Bushy Vines

MONDAY - JULY 09, 2012 - NAPA, CA - Workers thin plants along Linda Vista Avenue on Monday. Recent warm weather and a dry spring has contributed to vines maturing earlier this year. J.L. Sousa/Register

J.L. Sousa

After the challenges of the last two growing seasons, farmers in the Napa Valley are experiencing something new in the summer of 2012 — a nearly average year.

“We’re really excited,” said Jon Ruel, director of viticulture and winemaking at Trefethen Vineyards and president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

A steady parade of warm days and cool nights is adding up to “a nearly perfect season” so far, agreed Jim Verhey, a long-time grower in the valley, who recently left Silverado Wine Growers to launch his own consulting business, Verhey Advisors.

The cool summer temperatures of 2010 and 2011 led to exceptionally late harvests, with sparkling wine grapes, always the first to be harvested, starting in early September.

 “Last year if you had asked me if I wanted one thing in 2012, it would have been an earlier harvest,” Ruel said. “It looks like we’ll be starting about three weeks earlier this year than last year,” he said.

The sparkling wine grape harvest may start in mid-August, which is a more average start date. “This is great for us,” he said.

“What’s driving it is the warmer weather,” Ruel said, noting that “through June we’ve had the warmest start since 2006. This past June we had 22 days where the temperature was 80 degrees plus,” he said. “Last year we had 13 days.”

“We’ve all got used to it feeling like summer,” he said. “It feels really nice.”

The warm days have allowed the grapes to “acclimatize” gradually, Ruel said, so that temperature increases, like those of this week, should not be a problem for the grapes. “I’m more concerned for the workers,” Ruel said. “But we take extra steps, making sure the workers have breaks, shade and water. If it gets too hot, we just stop working.”

Another plus to the growing season, Ruel said, are cool nights. “Lows in June were in the upper 40s,” he said. “The cool evenings are one of the things that makes Napa special.” Allowing the grapes to cool down at night, he explained, retains freshness and acidity. “On warm nights the grapes keep metabolizing and advancing ripening, but lose acidity, he said. “It’s been nice to see the reliable pattern.”

Verhey said the chief challenge so far this year was securing enough laborers to deal with spring’s exceptionally robust vine growth, which required more leafing and trimming. “We’ve over the worst,” he said.   

He believes that “planning and anticipation” of an earlier harvest is the key to making sure there will be enough workers to bring in the 2012 crop.

There is a wide-spread labor shortage that could affect the Napa Valley, said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers. There are fewer people attempting to cross the border from Mexico to work in the U.S. and also second- and third-generation children of farm workers are not opting to follow their parents’ paths.

The potential shortage was emphasized by the “crazy growing year,” Putnam said.  

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“We don’t have the supply we once had,” she said, adding that growers are taking extra steps to make sure they will have harvest help. This includes building “an infrastructure of support” to encourage workers to choose to work in the Napa Valley — better wages, more training and support services are key, she said.

For the first time this year, she said, the Grapegrowers are working with St. John’s Catholic Church and Puertas Abiertas to sponsor a “Dia de la Familia” on  July 22. The event in downtown Napa will bring together more than 40 community organizations “to highlight the extraordinary services and programs they provide for Napa’s farmworkers and their families.”

Cost of living in Napa and the added transportation costs to reach the Napa Valley are factors in competing for workers, Verhey said. “Eight dollars an hour in the Central Valley equals $10 an hour in Napa,” he said.

Potentially it could lead to different ways of farming, Verhey said, including rethinking vineyard management that emphasizes the ways vineyards look. “We have to stop treating vineyards as landscaping,” he said.

“If I were in charge of the harvest valley-wide,” he said, “I’d set up my office like a war room,” moving troops around the vineyards as needed.

Ruel said that properties like Trefethen, which have teams of workers year-round, will tend to be less affected by a labor shortage going into harvest. “There are a lot of business models in the valley,” he said, “but we’ve got the same people and keep them year round.

“Vineyard management companies may feel the crunch more, if there is a lot of work to be done at one time. It may put the squeeze on companies who have to be everywhere at once.”

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