Wine grape harvest has come early to Southern Arizona — and farmers are looking at smaller yields but better fruit.
Rod Keeling started picking white wine grapes and rosés two weeks ago at his Keeling Schaefer Vineyards in Pearce, which has 21 of its 50 acres under vine. He also has sent crews into other vineyards as part of his custom farming operation to help with their harvests.
Keeling said his rosés already are in the fermenting stage and he anticipates starting to harvest the reds this week.
“I would say we are probably right around two weeks early,” he said, attributing it to an early spring bud break brought on in part by ideal weather conditions.
Keeling’s vineyard sits at 5,000 feet and doesn’t get as much of summer’s punishing heat as his Willcox and Sonoita neighbors. That usually means that harvest time runs about two weeks behind his neighbors, but this year everyone is harvesting earlier.
And the amount of grapes coming from the vines seems to be lower than in past years. No one has any estimates of how low or exactly why, with reasons ranging from weather conditions — early winds when the vines were budding that destroyed some buds before they flowered — and variances in irrigation and fertilization practices.
The lower yield means better quality fruit, said Carlson Creek Vineyard’s Robert Carlson.
“I think it’s going to be a great year,” Carlson said last week as he and his crew waited out Wednesday’s rain to resume picking on Thursday, Sept. 8. “All of the fruit looks amazing. ”
“What I’m seeing is the fruit quality is much higher, and that’s not just here, that’s also in California,” added John McLoughlin, who owns Cellar 433 vineyards, which produces handcrafted wines under several labels including Bitter Creek Winery, Jerome Winery and Sultry Cellars.
McLoughlin operates one of the largest vineyards in the state, with 150 of his 400 acres in Willcox under vine. He began harvesting Chardonnay the second week of August, just a bit ahead of his historical harvest time that falls between Aug. 10 and 25.
Keeling, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association, said he has heard from vineyards around the state that the harvest is earlier and the fruit overall is expected to be better. The association estimates Arizona vineyards will produce 1,710 tons of fruit this year and will produce about 290,700 gallons of finished wine.
Last year, Arizona wineries produced 297,000 gallons of wine, which was 20 percent more than 2014, Keeling said.