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California's wine industry prepares for 'lighter' crop

Published:  11 August, 2014

California is preparing itself for a smaller harvest than 2013 - which was a bumper crop at 4 million tonnes - with some varieties looking to be down by around one third.

The harvest is in its very early stages, but Daniel Murphy, managing director of bulk wine broker Murphy Wine Company, who was visiting the state last week, said it was off to a "bad start".

California HarvestCalifornia’s 2014 harvest will be smaller than last yearCalifornian winemakers say the 2014 crop will be about average - which would be down on last year’s bumper effort. Some varieties have been more affected than others - with Pinot Grigio looking to be down by more than a third.

Grape growers in California put a more positive spin on the harvest, saying that initial signs such as bunch sizes, although smaller than 2013, pointed to an average crop, especially given increased acreage.

Allied Grape Growers said it would "certainly not be surprised by an overall smaller crush in 2014". Across California's central San Joaquín valley, "Chardonnay and Viognier are actually up slightly. Red winegrapes, however, are basically down across the board, some as much as one-third off of last year's counts", says the group's crop update on its site.

Pinot Grigio appears to be most affected - with bunch counts down by almost a third, said Allied Grapegrowers. "Wouldn't you know that a variety we could use more of is showing low cluster counts?" the latest update stated.  

Murphy told that California's crop is "coming in lighter than last year". So far it's early days to determine just how much smaller than last year the crop will be, Murphy said, adding that strong stock levels in California meant they could "ride out a low crop", although growers would suffer.

"It's very early days, but I would say it's off to a bad start." Following a visit last week, Murphy said that reports are coming through of major vineyards picking light, said Murphy, both on non-irrigated and irrigated plots - the latter being a particular cause for concern.

"Last year was a big crop at 4 million tonnes - it would be a big problem if it came in at 3.5 million, but 3.9 million would still be OK. It's highly unlikely to get three big crops one after another. They're all watching like hawks and starting to pick this week."

Murphy said the Californians have a lot of stock available now, but questioned what the impact of a short harvest would be in the long-term. 

Mark Lyon, Winemaker for Sebastiani Vineyards in Sonoma County, told "Overall, the harvest is looking lighter this year in California after two consecutive average + harvests. Cabernet Sauvignon is very much in demand and not cropping above average. Chardonnay continues to be average + crops and is having impact on lowering prices. There is still ample 2013 unsold Chardonnay that is lowering the price for both Chardonnay grapes and 2013 Chardonnay still in tanks and not yet bottled. 

"Zinfandel also is in plentiful supply and there are bargains to be had. Merlot seems to be not in excess as was the case in the past.  Sauvignon Blanc is definitely lighter crops this year and will help balance out the plentiful supply we had last year."

"Syrah (Shiraz) is the least in demand grape and continues to be a big challenge to sell in the US markets.

"It's an early harvest with water drought statewide not have a big impact except in certain wine districts like Paso Robles and lower San Joaquin Valley." 

Napa Valley Vintners' Patsy McGaughey said: "The word we're getting from our vintners is that 2014 may be at least average to above average in yield - somewhat surprising, given how big the 2012 and 2013 harvests turned out to be."

"While the drought is certainly on everyone's mind and there's no question that the 2013/14 winter was one of the driest on record, we did receive significant rainfall in the spring, right before the start of the growing season. This made all the difference for this year's crop, providing moisture when the vines needed it the most. Since spring, we've had fairly warm, even temperatures, which resulted in good fruit set (there was virtually no frost this spring) and even ripening for the grapes. The spring rains also meant a surge in vine vigor, so canopy management has been critical this year, but word from the vineyard is that the crop looks to be a very good one and our vintners and growers have high expectations for another good to excellent vintage," McGaughey added.

In northern California harvest started last week on July 30 for sparkling wine varieties, with some aromatic whites being picked late this week or early next.

While John McClaren, UK director of the Wine Institute of California, said the drought should not affect this year's crop, he questioned the impact for the future. He said Californian vintners have been very focused on water conservation for "decades" and that very little water is generally used at this stage in the cycle, meaning 2014 should escape unscathed. "The concerns, inevitably, will be for the long-term, and the impact here is impossible to measure, and a good spell of rain could correct current shortages, so we will wait and see."