Despite Light Yields and Labor Shortages, a Hopeful Harvest in Sonoma | Wine Enthusiast
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Despite Light Yields and Labor Shortages, a Hopeful Harvest in Sonoma

Watching fires engulf the West Coast in summer 2021 filled Marimar Torres with anxiety. In the previous vintage, smoke taint forced the founder of Sonoma’s Marimar Estate Vineyards and Winery to sell her Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Syrah wines for bulk. 

“We were kind of horrified when we saw there were fires everywhere,” says Torres. “Every morning I woke up thinking, ‘Oh my gosh it’s going to happen today.’ But you know what? It turned out to be a fantastic harvest.”

The wildfires everyone was bracing for never came to Sonoma County. Neither did rain, but that’s getting to be the new normal in Northern California wine country. Overall, the 2021 Sonoma harvest was promising, filled with the usual challenges and surprises that Mother Nature presents. 

Worker with Albarino harvest in Sonoma
There would be no harvest or Sonoma wines in stores without skilled picking crews / Credit Marimar Torres

“I hear from my farmers a lot when things go wrong,” says Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. “It was a pretty quiet harvest season, so it tells me they were head down getting the work done.” Harvest kept crews extra busy this year since it started a couple of weeks early. 

The official grape tonnage report won’t come out until February 2022, but the early word is that the yield was light because of the ongoing drought. While most sources said their crop was a little off, Sauvignon Blanc vineyards were hit especially hard. 

Chris Christensen of Bodkin Wines in Healdsburg says the yield was 70% lower at one of his favorite coastal vineyards. Early frost damaged buds and drought finished the job. “With the Sandy Bed Vineyard in Lake County, they got around one third of the fruit they expected in a typical year,” says Christensen. “I’m really happy with the quality. I just wish there were more of it.”

And while varieties typically ripen in a cascade of whites and then reds, this year, Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ripened simultaneously. 

“Typically, Cabernet would be some of the last fruit in,” says Kruse. “But because there wasn’t as much fruit, it was able to get ripe sooner.” She wasn’t affected, but this ripening convergence caused some to scramble. “I’m hearing horror stories of shortages: pickers, bins, tanks to put the wine in,” she says. “The new bottleneck is shortages in glass and labeling supplies.”

Grapes in hands at Sonoma wine harvest
The wildfires everyone was bracing for never came to Sonoma County / Photo by J Braverman

Managing the Drought

The ongoing drought, which dates to 2013, was 2021’s biggest challenge. In addition to lowering yields, the drought stressed vines, pushed sugar levels up earlier than expected and forced farmers to get creative with water. It also shaped vineyard practices that started early in the year.

Hélène Seillan, assistant vigneron at Vérité Winery, says from the moment the first Merlot vines at the Chalk Hill vineyard started to bud in March, she and her father Pierre looked for ways to help the parched vines thrive. They’re lucky to source from 15- to 30-year-old deep-rooted vines for their La Joie, Le Desir and La Muse red blends. Still, they made changes to treat the vines gently. 

“We could detect if the water doesn’t come, those vines are going to struggle,” she says. “We don’t want them to use any energy for anything unnecessary. Let’s just ask less of the vine.”

Christopher Christensen and his father Greg Outlaw harvest wine in Sonoma
Christopher Christensen (left) and father Greg Outlaw (right), who helped during harvest / Photos courtesy Christopher Christensen

Seillan and her team removed long green shoots called suckers early in the season and cut off some clusters right after veraison when ripening green grapes turn purple. Dropping clusters that are slower to mature helps the vine ripen the rest successfully, she says.

Shaun Kajiwara, who manages 1,500 acres of vineyards for Jackson Family Wines brands including La Crema and Hartford Court, turned to high- and low-tech solutions to conserve water and keep the vines healthy. At one time, every vineyard was on the same four-hour weekly watering regimen. But weather stations and soil moisture sensors showed that water needs at Saralee’s Vineyard, which sits next to the Russian River, are very different from the Annapolis Vineyard, a rugged, windy site on the Sonoma Coast where apples once grew. 

This season, they could do precision irrigation according to what the vines in each block needed. “That’s really what changed my approach to irrigation,” says Kajiwara, the director of vineyard operations. “In the new developments, I’m trying to irrigate in a way where we get the roots deeper into the soil. In the long term it’s going to make the vines more resilient.” 

Vineyard Director Shaun Kajiwara
Vineyard Director Shaun Kajiwara adopted high- and low-tech solutions to conserve water / Photo by C. Higley

Instead of watering for four hours once a week, which produces shallow roots, he may water for eight hours every three weeks. The water seeps deeper into the soil, and the roots follow. 

His low-tech addition to his vineyard program is a flock of Darden sheep, who graze on cover crops that could compete with vines for water and feed the soil with manure as they go.

Vineyard Labor

There would be no grape harvest or Sonoma County wine in stores without skilled picking crews.

“There’s been a labor shortage for seven years or more,” says Duff Bevill of Bevill Vineyard Management. “The big shortage has been that foundation person that goes out actually prunes that vineyard for you, suckers the vine or [works in] blocks that need to be hand picked.”

Workers harvest grapes in Sonoma vineyard
Early word from winemakers is their 2021 yields were lighter than usual / Photo courtesy Sonoma County Winegrowers

Five years ago, Bevill started supplementing his local workforce with H2A guest workers. Under the federal program, these workers, many of whom hail from Oaxaca and Michoacán, come to the U.S. for 10 months maximum each year, and then return home. Bevill hired an attorney to manage the process and built dormitories for the crews. Now, friends and relatives referred by his full-time employees come in January and April to help with everything from pruning to picking grapes. 

“They’re a value to our employees because it helps their families in Mexico and we get good reliable people,” Bevill says. They wear masks and fewer people travel the grounds in each van; regardless, everyone on the vineyard team who wanted a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine got one in February 2021. 

 Grapes in bins at Vérité wine harvest
Assistant Vigneron Hélène Seillan believes the 2021 vintage will be known for long-aging wines / Photo by J. Braveman

In the Glass

For many wine drinkers, the most essential vintage news is how the young wines taste.

The early ripening brought on by the drought caused sugars in some fruit to spike before the tannins in the seeds, stems and skins were ripe. So, Seillan says, careful winemaking is a must. Still, she believes 2021 will be known for the exceptional, long-aging wines. 

“We have very small berries, we have lots of concentration, a lot of flavor, but we also have very good acidity,” she says. “The quality is going to be high, and they’re going to be bigger wines.”

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