Rod Byers: Skin in the game: When it comes to grapes, weather’s a big deal. |

Rod Byers: Skin in the game: When it comes to grapes, weather’s a big deal.

Rod Byers
Wine Talk

Every year I write some sort of harvest report, mostly an accounting of the year’s weather pattern. When it comes to grapes, weather’s a big deal.

Over the last half dozen years, we have had drought, flood, and normal, making you question what normal really is anymore.

When I started writing this, I suspected local grape growers would be happy this year. Just to refresh, we had a wet, cool, and late spring. Not great, but better than summer in winter, causing a too early bud break and a potential ruinous spring frost.

The cool spring rolled into a mild summer. “Overall, the summer has been pretty even tempered,” Mark Henry at Montoliva in Chicago Park explained. “We had zero days at 100 (degrees) or above. Only two days were above 98 (degrees). In 2017, we had 16 days over 98.”

Pick too soon or wait it out? … for the finished wine, the decision is no less crucial.

Sauvignon Blanc, one of the early whites, came in pretty much on schedule around Labor Day. The first reds were on the verge but mid-September rain forced a pause.

“As far as the rain, one of the nice things about the north Sierra Foothills is that a bit of rain doesn’t matter,” Henry said. “We will get a rain event, typically the next day it is 75 (degrees), the sun is shining and there is a nice breeze. It dries things out.”

Jackson Starr, winemaker at Sierra Starr, was a little less sanguine. “They are calling for three days of rain, then only mid 60 (degree) temperatures after that. These next 10 days will be critical.”

What was looking like a year when the winemaker could harvest at their perfect moment might be upended by two weekends of potential rain.

Picking decisions get modified. Bring it in, maybe too early, or wait it out, hoping Henry’s theory applies. Harvest has a way of reminding you that the first two words in answer to any wine question is always, it depends.

Personally, I have a new appreciation for the challenges of harvest. For the first time, I have a fruit-bearing vineyard, or to be more precise, a mini-vineyard. Still, it’s skin in the game.


A few years ago, in the height of the drought, we were asked to reduce our water consumption by 30%. It became apparent that the only effective way to do that was to stop watering our lawn.

I hated the new dead lawn look. Then it struck me. Grapes are drought tolerant. I would be doing my part.

I have always wanted a vineyard. Years ago, I brought home zinfandel cuttings from Sandy and Georges Wood’s vineyard off McCourtney, originally planted in the 1970s.

Our residential homesite didn’t offer much room. The spot available got little sun and no water. Thirty years later they look like sad pictures of malnourished children, small yet withered. They never did produce grapes.

Some years later I brought home a few heritage zinfandel vines from ZAP. They landed in another dry bed, chronically receiving less water than they needed. Lax pruning left too much vegetation resulting in stressed vines and no grapes.

I wasn’t trying very hard because I wasn’t very hopeful. When it comes to grapes, sun’s the thing. We live in a cedar forest, already dismissed as too shady for solar. The lawn was our prime sun territory. If grapes were to have any chance of ripening, it would be there.

When it comes to planting a hobby vineyard, the advice is generally to plant what you like. You’re the one drinking it. In my case I needed to plant whatever ripened the earliest, before the sun fell completely below the tree line in the fall.

In 2016 I brought home Tempranillo and Tannat cuttings from Solune Vineyard, two of Jacques Mercier’s earliest ripening varieties. After a slow, challenging, and clumsy rooting process, I dug holes in the brown lawn and planted seven vines, thinking I would figure the rest out later.

My total vineyard area is about 220 square feet. I originally imagined, using fairly traditional thinking, that there would be room for about 20 vines. Planting it over three years gave me time to adjust. I ended up with 35.

Half were planted this spring using Grenache and Viognier cuttings from Henry Coufos in Rough and Ready. You know what they say about that first baby, second baby thing. This time I brought the cuttings home and didn’t root them at all, just stuck them straight in the ground. All but one took.

For the first time the now better-pruned-and-watered zin vines from ZAP and the original vines from Jacques were bearing fruit. My first crop.


All of which brings us back full circle to the challenges of harvest. All my Tempranillo was lost to birds. I picked the zinfandel way too early to avoid losing that to birds as well.

I’m already worried about not getting the remaining Tannat fully ripe, and here comes a storm. Rain brings a dilution of sugar content, possible berry shatter, and threat of mold.

I’m sympathetic to winegrowers. Harvest in Nevada County stretches well into late October. After a season spent nurturing them, growers can lose a quarter of their crop to dehydration in an Indian Summer heat wave, or to rot in autumn rains.

Pick too soon or wait it out? Mine may be miniature in size, but for the finished wine, the decision is no less crucial.

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. You can find information about him at and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.

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