COVID-19 or no COVID-19 – the harvest season is coming

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Rick Buffington, co-owner of Cougar Vineyard and Winery, puts the finishing touches on some newly bottled Greco di Tufo Wednesday, Aug. 5. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

By all appearances, the fat-looking grapes that can be found hanging from vines all over Temecula Wine Country are not doing a very good job of social distancing.

They are gathered in tight clusters, none of them wearing masks or protective shields and that is good news for wine drinkers who intend on consuming their juices when they are ready to drink in a year or two … or five.

Depending on the varietal and the weather leading up to August through October, some of the grapes are ready to come down from their perches, and others need a bit more time on the vine.

Valley News reached out to some assorted vintners to find out how they are dealing with COVID-19 during the harvest season and what they expect to get when they pluck the grapes from the vines.

People view a variety of classic cars on display at Vail Headquarters in Temecula during the Ramble On at the Ranch event. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo
Car owners relax next to their custom rides on display at the Ramble On at the Ranch car show in Temecula. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo
People view a variety of classic cars on display at Vail Headquarters in Temecula during the Ramble On at the Ranch event. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

According to Cougar Vineyard and Winery co-owner Jennifer Buffington, she thinks it has been a good season for growing.

“(It has been a) nice mix of rain and manageable heat,” she said. “We’re just starting veraison (which is the onset of ripening) in some varietals – so, right on track. It looks like another bumper crop year.”

Buffington said she thought the top grapes coming off their vines this year will be montepulciano and falanghina.

She said the staffing levels at the winery has been steady, saying, “We have been lucky.”

“Social distancing must be enforced, wearing masks when not able to social distance,” Buffington said about the actual act of harvesting the grapes. “We use the same company or two to pick our grapes each year so hopefully, they are not affected by COVID-19.

“It’s the end of all your year’s efforts to grow great fruit resulting in early mornings, long days and ice-cold beverages,” she said.

Buffington was sure to offer thanks to the customers that have continued to support the winery on De Portola Road.

Nick Palumbo, co-owner of Palumbo Family Vineyard, talked about the challenges ahead for the small winery. The kind of challenges he likes.

“This year has brought the types of challenges I look forward to,” Palumbo said. “It was a very mild spring, and the first part of summer has been very cool in general. The challenge with that has been mildew pressure so those vineyards that didn’t put the work in will show some problems. We use an organic mildew product to help, but it did mean extra passes in the vines which means more labor and cost. Fruit set was great this year, and the crop looks good as we get through veraison.

People view a variety of classic cars on display at Vail Headquarters in Temecula during the Ramble On at the Ranch event. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo
Restored and unrestored classic cars are on display at Vail Headquarters in Temecula during the Ramble On at the Ranch event. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo
People enjoy an outdoor activity at the Ramble On at the Ranch car show hosted by Vail Headquarters and Us Versus Them clothing store. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

“The recent heat is welcome as well in order to complete ripening and harvest should start on time in the first few weeks of September. So far, so good,” he said.

There are other challenges, Palumbo said.

“(There are) some issues remain going into harvest, mainly, labor,” he said. “It is always an issue for some of the larger vineyards year after year but this year things get really complicated with COVID-19. As you would expect, navigating the labor issues along with safety is going to be interesting. But it’s important to point out that vineyards are outdoors, vine rows are spaced at least 7-8 feet apart, and keeping safe distances will be the easy part.”

Apart from those speedbumps, Palumbo was optimistic.

“I feel it’s important to note that a winery like mine is and always has been an agricultural endeavor, and every year brings all kinds of curveballs that we have to adjust to,” he said. “Harvest is an exciting time that begins a wines journey to the glass, and we are well versed in making these adjustments as needed. It’s our job.”

Renato Sais, winemaker at Akash Winery, was pleased with the weather this year.

“Beautiful season this 2020,” he said. “Mild weather, colder days and nights than normal. We had a delayed bud break, beginning of April on average (and there was) great flower and cluster sets. Veraison started in late July, with beautiful steady weather all-around.”

Sais said his two favorite vintages so far are 2017 and 2019 at the winery, but he thinks 2020 will be as good as those two years.

“Our estate sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon are my top varietals, they are all looking great,” he said.

Sais also pointed at labor as COVID-19-related issue heading into harvest season.

“And time frames, trying to play catch up mainly, but the vineyard has been and will always be a priority,” he said. “Mainly the decisions of how much to produce and less planning due to the financial uncertainties from wineries.”

He said harvest season is a special time for him.

“Harvest season for me is a new opportunity to make wine once again,” Sais said. “Perfect wine, perfect grapes, always trying to improve and understand the practice better. What we are producing to who our customers are. It’s challenging but I am passionate.”

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com.