Monday, October 5, 2015     Volume: 16, Issue: 30

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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Santa Barbara County's 2015 wine harvest began earlier than ever, and is already almost over


Seasoned Santa Barbara County vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano’s 25th wine harvest has also been his earliest. 

The respected viticulturist oversees 22 vineyards, “all the way from Lompoc to Happy Canyon,” for Coastal Vineyard Care Associates. 

A bin of chardonnay grapes, harvested before dawn at Bien Nacido Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, is ready to be pressed at La Fenêtre Winery.

The 2015 wine harvest began for Solorzano on July 23.  Sauvignon blanc, growing in Happy Canyon in the eastern Santa Ynez Valley, was ripe and ready to be picked.

Solorzano harvests at night; the cooler weather is better for his crew and the grapes. “We try to finish by 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, before the fruit gets hot.”

To say this time of year is exhausting would be an understatement; sleep takes a back seat to the vineyard work that must be done when the fruit is ready. 

“The last six weeks, I’ve been working 20 or 22 hours every day! I sleep when I can, sometimes in the middle of the field in my truck. Sometimes I’ll go back to my house and sleep an hour or two, and then go back,” Solorzano said. “We work all night to pick the grapes, but also in the day I have to check the vineyard blocks that we still have not picked. I have to meet with winemakers, and answer phone calls, emails, and text messages to schedule the picks for the next day or two.” 

As a side effect of California’s prolonged drought, the vines are producing less fruit and smaller clusters. And because of a hot spell in mid-September, when temperatures hovered around 100 degrees in the Santa Ynez Valley for several days straight, ripening accelerated.

“Everybody will be done by Oct. 10, for sure,” he said. 

Harvest also came early for former sommelier-turned-winemaker Joshua Klapper of La Fenêtre Wines in Santa Maria.  

A block of cabernet sauvignon vines at Grimm’s Bluff in Happy Canyon, is overseen by Coastal Vineyard Care Associates.

“It’s the earliest I’ve ever seen it. Previous to 2014, I’d never picked pinot noir before early September,” Klapper said. “Last year I picked in mid August. This year we started in early August. It just seems to be getting earlier and earlier every year.”

Klapper is pleased with the quality of this vintage.

“This year everything looks really good. It looks ripe and if you look at the numbers, it’s ripe,” Klapper said. “Good sugar, nice high acidity, and then flavors are good too, that’s the phenolic aspect—the taste and smell—everything seems to be really balanced this year. I’m looking forward to it being a great vintage. It’ll be nice when it’s over by Thanksgiving, I’ll be able to have a relaxed Thanksgiving; instead of harvesting still.”

Klapper shared a glimpse of what life is like for a winemaker during harvest: 

“A typical day, I’ll get up around 6 a.m. About half the time that means coming to the winery to start some job early so we’re not here super late at night. The other half of the time I’m in the vineyard. So, this morning I was down in Santa Ynez walking a small property that we’re working with down there, then we’ll come into the winery, get some work going, we’ll do punch-downs or pump-overs, which is management of some of the red fermentations, and then we’ll crush some fruit. So, we’ll either press some chardonnay or de-stem some pinot noir. Then we’ll come back and do the same thing in the afternoon and we typically finish around 6 o’clock.”

This year, Klapper expects to crush 100 tons of fruit for his wine labels—La Fenêtre: 1,500 cases of single-vineyard chardonnay and pinot noir, and À Côté, “a few thousand cases this year and reasonably [priced], so look for it by the glass at restaurants around town.”

Winemaker Joshua Klapper punched down fermenting wine and grape skins, which is part of the process of creating La Fenêtre pinot noir.

Klapper handcrafts his wines at the 250,000-square-foot Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS) facility in Santa Maria, where approximately 20 different wineries lease wine production space. And there’s no shortage of enological expertise under one roof, if the need arises.  

“I think the best thing [about making wine at CCWS] is if there’s anything I need, whether it be a piece of equipment I don’t have or some nugget of knowledge that I need to do something, on any given day there are 10 other winemakers that I can go to and ask, ‘Hey, what’s your experience?’ And I’d say, 90 percent of what we all know is the same, but it’s that 10 percent when you need it, that’s important.”

Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell loves the smell of fermenting grapes in the morning. Contact her at wthies@santamariasun.