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Crush time

By   /   Saturday, October 18th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Crush time

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At the Santa Barbara Winery, the winemakers’ beards are getting long.

It’s the middle of grape crush season, when picked fruit arrives by the ton to be turned into wine. From the first shipments they receive in mid-September to the last load in November, Ryan Ralston and Cameron Bendetsen swear off their razors until the last drop of juice is fermenting.

Although this year’s grape harvest in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties will likely be down as much as 30 to 40 percent because of a spring freeze and later heat waves, the perennial madness of crush season has the two vintners swamped.

“We’re on day 33 straight, without a day off,” said Ralston, the winery’s assistant winemaker on Oct. 10. “I haven’t really taken a lunch in that time, either.”

“Mine’s gotten past the itchy part,” Bendetsen, a production technician, said, running his fingers through his month-old beard. “It’s getting gnarly.”

The harvest and crush begin in mid-August with grapes such as pinot grigio. White varietals continue to come in through September, which also brings in pinot noir and chardonnay. Thick-skinned red grapes can ripen on the vine into October and November.

A late frost battered this year’s crop. Temperatures dipped below freezing on April 20, the latest frost on record in many areas. The event prompted assistance for non-farm businesses and small agricultural co-ops form the California Office of Emergency Services and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The freeze slowed vines’ bloom, which in turn meant that fruit hadn’t set when spring winds and a May heat wave arrived. The weather’s impact depends heavily on a vineyard’s topography and microclimate, with some growers hit especially hard.

“There were some vineyards that were down 70 percent,” said Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintner’s Association, which counts about 125 labels as members. “People were literally crucified in that frost event.”

Other growers were spared, and yet others suffered moderate losses. On a brighter note, a slew of vineyards planted several years ago produced their first grapes, which could soften the blow to Santa Barbara County’s numbers. “If we look at tons crushed, we might not see as big of a loss, because we have hundreds of acres that had their first crop this year,” Fiolek said.

On average, the grape crop in the Paso Robles area likely will be down between 30 and 40 percent this year, said Chris Taranto, communications manager with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “Depending on the topography and the microclimate of each vineyard, some may have seen a 50 percent loss from shatter, and some had no loss,” Taranto said.

In addition to killing off a portion of nascent grapes, this season’s weather led to uneven ripening. Because much tri-counties fruit is picked by hand, that means going through vineyards over and over to find ripe grapes.

“For the majority of our members, [harvest is] working out very well, but with a lot of work,” Fiolek said. “It is not an easy year. To maintain the quality that people have been looking for has required a huge amount of literally hands-on effort.”

Kevin Merrill is a vineyard manager with Templeton-based Mesa Vineyards Management, which oversees 5,600 acres of grapes from Santa Barbara County to Monterey County. From what he’s seen, red varieties are down while white varieties seem to have held on.

But Merrill and others point out that smaller crop isn’t categorically bad news. Less fruit means more flavor per berry and a tastier vintage.

“Growers always like to see more tonnage, so it’s not a great year for growers,” Merrill said. “On the flip side to that, it’s going to make some great wine, and when you make good wine that helps us in the future.”

“When you have a vine putting all of its power into less fruit, it’s going to really concentrate those flavors,” Santa Barbara Winery’s Ralston said. That’s a winemaker’s delight, he said.

“You can always add acid, and you can always add water – but you can never add flavor,” Ralston said. “We’re going get great quality wine this year, just not a lot of it.”

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