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2015 California Winegrape Harvest: Early, Light and Exceptional Quality
October 15, 2015

The winegrape harvest at Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Barbara County  on California’s Central Coast. Photos by George Rose

The winegrape harvest underway at Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Barbara County on California’s Central Coast. George Rose photos.

SAN FRANCISCO—The 2015 year delivered California vintners and growers across the state another stellar vintage.  Despite a lighter crop—compared to last year—from one of the earliest seasons on record, wildfires during harvest in some regions and a fourth year of drought, quality is high across the board.  A mild winter causing early bud break, followed by protracted bloom and unseasonably cool weather in spring, contributed to smaller grape clusters and variable crop size.  An intense, compacted harvest began in July for sparkling wines and some still white wines, and was finished for most wineries by the end of September.  The crop is estimated to be nearly 3.8 million tons, according to industry experts.

“The quality of the 2015 vintage for California statewide is excellent,” said Robert P. (Bobby) Koch, president and CEO of Wine Institute. “After three record harvests, a lighter vintage will not impact our supply of California wines for wine lovers nationwide and throughout the world.”

“Harvest started 10 days or so early in our north and central coast vineyards because of the warm weather and reduced crop size,” said Keith Horn, VP Grape Management for Constellation Brands. “Happily, we harvested superior quality grapes, just a little lighter crop.”

“This year is only the third time since 1982 that harvest has finished in September, so to say that this is an early season understates the point a bit,” said Cameron Parry, winemaker for Groth Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley.  “This year lines up fairly well with 1997, one of the other three September finishes. Yields have been down across the board, but this is not surprising, as we are coming off of an unprecedented run of three large harvests (’12, ’13, and ’14). Though there isn’t a lot of it, the quality of the crop this year is exceptional.  All the Cabernet ferments are showing big, rich, ripe fruit in great balance with the tannins, and the color metrics are off the chart this season.  2015 should prove to be another in an epic string of superior quality vintages.”

“This year was the earliest harvest in my 46 years as a winegrower,” said Richard Sanford, owner of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards in Santa Barbara County, primarily producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We began on August 10 and were finished by September 8. Others in our area have experienced similar early ripening. The tonnage of grapes is lower than the last two vintage. The quality is superb and will make excellent wine. I would say 2015 is an excellent vintage for wines from the Santa Rita Hills.”

Tracey Hawkins, co-founder of Hawk and Horse Vineyards in Lake County, is also excited about the harvest, in spite of the Valley Fire that swept through parts of the region in September. “Lake County has seen an early and slightly light 2015 harvest, with some wineries recording their earliest harvest to date,” said Hawkins.  “It was a hot, dry summer, which made the fruit from this vintage very flavorful—and may account for the lightness and earliness of the vintage. Most report tonnage approximately 10 percent lighter than usual, however, others report slightly larger than normal tonnages. Fruit quality across the board is stellar. Harvest was delayed for some when the Valley Fire struck, but harvest resumed in most areas within four days.”

“The drought clearly had an effect in this 2015 vintage,” stated Montse Reece, winemaker for Pedroncelli Winery in Sonoma County. “This has been an early and light harvest, with smaller berries and concentrated fruit flavors. The high temperatures in August and early September accelerated maturity and picking times. Yields were 20 percent lower on average. I’m seeing mild acids, moderate to low alcohols and intense aromatics in all our varieties. This is a vintage of exceptional quality.”

There was more praise for fruit quality from Aaron Lange, who is in charge of viticulture operations at LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards. “The 2015 vintage in the Lodi appellation was early, light, and intense,” said Lange. “The season began almost three full weeks ahead of normal and was complete by the end of September.  Red varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon, had light yields across the board, mostly due to loose clusters and small berry size. Throughout the season, we worked hard to keep up with the fast-paced harvest to deliver winegrapes to wineries at the optimal time with winemakers loving the concentrated colors and flavors of the fruit.”

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2015 Vintner Quotes from Throughout California

LAKE COUNTY
Matt Hughes, Winemaker
Six Sigma Ranch and Winery

For Lake County and Six Sigma Ranch it’s easily been the most challenging harvest to date. The fires devastated the area and our community is in full recovery mode. Our thoughts go out to those who have had significant losses.  Our ranch was evacuated three times, all during harvest operations, but we managed to keep things rolling and haven’t had to make any changes directly related to the fires.  One of the major concerns was the possibility of smoke taint and I’m happy to report that after talking with many other growers and winemakers, not one test result or sensory assessment has shown a perceptible level of taint. Overall yields have been average to below average for some varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.  Most whites came in very early and wineries finished harvesting those grapes by the first week in September with the fruit retaining a very nice acid balance due to the quick season.  Cabernet Sauvignon is shaping up to be one of the stars of the vintage; with light, loose clusters contributing to complex and dense berries.  We have high expectations.

LIVERMORE
John Concannon, Fourth Generation Vintner
Concannon Vineyard

We at Concannon are experiencing another high quality fruit year in 2015.  Although our yields are lower than the previous three years, we are very excited to see the high concentration of fruit flavors in our whites and reds.  Livermore Valley temperatures have been warm during the days, but at night we have received the coastal-influenced cooler temperatures to maximize optimal ripeness. Overall, Vintage 2015 is shaping up to be an amazing harvest.

LODI
Keith Horn, VP Grape Management
Constellation Brands

The vineyards in Lodi did not appear to be heavily stressed during the growing season. Rains in December helped alleviate some drought issues. January was completely dry, and February rainfall was below average. Dry conditions were mitigated by cold mornings, fog and low weed growth. Rain events in April helped ease dry soil conditions. Harvest 2015 started out fast and furious with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. This was one of the earliest harvests on record. With a prolonged bloom and cool weather, we saw reduced berry set resulting in cluster size that was smaller than 2014.  Overall crop size is short of last year, especially in reds. Red varietals matured rapidly. Despite early ripening, color and quality appear to be good.

MADERA
Darin Peterson, Winemaker
Quady Winery

The harvest of 2015 in Madera could be summed up in three words—early, quick and intense. After another dry winter and warm spring, some varieties were as much as two weeks ahead of their historical average harvest dates. Then in the middle of the harvest, hot weather compressed picking schedules for remaining varieties. Growers and wineries reported finishing harvest earlier than ever. Many growers reported average yields and in some cases slightly above.

Steve Schafer, Owner
San Joaquin Wine Company

Harvest this year is even earlier than last year, with white varietals maturing in early August. Crop size on white varietals is average with brix, pH, and total acids within the normal ranges. Red varietals are proving more of a challenge with the crop being slightly lighter than normal with quite a variability of maturity within districts, as well as individual vineyard blocks.

MENDOCINO
Michael Fay, Winemaker
Goldeneye

Another great vintage emerged from Anderson Valley from what originally looked like a potentially challenging year. We had the earliest start to our estate harvest ever (Aug. 13), and our earliest finish (Sept.14). Early harvest is a blessing here as it can get very cold and wet mid-October. We were able to pick at ideal physiological ripeness. While yields were down and approaching near average levels after three vintages in a row of abundant crops, the quality and purity of the 2015 fruit is evident. The wines show the hallmarks of great Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, with equal parts lushness and beauty, mixed with rustic savory notes, and a touch of wildness.

NAPA VALLEY
Delia Viader, Ph.D., President & Founder
Viader Vineyards and Winery

2015 harvest is the first in 30 years that we started picking on August 30. Tannins are firm and enduring, but without the up-front boldness delivered in 2013; they seem to have more of the nuanced finesse of the 2014’s and flavors are more in the realm of ripe “black fruits.” This harvest accelerated much in the same way 1990’s did—heat at the last possible “minute.” Again the persistent drought in California has posed an interesting challenge to our “veteran” vines that, with their very deep roots, weathered the drought magnificently.

PASO ROBLES
Jeff Meier, Director of Winemaking, President
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines

In Paso Robles, four years of drought and unseasonably cold, windy and cloudy weather in May, greatly impacted berry set. 2015, in many respects, is very reminiscent of the 2004 vintage in terms of crop size and warm growing season. Fortunately, unlike 2004, weather during veraison was mild, preserving color development of most Bordeaux and Rhone varietals.  This very warm year in concert with the extremely small crop size prompted an early vintage start in late August. Cabernet Sauvignon yields were down by as much as 60 percent!  Other Bordeaux varietals are down closer to 10 percent. One silver lining is the very high quality red wines.  Color densities are the highest seen in more than a decade.

SAN LUIS OBISPO
Brian Talley, Owner/Winegrower
Talley Vineyards

The consensus of growers and winemakers in San Luis Obispo wine country is that it was early and light. Our region experienced the same early harvest that was typical throughout the state with most growers completing harvest by the third week of September, assisted by the fact that our region is widely planted to the early ripening cool climate varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Low yields resulting from the ongoing drought also contributed to the early harvest. Acidity is higher than 2014 and I expect more concentration of flavor due to the low yields.

SANTA BARBARA
Louis Lucas, Third Generation Grape Grower
Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards

Harvest started a couple of weeks earlier than ever before. Our yields in some varieties, like Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, are unbelievably low. Both bunch size and berry size are small. This situation is statewide, especially in the coastal regions. Everyone is questioning why. Many things enter into it, like the fact that we had three large crops in a row, an early fall frost, a warm winter, bad weather during flowering, irregular berry set, a lack of winter rains and no deep soil moisture.  Our total production will be down about 50 percent. I do expect the 2015 vintage to be a quality one. We were done harvesting a month early.

SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
Jason Robideaux, Winemaker
Clos LaChance Wines

The 2015 harvest, much like 2014, came quite early, the earliest harvest to date by nearly a week.  The yields are well below average and looking to be about 20 percent down on our estate in San Martin, and close to 50 percent down on Santa Cruz Mountains’ fruit.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards in the mountains took the biggest hit, and in some cases there was not even enough crop load to warrant picking.  On the upside, we are seeing quality in the grapes that we have never seen before.  Berry size is tremendously small, contributing to lower yields, but giving us much higher skin to juice ratio in the fermenter.  We are expecting outstanding quality in 2015 wines, which will make up for lack of quantity.  This will be our earliest finish ever by close to a month on our estate.  Just in time for rains to start filling our thirsty soil profile.

SIERRA FOOTHILLS
Bill Easton, Winemaker
Terre Rouge & Easton Wines

This is our earliest harvest on record due to the ongoing drought and vine set. Quality is very high. Harvest weather has been perfect. In the eight-county Sierra Foothills AVA, some higher-elevation vineyards were affected by wet, cold weather in May with hail, resulting in a poor set and a reduced crop. In much of the Shenandoah Valley, California AVA, the Zinfandel crop remained about the same quantity as last year with good ripeness and acidity. The substantial Butte Fire in Northern Calaveras County had a mostly negligible effect on the Sierra Foothills grape harvest. Its activity was mostly north of important Calaveras County growing regions, and it stayed far south of Amador County wine regions. The smoke from the fire tracked east towards Lake Tahoe and into Nevada. The 2015 vintage will be an exciting year to watch as it matures in our cellars.

SONOMA COUNTY
Pat Henderson, Senior Winemaker
Kenwood Vineyards

The vintage of 2015, the 110th at our Sonoma winery, began early with our Sauvignon Blanc reaching maturity August 18. The early and quick start was due primarily to the weather and the light vineyard yield. Even though the summer was generally mild, last spring’s dry warm weather contributed to early vine development. The quality of the fruit is exceptional: our Sauvignon Blancs are particularly fragrant, and our red wines are showing excellent color and body only a few days into fermentation. While I wish we had more fruit, I couldn’t be happier with how things taste.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA/TEMECULA
Jon McPherson, Master Winemaker
South Coast Winery and Carter Estate Winery

The warm, dry winter and spring seemed drive the vintage once again. The 2015 harvest started early. Most of the white varieties for table wine had been picked by mid-August. Yields on the whites were average to slightly below average. For most of the red varieties, high winds and warm temperatures followed by cool, damp conditions in the spring gave rise to poor set and overall low cluster weights for everything from Alicante to Zinfandel. Many of the Bordelaise varieties were off yield as much as 50 percent. A couple of light monsoonal rainstorms gave a much needed drink to the vines in early September with little to no damage to any of the grapes still hanging. While the actual yields have been low, most of the local producers find that the quality this vintage is exceptionally high.

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