‘Overjoyed at this fruit’: A year after being devastated by heat, smoke, this harvest has winemakers smiling

What a difference a year has made for local grapes.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Compared to the 2020 harvest, one vintner calls this year’s harvest “a blessing.” “It’s black and white. With the smoke last year, it was pretty much a 100% loss for most clients. The fact that there’s no smoke this year makes it 100% better. Last year, some clients actually paid me to not pick.”

Harvest time for winegrowers in the Santa Cruz Mountains is always an explosion of energy and labor, as winemakers rush to pick their crop at the peak of ripeness. Now that the 2021 season has drawn to a close, local vintners are sharing many positive reports on the quality and quantity of grapes.

It’s in stark contrast to the 2020 harvest, when many local vineyards suffered from intense heat and others were lost completely due to smoke taint from the CZU Lightning Complex fire.

Bradley Brown of Big Basin Vineyards saw the most direct damage from the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
(Sara Gobets / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

Bradley Brown, the founder and owner of Big Basin Vineyards, is looking forward to a successful 2021 harvest.

“I think it’s going to be an excellent vintage. We’re still tasting presses, and we’re not done with malolactic,” Brown says in reference to the balancing out of acids, “but we can perceive what we’re working with.”

Although the wines are still going through fermentation, he can say with certainty that, “They’re tasting really good. We’re pretty excited. We’re jazzed. At most of the picks we were able to get things right where we wanted them.”

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According to Brown, it’s been a season where almost everything went right. Bud break, when the vines’ first young buds pop up in spring, was on time, and the vines enjoyed good weather through flowering. Then, a long, cool summer gave the ripening grapes a few more weeks on the vine — extra hang time that will later translate to complex, balanced wines.

“Things were physiologically ripe this year in a really beautiful way at low brix levels,” says Brown, referring to the lower sugar levels in the grapes. “People like us who are more Old World-style in our sensibilities, that’s how we work with these coastal vineyards. You can get these low brix levels and amazing complexity in the wines.”

Good-looking fruit is also showing good results in the early stages of fermentation.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Vines in the Santa Cruz Mountains weathered another season of extremely low rainfall. According to the Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers Association (SCMWA), year-to-date rainfall is just 12.5 inches, and 2020 was nearly as low with just 14.5 inches. In 2019, a more normal year for rainfall, had more than 36 inches.

However, Brown notes that while yields in drought-impacted vineyards were slightly down, overall yields have been “surprisingly good.” The low soil moisture did influence unusual ripening patterns in the grapes that resulted in some vineyards that would have traditionally been picked earlier to be picked later, and vice versa.

Taking the positives at Big Basin

A successful 2021 harvest is a welcome change after a devastating 2020 season. Last August, the CZU fire ripped through Big Basin Vineyard, located deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Boulder Creek, just as the harvest was starting. It destroyed nearly every building on the property, including Brown’s home, where he stored many of the winery’s library wines.

Only the pumphouse and the winery survived. All the farm equipment and a significant portion of a fence line also burned, their irrigation was heavily damaged, and they lost their entire estate harvest due to smoke taint. Sadly, over half an acre of syrah — Brown estimates 600 or 700 vines — was also destroyed.

Burnt vines shown at Big Basin Vineyards after the CZU fire. Bradley Brown intends to replant this spring.
Burnt vines remain at Big Basin Vineyards.
(Sara Gobets / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It had a forest right behind it and it burned so hot, and the wind blew the fire right over the vineyard,” he said. “Grapevines don’t burn easy. It takes an intense amount of heat. It got so hot that the vines steamed, almost pressure-cooked.”

He will be replanting in the spring, but, he says, “You can’t just replace a 15-year-old vine. It takes 15 years.” Other vines on his property did recover but did not bear fruit this year.

While they rebuild on the mountain, Big Basin Vineyard is also expanding, with plans in place for opening a tasting room in downtown Santa Cruz by the end of this year.

Now, Brown looks forward to producing an exceptional 2021 vintage. “We’re overjoyed at this fruit that’s going to have amazing concentration and complexity.”

A tale of two mountainsides

When Jeff Emery, the owner and winemaker at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, is finally able to take a phone call, he has just finished loading a wine press with yet another batch of grapes at his urban winery on the Westside of Santa Cruz.

Jeff Emery samples some early returns.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The harvest has been in full swing since early September, which means Emery, who describes himself as “owner, winemaker, truck driver, floor sweeper, paper pusher, bottle washer, etc.” has been working around the clock for more than a month.

“We’re about two-thirds done by tonnage,” he said. “It started faster than I expected since it was so cool here, but now it’s a little more controllable.”

This year, he’s particularly impressed with the quality of the local pinot noir. “All the local pinots have been just perfectly balanced with good pHs, which has to do with our colder August,” says Emery. “We’re making three this year.”

He attributes the high quality to a relatively cool summer and a lack of intense heat spikes, which is ideal weather for pinot noir, a sensitive varietal that does well in cooler climates and is grown widely in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

A labor of love at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Despite another year of low rainfall, Emery did not see a significant reduction in yields except from truly dry-farmed vineyards, which are not irrigated and rely on groundwater. However, he also notes the drought’s effect on irregular ripening times.

“We’re getting some things in the same week that we shouldn’t be getting in the same month,” he said. “[The drought] may have something to do with everything ripening so quickly despite the cool weather. Things are coming faster than expected but the quality is still very good.”

Keikilani McKay, the executive director of SCMWA, said that while the Santa Cruz County side of the Santa Cruz Mountains is enjoying a banner year for harvest, winegrowers on the east side were once again plagued by summer heat spikes. “From the summit over to Saratoga and Cupertino, they finished really early and had lower yields.”

Getting dirty can also be very productive when it comes to wine.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At the historic Mount Eden Vineyards in Saratoga, winemaker Jeffrey Patterson reports via an email to McKay that its harvest of coveted cabernet sauvignon was down 50% due to heat. However, the winery produced a normal crop of chardonnay and pinot noir, and despite the severe drought, he feels that the season was good overall.

“The disease pressure was low and the weather did not give many heat events so overall the season was positive,” says Patterson. “We are dry-farmed so next year is critical to the vineyards’ long-term health.”

Winegrowers on both sides of the Santa Cruz Mountains might see pain from the drought next year if it continues, says McKay. “This year the grapes can still tap into that deep groundwater, and you can still irrigate a bit. Next year, those reserves will be even farther down and more difficult for grapes to access.”

‘Not perfect, but damn near close’

Ken Swegles proudly shows off his fruit.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Viticulturist Ken Swegles’ feelings on the 2021 harvest are clear. “It’s stellar, one of the best vintages I’ve been a part of. The quality is just amazing,” he reports by phone while en route to two Treasure Island wineries with a truck full of Santa Cruz Mountain pinot noir, sangiovese and chardonnay.

Compared to the 2020 harvest, Swegles says this year’s harvest is “a blessing.” “It’s black and white. With the smoke last year, it was pretty much a 100% loss for most clients. The fact that there’s no smoke this year makes it 100% better. Last year, some clients actually paid me to not pick.”

Swegles, who is part owner, viticulturist and consulting winemaker at Madson Wines in Corralitos, notes that natural winemakers like himself might struggle with this year’s crop. One result of the low soil moisture is low nitrates in the soil, which can make fermentation sluggish.

There are additives that can boost ferment activity, but natural winemakers typically resist any additions at all. “If you’re not going to add anything to wines, it’s going to be tougher for the purists,” he said. “Madson tries to adhere to natural winemaking as much as possible, so we’re doing what we can to get things moving.”

Even that can’t dampen his enthusiasm for the 2021 harvest: “It’s not perfect, but it’s damn near close.”