Merlot harvest at Vérité Winery / Photo courtesy Vérité Winery
Watching fires engulf the West Coast in summer 2021 filled Marimar Torres with anxiety. In the previous vintage, smoke taint forced the founder of Sonoma’s Marimar Estate Vineyards and Winery to sell her Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Syrah wines for bulk.
“We were kind of horrified when we saw there were fires everywhere,” says Torres. “Every morning I woke up thinking, ‘Oh my gosh it’s going to happen today.’ But you know what? It turned out to be a fantastic harvest.”
The wildfires everyone was bracing for never came to Sonoma County. Neither did rain, but that’s getting to be the new normal in Northern California wine country. Overall, the 2021 Sonoma harvest was promising, filled with the usual challenges and surprises that Mother Nature presents.
“I hear from my farmers a lot when things go wrong,” says Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. “It was a pretty quiet harvest season, so it tells me they were head down getting the work done.” Harvest kept crews extra busy this year since it started a couple of weeks early.
The official grape tonnage report won’t come out until February 2022, but the early word is that the yield was light because of the ongoing drought. While most sources said their crop was a little off, Sauvignon Blanc vineyards were hit especially hard.
Chris Christensen of Bodkin Wines in Healdsburg says the yield was 70% lower at one of his favorite coastal vineyards. Early frost damaged buds and drought finished the job. “With the Sandy Bed Vineyard in Lake County, they got around one third of the fruit they expected in a typical year,” says Christensen. “I’m really happy with the quality. I just wish there were more of it.”
And while varieties typically ripen in a cascade of whites and then reds, this year, Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ripened simultaneously.
“Typically, Cabernet would be some of the last fruit in,” says Kruse. “But because there wasn’t as much fruit, it was able to get ripe sooner.” She wasn’t affected, but this ripening convergence caused some to scramble. “I’m hearing horror stories of shortages: pickers, bins, tanks to put the wine in,” she says. “The new bottleneck is shortages in glass and labeling supplies.”
Managing the Drought
The ongoing drought, which dates to 2013, was 2021’s biggest challenge. In addition to lowering yields, the drought stressed vines, pushed sugar levels up earlier than expected and forced farmers to get creative with water. It also shaped vineyard practices that started early in the year.
Hélène Seillan, assistant vigneron at Vérité Winery, says from the moment the first Merlot vines at the Chalk Hill vineyard started to bud in March, she and her father Pierre looked for ways to help the parched vines thrive. They’re lucky to source from 15- to 30-year-old deep-rooted vines for their La Joie, Le Desir and La Muse red blends. Still, they made changes to treat the vines gently.
“We could detect if the water doesn’t come, those vines are going to struggle,” she says. “We don’t want them to use any energy for anything unnecessary. Let’s just ask less of the vine.”
Seillan and her team removed long green shoots called suckers early in the season and cut off some clusters right after veraison when ripening green grapes turn purple. Dropping clusters that are slower to mature helps the vine ripen the rest successfully, she says.
Shaun Kajiwara, who manages 1,500 acres of vineyards for Jackson Family Wines brands including Failla, La Crema and Hartford Court, turned to high- and low-tech solutions to conserve water and keep the vines healthy. At one time, every vineyard was on the same four-hour weekly watering regimen. But weather stations and soil moisture sensors showed that water needs at Saralee’s Vineyard, which sits next to the Russian River, are very different from the Annapolis Vineyard, a rugged, windy site on the Sonoma Coast where apples once grew.
This season, they could do precision irrigation according to what the vines in each block needed. “That’s really what changed my approach to irrigation,” says Kajiwara, the director of vineyard operations. “In the new developments, I’m trying to irrigate in a way where we get the roots deeper into the soil. In the long term it’s going to make the vines more resilient.”
Instead of watering for four hours once a week, which produces shallow roots, he may water for eight hours every three weeks. The water seeps deeper into the soil, and the roots follow.
His low-tech addition to his vineyard program is a flock of Darden sheep, who graze on cover crops that could compete with vines for water and feed the soil with manure as they go.