Arizona winemakers projecting record harvest

2014-08-17T00:00:00Z Arizona winemakers projecting record harvestBy Cathalena E. Burch Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Arizona winemakers are anticipating a record grape harvest, if only Mother Nature cooperates.

A few Willcox vineyards have already started harvesting some varieties of white wine grapes; the reds will come off beginning in late August or early September.

So far, most are reporting higher-than-projected yields, courtesy of a warm winter and a calm spring.

But the recent surge in monsoon storms, particularly in Cochise County and the Willcox area, could push the harvest back several weeks. If the storm activity gets any worse, some winemakers fear they could lose fruit.

“I hesitate to be too optimistic in my predictions because it could rain for 10 days or we could have hail. This is farming after all,” said Pillsbury Wine Co. founder Sam Pillsbury, who began harvesting last weekend and hopes to reap 55 tons of fruit from his 30-acre Willcox vineyards. Last year, the vineyards brought in 46 tons.

“It’s been a really good spring. We didn’t get frosted, and it was a warm winter. But it’s been a really wet monsoon,” said Jeff Hendricks, vineyards operations director for Page Springs Cellars in Northern Arizona’s Cornville, which has 35 acres of vines for its sister label Arizona Stronghold in Bonita Springs, 20 miles north of Willcox.

“If it dries out over the next few weeks we’re going to see some phenomenal grapes. But if we get a couple more big rains, it could all turn,” said Hendricks, who anticipates bringing in 50 to 60 tons from Bonita Springs and another 100 tons from Page Springs.

Page Springs Cellars is owned by award-winning vintner Eric Glomski, who this spring took over the Arizona Stronghold label from former partner Maynard James Keenan. The pair amicably split last spring with Glomski getting the rights to the Arizona Stronghold name, facility and Graham County vineyard, and Keenan keeping the 70-acre Willcox vineyards next to Pillsbury’s acreage.

Peggy Fiandaca, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association, said the bountiful harvest boils down largely to the weather cooperating.

“We had no weather events. Sometimes we have hail and sometimes we have frost and some of the vines die back. We didn’t have any of that,” she said. “The fruit is in good shape. We had horrible bee issues last year that poked holes in the vines. Then we had nine days of rain right before harvest and it impacted the quality of the fruit. This year I haven’t seen any reports of that kind of damage.”

Adding to the record statewide yield is the increase in vineyard acres. Over the past seven years, the state has added nearly 500 acres of vines, which need several years to mature before the fruit is good enough for wine. A big chunk of that acreage is now at that point, including six acres at Flying Leap Vineyards’ Willcox vineyards. Flying Leap also has 6.5 acres of vines at its winery in Elgin, southeast of Tucson.

Mark Beres, who owns Flying Leap with Marc Moeller and Thomas Kitchens, estimated that with the new block of mature vines in Willcox, they will bring in 50 tons of fruit by harvest’s end. Last year, the total was 28 tons.

Last weekend, Flying Leap hired a crew of eight to harvest the Marsanne white wine grapes. Beres said he estimated he would bring in about 3.3 tons of Marsanne; they handpicked about 3.6 tons.

Fiandaca and her husband, Curt Dunham, are waiting a while longer before they harvest roughly 13 acres of vines from their Lawrence Dunham Vineyards. The estate winery and vineyards are in Pearce, in Eastern Arizona’s Graham County, which also has been hard-hit recently by monsoon storms.

“We thought we would harvest this week, but we’ve been getting rain every day,” Fiandaca said last week as she braced for a string of possible rainy days through this weekend.

Rain lowers the sugar levels of the fruit, which means farmers have to let the fruit sit longer to restore the sugars.

“It’s kind of a day-to-day proposition right now. All of the vineyard managers are in the field almost daily checking those sugar levels,” Fiandaca said.

She agreed with Pillsbury that the weather could be tricky.

“The later you get in the season, the more trouble you can get into in terms of hail or multiple days of rain,” she said.

Hendricks said the harvest could get underway at Page Springs Cellars vineyards in Cornville in the next couple of weeks.

“If we get a couple more sunny days, we’re probably going to take 50 or 60 tons in the next couple of weeks, and it will be incredible chaos,” he said. “Then it will slow down and we’ll bring in 10 tons. And the next week it will be 30 tons. That’s how harvest works.”

Most Northern Arizona vineyards, concentrated in the Verde Valley towns of Cottonwood and Cornville, won’t begin harvesting until the end of the month.

That’s about the time that Southern Arizona winemakers in Elgin and Sonoita will begin, too.

“It’s looking like a good year. We just need another six to eight weeks to hold out without any kind of hail or anything stupid happening,” said Keif-Joshua Vineyards owner/winemaker Kief Manning, who hopes to begin harvesting his 20-acre Elgin vineyards in two to three weeks. The harvest will take him at least six weeks, he said.

Only one Arizona vineyard, Charron Vineyards in Vail, has finished the harvest. Over three days in early August, winemaker and owner Milton Craig and his crew pulled 7 tons of grapes off five acres. That was about a ton more than they harvested last year, Craig said.

Charron lies at 4,200 feet, far lower than Sonoita (about 4,900 feet), so harvest tends to come earlier.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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