2021 grape picking

Vineyard workers pick grapes for Balletto Vineyards on Oct. 11.

Sonoma County’s 2021 harvest may be defined more by what didn’t happen versus what did. There were no late season dry lightning strikes and the region’s long growing season stretched from early spring through the end of summer with no terrible heat spells. And, there was no rain — at least not enough to break the spell of the ongoing drought.

Unlike the past two years, there were no large wildfires in August and September to interrupt crop picking. Winery owners and workers did not have to mass evacuate or shield from smoke-filled skies. And, there was no end to the coronavirus pandemic that shuttered big chunks of the local economy beginning in March 2020, keeping almost all work shifts under extra precautions and other limitations.

Most of what did happen during the growing season and harvest of 2021 is welcomed by vineyard owners and other farmers.

“I don’t think anyone, really, has much to complain about with this year,” said Anthony Beckman, winemaker at Balletto Vineyards. “We had average to slightly above average yields and the overall quality of the fruit is very high.”

When local farmers look back at this 2021 harvest, most will remember it for the lack of rain and the historical low water levels in regional reservoirs including Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. But, they might also remember the vintage of 2021 as a surprisingly great one, if some early winemaker predictions prove true in a few years.

“Overall, it was very calm — especially with no wildfires,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. “The crop might have been a little light (in yield), but it feels like our growers are going to experience a very balanced market without too much price pressure and good demand (for grape purchases.)”

Sonoma County farmers produce almost $1 billion in annual crops, with winegrapes representing two-thirds of that total, followed by dairy, poultry, livestock, nursery ornamentals, quality vegetables, apples and silage crops. The wildfires and smoke damage curtailed most crop totals in 2020 and the lack of rains this year will keep many yields below past harvests. (Official crop totals are not recorded until late next year when the county’s agricultural commissioner delivers his official report to the state and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.)

“I’m feeling optimistic,” said Kruse as the winegrape harvest was winding down in mid-October. “And that’s really different from how we all felt just a year ago. Sonoma County is still in the forefront of our industry with so much.” She said the wildfire, pandemic and drought are just the latest challenges all farmers face in most years. “We’re being safer and our growers are looking in new ways at all of their farming practices. We’re also looking at a next generation of farmers coming along with some new models and approaches. That’s exciting.”

A normal beginning

Without floods or frost, Sonoma County’s growing season usually begins in mid-March when the grapevines awaken and send out early green shoots. This year’s bud break was right on time. But it didn’t take long for farmers to start noticing their pastures and hillsides were not their usual emerald green. A lack of rain painted yellow and brown streaks through their plantings. Dairy and livestock operators took extra caution and began tight water management early in the season.

Vineyard crews did extra pruning on thirsty vines and some livestock owners culled back on their herd sizes and breeding schedules. Nursery and vegetable farmers watched their well levels and canceled some crop plantings. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic was keeping many restaurants and other Sonoma County crop customers on limited business hours and they decreased purchases for local farmers’ vegetables, cheeses and other agriculture products.

A critical dry year

On Aug. 2, the drought became official when the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) issued a blanket curtailment order to all upper Russian River property owners’ pumping activities. Lake Mendocino, which supplies water to Potter and Alexander valley vineyards and farmers, fell to a historical low level for that time of year at less than 30% capacity. Lake Sonoma was only a bit better at 40% and on Aug. 10 the SWRCB issued full curtailment orders to lower Russian River water users in Dry Creek and lower Russian River valleys.

Vineyard owners invested in extra monitoring and soil probe technology to squeeze as much value out of each drop of irrigated water as possible. Other growers made decisions over which vineyards or varietals to irrigate and which ones to let go thirsty. Almost all vineyard owners “dropped” fruit on the ground to reduce stress on the semi-parched vines.

crushing cabernet

 Workers at Balletto Vineyards sort through grapes.

Smaller clusters and berries, but bigger flavors

“We’re seeing lighter clusters and smaller berries, but the flavors are really sharp,” said Balletto’s Beckman. “Our chardonnay is outstanding, with great chemistry and good acidity.”

Kruse said many growers this year picked their fruit at lower brix (sugar) levels and a bit earlier than usual which will result in lower alcohol levels in the finished wines.

The 2021 winegrape harvest started in mid-August with grapes destined for sparkling wines and the season was 95% completed by the first week of October, with just some hearty cabernet sauvignon, syrah and other red varietals waiting for some late picking.

“We are excited about our 2021 harvest,” said Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, an association for winery owners. He said the season was “very smooth” and found overall weather conditions “very cooperative with cool evenings and foggy mornings.”

No such thing as ‘dry farming’

Almost half of the rainfall, river flow and groundwater within the Russian River basin is used by agriculture and shared with 600,000 domestic, municipal and industrial customers of the Sonoma County Water Agency and incorporated cities. All classes of water users this year were put on mandatory water use restrictions that many fear will tighten in 2022 if the dry winter predictions hold true.

Homeowners forced to see their lawns turn brown have complained at the sight of lush green, irrigated vineyards. Demands that farmers cease irrigating and revert to ‘dry farming’ techniques are slightly misdirected. There is no such thing as ‘dry farming.’ There is farming with irrigation or farming with no irrigation. Dry farming (no irrigation) can only work when there is at least minimal amounts of rain. No rain, no water, no crops. However, an Alexander Valley vineyard owner recently confessed to SoCoNews that “we’ve probably been over-watering in lots of past years because we’ve had the water.”

A vineyard of premium grape vines could grow and mature very well on a very limited amount of rainfall — if that rain fell during a perfect time like late winter when the vineyard soils are most receptive to absorb and retain the life-giving moisture. A torrential storm with lots of run-off into the river or Pacific as occurred in 2019 doesn’t help that much.

On the road again

Members of Sonoma County Winegrowers will be in Houston, Texas on Nov. 13, pouring their wines for 1,000 attendees of the Houston Food Fest. This follows a similar marketing excursion by the Winegrowers in June to San Antonio. Grape farmers can grow all the fruit they want and sell it to wineries but if consumers don’t buy and drink the wine, it doesn’t matter if there’s a drought or not.

“It’s great to be back on the road again,” said Kruse, following almost two years of cancelled wine showcases. “I think we are seeing a true renaissance among wine consumers. They really want to know where their wine comes from and what’s the story behind it. Our Sonoma County members excel at that and we’re happy we will able to travel and share their stories once again.”

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