Though the wine grape harvesting season is nearing its conclusion, winemaker Cody LaPertche, 27, said he still expected to accrue six tons of aglianico and one ton of nebbiolo on Friday at Gianelli Vineyards in Jamestown.
“This season has been one of my best on record so far. A lot of that had to do with the weather we had and also where we’re at with these vineyards,” LaPertche said. “I think what we can see now is what we can expect to see moving forward.”
LaPertche, the winemaker for the 60-acre Gianelli Vineyards and for Hurst Ranch in Jamestown described the 2019 season as “more consistent, more normal,” due in part to a wetter winter season and a noticeably more bearable summer heat.
“This was kind of a nice, more even harvest. Things started coming out a little bit more staggered rather than all at once,” LaPertche said. “I think the grapes appreciate it more and it makes our lives easier, too.”
In past years, heavier drought conditions sometimes forced a rush, he said, narrowing the time period for the optimal harvest. Though the quality of the grapes were still high, he said, there was an unevenness of the good fruit which limited quantity.
“This is more of a healthier practice,” he said. “It's a more naturalistic approach to winemaking. We are picking things when we feel that they are ready, not when we have to.”
And enthusiasm for the wine grape harvest seems to overflow in the Mother Lode, with nearly 6,000 expected to attend the 26th Annual Grape Stomp and Harvest Festival Saturday in Murphys.
“Now we have over 35 tasting rooms in Calaveras County. These are family winemakers. It's really about celebrating harvest with these family winemakers and the people who enjoy their product every year,” said Sandra Hess, the executive director of the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance.
On Friday, between 50 to 60 volunteers were assisting with the setup of the event, which fundraises for high school agriculture scholarships and other recipients via a silent and live auction.
But for most guests, the event is about tasting the newest local releases from the area wineries, all while seeing two-person teams dressed in silly costumes juice-slam mounds of grapes inside of a barrel.
There are 120 teams of two in the event, with names such as “The Grapeful Dead,” “They Wine, We Whine” and “Make America Grape Again.” They will stomp beginning at 9:30 a.m. with 10 teams on the stage at once.
The stomper will stand inside half of a wine barrel, battering 25 pounds of barbera grapes donated from a local vineyard while the swabber sticks their hands into the barrel to get the juice into the drain spout.
The championship heat will be at about 4:30 p.m., Hess said.
Through the next few weeks, work will continue in Tuolumne County as the final harvests come into the wineries.
Pete Luckhardt, owner of Inner Sanctum Cellars in Columbia, said almost all of their grapes were harvested save for a crop of tempranillo and verdejo in Sonora.
Luckhardt said they expect to harvest in one to two weeks, noting the delay was due to the high elevation of the grapes and the temperate climate of the season.
“In general, our harvest was really good. There were some challenges and the weather played some tricks on us, but the fruit quality looked really good. The vineyards did a really great job of managing the fruit this year,” he said.
Inner Sanctum Cellars, which also has a tasting room in Jamestown, was founded in 2010 and began selling wine in 2013. They source their grapes from Tuolumne, Calaveras and El Dorado Counties at smaller private vineyards, Luckhardt said.
Gianelli Vineyards grows 15 types of wine grapes with a focus on Italian, but also with a few French grapes too.
“I’m very grateful to these companies for giving me creative license over these wines. We’re putting our fingerprint on all these Tuolumne County places that are popping up,” LaPertche said.
And the apparent success of the season has some Tuolumne County winemakers thinking about the future.
All of the grapes already sent to Inner Sanctum Cellars were processed, and either placed in tanks or barrels, Luckhardt said.
They will stay there between six months and two years before they’re bottled.
“I think Tuolumne County has a lot of growth opportunity. Across the river in Calaveras they have 30 plus wineries so there’s a lot of competition over there,” he said. “Our market is a little more open.”
Though there were some regional anxieties about grapes still available in the Valley and elsewhere, Luckhardt said the limited competition in Tuolumne County meant there was still potential for growth and expansion locally.
Luckhardt said they went from 200 cases in 2013 to 2,000 cases in 2019.
LaPertche said this season he has seen the winemaking community of Tuolumne County come into maturity, with some boutique and local brands seeking a bigger stake on the commercial market.
“I’m really excited now because there's a lot of small vineyards in Tuolumne County,” he said. “It's really cool to see these labels kind of pop up. Were all excited to see where this goes in the next 10 years.”
He said local growers and vineyards are optimistic about the future of agri-tourism in Tuolumne County.
“We’re seeing a lot of renewed interest in people coming up from the Bay Area,” LaPertche said. “The people here always have their feet in the dirt. They don’t have their heads up in the clouds. It's really refreshing to work with people like that.”