“It’s the best part of the year,” said Israel Ruiz, who works at Hahn Estates winery, tucked away in the Santa Lucia foothills above California’s Salinas Valley.
Around Monterey County, the processing of this year’s harvest is in full swing at dozens of wineries. Winemakers say they expect a smaller yield this year as a result of more concentrated grapes, made so by the weather conditions. But as is often the case, the small yield is likely to result in better wines.
Paul Clifton, a winemaker at Hahn Estates, told the Monterey County Herald that the people at his winery “thrive on this time of year.”
As he spoke, wine presses ground, workers poured grapes into crushers, and forklifts moved boxes, barrels and crates of deep-purple fruit. The massive stainless steel fermentation tanks are full.
Clifton said the entire staff at his winery is working “10- to 12-hour days, usually longer.
“It’s the most critical time as far as what you can get out of the grapes and the fermentation,” he said. “It’s when everyone has the most influence on how the wine is going to turn out.”
“I get up in the morning and I look forward to coming to work,” added Ruiz. “It’s exciting.
“Over the years, winegrape production has emerged as a major economic force in Monterey County, accounting for almost $218 million last year on 38,165 acres. Chardonnay grapes led the way, making up almost 40 percent of the total tonnage.”
And even if a few more barrels than usual remain empty this season, winemakers are optimistic, Clifton said. Smaller fruit yields tastier juice and better wine, he said.
Larry Gomez, winemaker at Lockwood Winery in Monterey, agreed: “The plant only has so much flavor to give to the fruit.”
Gomez said his crop is “light” this year, but he sounded upbeat.
Growers with smaller crops said they believe that unseasonably cold and dry weather reduced production. But they said that a cool summer and a warm spell in fall worked magic on flavor.
Clifton said he relishes the high-quality harvest. Pointing to a rich blue-black cluster of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, he said the fruit this year is smaller and packed with flavor. Hahn’s vineyards received about 5 inches of rain this year, compared to a normal year of up to 15 inches.
Clifton said grape tonnage had dropped 20 percent overall, and the vineyard’s Chardonnay grape production was down by 100 tons this year.
At least one winery purposely keeps production low. Jack Galante of Galante Vineyards in Carmel Valley said he thins his crops to produce about two tons an acre to improve the flavor. Overall, the county produced about five-and-a-half tons of grapes per acre last year.