However, harvest isn’t just about quantity and quality-it’s about timing, too. Jim Fiolek, head of the county’s Vintners Association, explained, “The compression we were thinking was going to happen-early things coming in late and late things coming in early-didn’t really happen. Things were spread out a little more. People had time.” That’s important, according to Margerum, because “when everything ripens at once, you can’t make a good wine. With more time, you can pay attention to everything. I was really able to make my white wines and finish them, and pay attention to everything else because it was not a big slam like it was last year. Last year, I was picking chardonnay and pinot and cabernet all in the same week.”
It seems that this year everything was in sync, and that’s as good as it gets for the wine industry. “The wine business is about balance,” said Fiolek, a day before heading off on a Santa Barbara County wine-selling expedition to Japan, just one of the many countries tuning in to our region’s ever-popular products. “Everybody has to be happy,” said Fiolek. “You can’t only have the accountants happy, and you can’t only have the winemakers happy. It has to be that both are happy, otherwise it doesn’t work. It’s all about synergy. The whole has to be greater than the sum of all parts, or you’re not gonna have all the parts.”
Back at Star Lane Vineyard last Friday, the morning’s hard work started winding down just as daylight illuminated the sprawling valley. The harvest moon may have disappeared and the fog rolled back down the valley, but it was still very much fall, with brisker temperatures keeping everyone’s jackets on tight. The red, gold, and orange leaves remained, but the purple clusters now sat in large white bins, ready to be de-stemmed, crushed, and fermented into Santa Barbara County’s most profitable product. With the winemakers so “giddy” about their forthcoming “stellar” wines, it’s going to be a long, anxious year until the 2007 vintage is released. Good thing everyone’s promising it will be worth the wait.