Harvest time has come to the Santa Cruz Mountains — about three weeks earlier than last year. Winemakers debate why that might be, but all say they are optimistic about the quality of the 2022 harvest.
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Harvest time has begun for some vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, launching local winemakers into their annual melee to pick their grapes at the optimal moment.
This year’s harvest started about three weeks earlier than last year, although winemakers disagree about why the season is getting such an early start. That has caused an early scramble for some winemakers, while others are still waiting for the majority of their grapes to ripen.
Local winemakers enjoyed a banner year with the 2021 harvest. So far, the 2022 harvest looks just as promising as last year’s — and that comes as a big relief as the memory of the 2020 harvest, much of which was ruined by the mid-August CZU Lightning Complex fires, still lingers.
Cole Thomas, winemaker at Madson Wines in Santa Cruz, says he “hit the ground running full speed” Aug. 17 with a chardonnay harvest in the mountains above Watsonville. Last week, he harvested pinot noir and chardonnay in Los Altos and chardonnay from Ascona Vineyard on Skyline Boulevard. “It’s the earliest harvest anyone’s seen — maybe ever,” Thomas said. “I’ve never seen anything earlier since 2013.”
He said believes warm weather in February, which triggered an early bud break, is to blame, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s not early because it’s been hot this summer; it’s early because it was hot in February, which pushed plants to flower earlier and produce fruit earlier,” Thomas said. “Ripening took the same amount of time rather than being forced by any heat to ripen.” In 2017, he recalled, the harvest was also early, but it was due to a heat wave in early September with temperatures over 100 degrees: “If you didn’t harvest before, the acidity was out of whack for the sugar ratios with overripe fruit.”
While some of the vineyards from which Thomas harvests did lose fruit due to a frost in March, the grapes have enjoyed a long ripening period during a cool summer. Now, he sees that while yields are slightly down, the chemistry of the grapes looks promising.
Megan Bell, winemaker at Margins Wine in Corralitos, says she too is optimistic about the season. “So far, I’m really happy with numbers,” said Bell. “I’ve hit all the targets, which never happens — pHs are nice and low, which makes me happy. Sugars might be ripening a little ahead of acids. Yields are a little low.” She anticipates that this year’s vintage will be lower in alcohol but still possess plenty of ripeness without losing its acidity.
This year, Bell began harvesting Aug. 12 with a muscat vineyard in Contra Costa County. When we spoke, she had harvested seven out of the previous 10 days and already picked about a third of what she planned on harvesting for the year.
“I feel like it’s going really well,” she said. “2021 was such an amazing vintage, and I have my fingers crossed that the second two-thirds of this vintage are as good as the first third.”
She’s not convinced the warm weather in February should be blamed for the early harvest. In her experience, warm weather in February is the new normal, and other vineyards that experienced early bud break are still ripening.
Jeff Emery of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard said he believes the culprit is low moisture in the soil. Due to the plant’s metabolism, grapes ripen faster in dryer conditions, he says, and ripen more slowly during wet years.
While our neighbors in the Central Valley have experienced plenty of triple-digit days this summer, that extreme heat pulls the marine layer over much of the Central Coast and up into the Santa Cruz Mountains, extending ripening periods for vineyards within the cool zone. Long, cool summers are one of the features that make the Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area special and desirable for making wine.
So far, Emery has harvested only tempranillo from a vineyard in southwest Monterey County. While it is 10 days to two weeks earlier than previous years, he doesn’t think that’s “crazy early.” How the rest of the season goes is anyone’s guess, he said: “It depends on whether or not we get [a fall] heat wave — which I don’t want. Time will tell.”
At Regan Vineyards in Corralitos, John Bargetto also takes the early harvest in stride. “In the life of the farmer, every year is different,” he said. “You can’t expect to have any two years alike.”
Bargetto notes that while this year’s harvest is three weeks earlier than last year, the 2021 harvest was “one of the latest in 20 years” due to cool weather throughout the summer months and into September. He also believes low moisture in the soil motivated the grapes to begin ripening earlier this year, but he has yet to harvest the majority of his grapes.
A week before we spoke, Bargetto had begun harvesting pinot noir for sparkling wine for a customer in Napa. Grapes destined for sparkling wine are always picked early, when the sugars are low. Now, he thinks he’ll wait another two weeks before he picks the first chardonnay for sparkling wine. After that, he’ll just go with the flow.
Overall, Bargetto is pleased with how the season is going, and is installing extra shade protection at the vineyard in case of heat spikes. Last year, he said, the yields were “huge”; this year, they’re just full. “I’m happy with it.”