I headed out to Montoliva Vineyard and Winery in Chicago Park early Sunday morning on October 23 where owner, farmer, and winemaker Mark Henry and his band of pickers were harvesting his Estate-grown Montepulciano grapes.
By his own admission, 2022 has been a tough year. When it’s all over, I asked, how might he remember the harvest? “That’s easy,” Henry replied. “No fruit.”
Henry reminded me there had been a devastating and wide-spread April frost affecting much of Northern California. “That freeze ended the stone fruit and apple growers’ year. But grapevines are different. After a frost they will send out a secondary shoot, never as fruitful as the primary buds but still maybe 50-60%.”
He explained that yes, indeed, after that frost some of his vines started pushing out secondary shoots fairly quickly. A few of the varietals got going nicely. Okay. Maybe not all bad.
Until the Mother’s Day May freeze. Anything that had pushed out secondary buds got toasted again. “There’s no recovery from that,” Henry said. “There’s no third bite at the apple.”
What does that mean in real terms, I wondered?
“Last year we harvested 12 tons from the Chicago Park Wabash Avenue Vineyard. This year I was anticipating as much as 15-18 tons. We got zero. We harvested 800 pounds of our Estate Primitivo, down from twenty-four hundred pounds last year. I estimate I’ll get one ton of Sangiovese, down from five. Maybe one ton from the Montepulciano.”
In terms of cases, what did all that mean? Henry explained that typically Montoliva produces around 1,600 cases of wine per year. This year will maybe hit 600 cases.
Henry worried when he sent out the notice about picking the Montepulciano grapes because the forecast called for rain over the weekend. He was relieved then when that front blew by leaving clear overnight skies. What he wasn’t expecting was the carpet of frost Sunday morning. “It was down to 27F last night,” he said, zipping his coat. “It’s a good thing I decided to go ahead and pick because these grapes would have been mush in a few days.”
Montoliva is hardly alone in the Sierra Foothills in claiming a challenging season. A wine-industry survey conducted by Silicon Valley Bank, one of the most respected voices in the industry, painted a gloomy picture for the Sierra Foothills region.
Was this the worst year; a very challenging year; or merely a disappointing year; the survey asked? If losing is winning, then the Foothills came in first towering above all the other regions in the negative challenges of this harvest.
I wondered about a few other local wineries. Did they fare any better?
Rob Chrisman of Avanguardia offered his thoughts. “This year only very late leafing varieties have produced any significant fruit resembling a normal crop. The Georgian variety Rkatsiteli was nearly unaffected. The Italian white Fiano put out a big second crop. Most of the other varieties produced no fruit or so little as to be inconsequential.”
“The average for our Estate vineyard is between 13 and 18 tons, equaling around three and a half tons per acre, about average for our area. This year we will be lucky to get four tons total. Historically, we produce around 1,800 gallons, about 700 cases of wine. We will be nowhere close to that this year.”
Chrisman also mentioned August’s excessive heat as being a problem. “We did not irrigate enough to offset the heat. The vines looked stressed.”
He continued, “I have always been cognizant of the threat of spring frost in the Sierra Foothills, so it is a good thing that it has only seriously happened twice in our 22-year tenure here. The previous event was in the late spring of 2010 (May 23-24), which resulted in virtually 100% loss of fruit in that year.”
Carlos Caruncho of Arquils Winery, located just outside of Nevada City, farms several local vineyards. He was succinctly to the point. “Challenging. This has been my worst year yet. Three tons instead of the eight tons I was expecting. Quality should be excellent but still early days.”
Last April, just by happenstance, I was visiting with Phil and Jackson Starr at their Grass Valley vineyard the day after the killer frost had just occurred. Phil was numb. He knew it was bad. He just didn’t know how bad. Jackson was already on the phone trying to line up replacement grapes.
Six months later when the actual harvest took place it was even worse than they feared. In 2021 their Grass Valley vineyard produced 17 tons of grapes. In 2022 they harvested less than four and a half tons, about 25% of 2021.
It was an equal opportunity destroyer. Barbera was down 100%. Sauvignon Blanc down 88%. Cab Franc down 85%. Petite Sirah down 69%. Cabernet Sauvignon down 66%. Zinfandel down 65%.
“The worst part about it, well, the worst part was not having any grapes. But the other worst part was knowing we were going to have to spend the same amount of time, effort, and expense and yet only get 50% of the crop. That’s if we were lucky. As it turned out we only got 25%.”
Mark Henry tried to be philosophical about it. “If farming were easy,” he quipped, “everyone would be doing it. Never forget. Mother Nature always bats last.”
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-802-7172.