Mother Nature stomps on U.S. wine harvest

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 27, 2011 4:54 PM

By Leslie Gevirtz

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rain, cold and mold are threatening this year's California wine harvest prompting one vintner to call in a helicopter to fight Mother Nature.

"We're about three weeks late. The whole state is late," said Chuck Wagner, the owner of Caymus Vineyards, the iconic Napa winery. "Cabernet Sauvignon was definitely affected," he said of the popular varietal.

In neighboring Sonoma, Pinot Noir growers were finding botrytis - an unwelcome mold - on their grape bunches after recent rains.

California produces about 90 percent of the wines made in the United States and the state's Department of Food and Agriculture is estimating that only 3.3 million tons will be produced, down about 9 percent from 2010.

The drop can be attributed to late spring rains that ravaged vines, cooler summer weather that slowed ripening, and finally fall rains that dilute the grapes' juice.

"I think the crop will be similar to last year. Lower yields, late and terrific quality," Gladys Horiuchi, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute said.

She added that U.S. demand for wine continued to increase and that some Central Valley producers had already sold out.

To try and save his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which is among the latest varietals harvested, Bruce Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, California hired a helicopter to fly over the rows at about 20 feet in the hopes that the wind from the chopper's blades would dry off the plants.

"We picked the grapes from there last night," Cakebread viticulturist Toby Halkovich said. "It's hard to say if it worked. We don't know how bad it could have been if we hadn't done it. We don't know if we hadn't done it, there might have been nothing to pick."

California is not alone in being beset by smaller harvests.

"Harvest in Washington State, like the rest of the West Coast, is running behind usual this year, but not quite as bad as Oregon or California," Ryan Pennington, a spokesman for the Washington State Wine Commission said.

"Overall, we expect our total crop to be down somewhere between 25 and 30 percent..." he said.

In Ontario, Canada winemakers are expecting a full crop of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Rieslings, despite a slight delay due to intermittent rains, said Magdalena Kaiser-Smit, a spokeswoman for the Wine Council of Ontario.

(Editing by Greg McCune)