Goofy grape weather brings winter harvest |

Goofy grape weather brings winter harvest

Rick Chandler

Ah, December. Winter is in the air, snow is on the ground and the last grapes are being harvested and packed into boxes for … wait a minute, grapes? In December?

“It’s pretty unprecedented, but we were still harvesting grapes last week,” said Greg Boeger, owner of Boeger Winery in Placerville. “Some guys are still picking. We ended up about six weeks behind in the harvest. It felt a little strange to be picking grapes through Thanksgiving time.”

The burgeoning wine industry in El Dorado County has been on a roll in recent years, having finally begun the process of shifting the spotlight from snooty California rivals such as Napa and Sonoma.

But dark clouds may be forming in the Sierra foothills.

After a banner year in 1997, the 18 major vineyards in El Dorado County have reported harvest reductions of as much as 40 percent this season. The culprit? Blame that blustery storm bully El Nino, which extended the rainy season this year and delayed the ripening process. The unusually cold, wet weather also left some grapes withered on the vine.

“Grapes need a certain number of dry days to ripen, and this year was extremely wet,” said John McCready of Sierra Vista Vineyards in Pleasant Valley. “Our crop didn’t bloom until July (this normally occurs in late May or early June), and we weren’t able to pick any grapes until October 1st. (Our production) was down about 25 percent, but I know of some places that were down as much as 40 percent.

“You have to have a certain amount of quality grapes to make a profit,” he said. “We were able to get by, but you have to wonder what would happen if we get another bad year (for weather).”

Unfortunately, that could happen. Some experts predict another wet year in the form on La Nina – El Nino’s mean-spirited little sister. Though the latter storm system is supposed to be concentrated farther south, it might yet affect Northern California, throwing another damper on the delicate viniculture of the Sierra foothills.

That’s not good news for El Dorado County, where the health of the economy is closely tied to agriculture. And the wine industry is a major player.

According to the El Dorado County Department of Agriculture, wine growers took in $3.7 million in 1997. But when other factors such as tourism and retail wine sales are factored in, the wine industry as a whole was responsible for nearly $50 million to the local economy.

“The numbers for this year aren’t in yet, but figure at least a 25 percent drop in production,” El Dorado County Agricultural Commissioner Bill Snodgrass said.

“But it’s not just grapes. Most fruit crops have been affected. Cherries, for instance, will probably be down about 50 percent. Pears and apples will also be down.”

And that could have an impact on the economy that will be felt as far east as Lake Tahoe and Reno.

“Most people don’t realize that farmers are businessmen,” Snodgrass said. “Bad weather could force the marginal growers out of business. People like to visit the Apple Hill area for produce and baked goods and such, but also for the atmosphere. The growers aren’t going to stick around while they’re losing money, just so the area will look pretty.

“They get more than half a million people (visiting Apple Hill) every year, and that has a ripple effect on the economy. A lot of people make a weekend of it … going to Apple Hill, visiting Placerville and moving on to Lake Tahoe for recreation or gambling. It’s all linked.”

El Dorado County farmers are a hearty breed, however. They have withstood bad weather and blight in the past. Apples, the county’s largest fruit crop, are not affected much by the weather. In 1996, for instance, 12,900 tons of apples were harvested, bringing about $6.5 million to area growers. In 1997, the tonnage was up to 14,000, but the revenue remained at $6.5 million.

The wine industry is a little more fragile, however, because it is relatively new. Although there were many vineyards in the Sierra foothills in the 1800s, the industry died out around the turn of the century. In started up again in the early 1970s.

In 1973 there were only two major vineyards in El Dorado County. Today there are 18, taking up a little more than 1,000 acres. And predictions have those numbers doubling by 2005.

“That’s not a lot when you look at Napa or Mendocino,” said Boeger. “But we’re growing. And our product is as good as theirs, if not better. We win more than our share of medals and awards.”

Boeger exports wine – which they make on the premises – to 16 states and six nations, among them Japan, Switzerland and Germany. At 45 acres, Boeger is one of the two or three biggest winery/vineyards in the county.

What makes El Dorado County wine so special? Ironically, it’s the weather.

“El Dorado County is a great place to grow wine grapes because we have a lot of different micro-climates,” McCready said. “My place, for instance, is on a ridge, and I have three distinct climates. You can grow different kinds of grapes and produce a wide variety of wines.”

Favorites include Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the top three in tons produced.

The diverse climate is a feature the big boys in the Napa Valley (think flat and dry) can’t reproduce. But El Dorado County’s unique plus is also its curse.

“Every year has its ups and downs,” said Bob Clark, owner of Latrobe Vineyards. “We were down this year, but last year was exceptionally good.

“The rain hurt us a little bit, but ironically we were able to produce a better quality grape than usual. When you have fewer grapes, they tend to grow in bigger and fuller.”

So it will take a lot to deliver a knockout blow to the El Dorado County wine industry. But as you toast the grape, keep an eye on the skies … things could get worse.

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